PRC reform bill advances with big concerns

A bill to make big changes to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) passed its first committee despite lingering questions over the proposal. After a length debate, the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee passed the bill Thursday with a vote of 8-5 along party lines. Democratic Reps. Nathan Small of Las Cruces and Rep. Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe presented HB 11 to the committee. The legislation would restructure the PRC with the aim of streamlining operations and improving efficiencies that Small and Trujillo contend are holding the state back and hurting New Mexico residents.

Bill to fund tax-poor rural school districts clears first committee

As New Mexico lawmakers look for a way to provide extra funding for public school students in some of the most financially challenged areas of the state, a bill that eventually would provide $60 million a year for some of those districts to share cleared its first hurdle Wednesday. House Bill 4, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe, Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup and Anthony Allison of Fruitland, would appropriate $18.9 million in fiscal year 2021 to start the new fund. Over the course of three years, the fund would grow to about $60 million in both operational funding and capital outay, Egolf said, adding 23 of New Mexico’s 89 school districts would be eligible for a share. The new funding is “a dire, dire need for us,” said Jvanna Hanks, assistant superintendent of Gallup-McKinley County Schools, a district that would qualify.

Bill to license massage therapy businesses aimed to stop ‘nefarious’ activities

A bill that looks innocuous – requiring massage parlor establishments to be licensed – could have big consequences. Although no one knows how many massage parlors are legitimate and how many are not, the ones that are not often serve as fronts for human trafficking, say authorities and sexual assault advocates. The New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department estimates there are about 8,200 massage therapists in the state and there could be as many as 1,500 establishments that would need to apply for licensure if the bill passes. Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, is sponsoring HB 155. “We recognize there are thousands of fabulous massage therapists all over the state, but there are a few that are not in the business for massage therapy,” Trujillo told NM Political Report.

Early ed funding proposals clear House committee — but one faces a tougher future

As the state prepares to consolidate most services for its youngest residents in a newly created department, the House Education Committee on Wednesday approved a pair of measures with different strategies for funding an expansion of programs for children from birth to age 5. Neither idea is new, and both — which head to the full House of Representatives for consideration — rely heavily on the state’s recent windfall of oil and gas revenues. But one measure drew wide support in a committee room crowded with a diverse array of proponents on both sides of the political aisle, while the other — which would create a far larger revenue stream for New Mexico’s kids — intensified an ongoing clash over the potential risks and rewards of tapping an investment fund that now holds nearly $20 billion. The debate suggested that although most state leaders favor increases in early childhood services in an effort to improve education and economic outcomes, the surge in funding some advocates have sought for years isn’t likely to come in this legislative session. “This bill has been before you for far too long,” Paul Gibson, co-founder of the social activist group Retake Our Democracy, told the House Education Committee, urging lawmakers to move forward House Joint Resolution 1 — which would let New Mexico voters decide on a constitutional amendment calling for a 1 percent withdrawal from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Legislators unveil bill to shift PRC authority to governor’s administration

Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday unveiled legislation that would dramatically alter the structure of the state’s Public Regulation Commission, shifting nearly every division currently under its authority to a department within the governor’s administration. Although the PRC is a state commission, it is an entity not under the control of the state’s governor. Legislation proposed by state Reps. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, and Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, would change that, and comes amid frustration from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and some lawmakers over disagreement with the PRC on whether the Energy Transition Act applies to plans from the state’s largest utility to abandon and recover investments into a coal-fired power plant near Farmington. The energy act, signed into law by the governor in 2019, would allow Public Service Company of New Mexico to recover investment costs sunk into the San Juan Generating Station and requires the state to shift to zero-carbon electricity production by 2045.

Education committee members decry public school spending plans

Lawmakers on the state House and Senate education committees on Wednesday decried the lack of funds proposed for some of their priorities for fiscal year 2021, indicating a deeper conflict is broiling over the largest share of the state’s budget as the Legislature and governor begin hashing out differences in their spending plans. During a joint hearing on public school funding proposed by both the Legislative Finance Committee and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, education committee members said their input over the past year has been ignored. The initiatives they cited as underfinanced or omitted completely ranged from cybersecurity to teacher recruitment and retention efforts to providing feminine hygiene products for teen girls. Rep. Linda Trujillo, a Santa Fe Democrat and former school board member who serves on the interim Legislative Education Study Committee, said she didn’t think the voices of educators, school administrators and higher education officials were “entirely reflected” in the competing budget proposals. “I feel like we have been left in the lurch,” added Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, a former teacher and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee.

NM cabinet secretary wants to address secret settlements

A New Mexico law that allows legal settlements with state agencies to be kept a secret for at least six months may get a makeover in the next legislative session. 

General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz told NM Political Report his office, which oversees the state’s Risk Management Division, is in the process of creating a working group to address a relatively unknown statute that mandates settlements stay secret for 180 days. The same law that established the Risk Management Division, which often serves as the state’s de facto insurance provider, contains a “confidentiality of records” section, which is often referred to by its citation number 15-7-9 as legal shorthand. 

That section of the statute is less than 300 words and is ambiguous about exactly when the 180 days starts. There are four instances in which the law says the clock starts ticking: when “all statutes of limitation applicable to the claim have run,” when litigation is done, when the “claim” is settled or when the claim is in “closed status.”

Ortiz said previous claims filed with Risk Management were sometimes never put into closed status, simply because someone failed to close it in division’s computer system. 

“I wanted to take the human element out of 15-7-9,” Ortiz said. 

The failure to “physically click on a button,” Ortiz said, would sometimes delay the start of the 180 days by an extra six months. 

“What we’ve seen when we reviewed settlements is, for whatever reason, it took several months after the final action on that case for the staff to administratively close it,” Ortiz said. 

That means a 180-day confidentiality period could easily run for more than a year.  Last year, for example, the New Mexico Corrections Department settled a lawsuit with six women who sued the state, claiming they were sexual assaulted and harassed by their superiors. That case was settled in January 2018, but GSD’s lawyer at the time said claims were not complete until all of the state’s legal bills were paid, which did not happen until six months after the case was dismissed. 

Now Ortiz said he’s working with the governor’s office and lawmakers to better define when the confidentiality period starts, and possibly address whether it should even be 180 days.  

Mr. Ortiz goes to the Legislature

Ortiz said he was aware of the confidentiality period before he took the job as cabinet secretary, but was not fully aware of the issues it presented until he started getting calls from news reporters—this one included—about settlements. 

“We thought, ‘This is truly tax payer money and people have a right to know,’” Ortiz said. 

Ortiz said conversations about transparency also came up when State Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, and State Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, introduced a bill that would require the state to post the specifics of all human rights settlements online. Ortiz said he wants to include the two lawmakers in crafting legislation to address the issue.

Gov. signs same-day voter registration bill

New Mexico voters will be able to register to vote or change their information on Election Day now thatGov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a same-day registration bill into law Wednesday. In a statement after signing SB 672, the governor called the law “a victory for democracy.”

New Mexico is the 18th state (plus the District of Columbia) to allow same-day voter registration. The law will not go into effect until 2021, so it will not be in place for next year’s presidential election. And the law will not allow voters to change their party affiliation during a primary election. To change their registration at the polls, voters will be required to show identification.

House sends bill creating new early ed department to governor’s desk

One of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pet initiatives will soon be on her desk for a signature, after the state House of Representatives on Saturday voted 41-8 to approve a bill that would create an Early Childhood Education and Care Department. The department would oversee all programs for infants and young children in New Mexico, including home visits for families of new babies, child care assistance and prekindergarten. Currently those programs are spread out over a number of state agencies, including the Public Education Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department. State Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, said this bill will combine all of those services into one new division, overseen by a Cabinet-level secretary. “What we are doing here with this bill, by combining all of the services for early learning, we are in fact making it more efficient,” said Trujillo, who co-sponsored Senate Bill 22 with Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque.

House overhauls lottery bill to ensure more funds for students

The state House of Representatives on Saturday approved a bill seeking to create bigger prizes in the state lottery, but not before heavily amending the measure to protect the lottery scholarship fund for college students. House Bill 147, sponsored by Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, cleared the House on a vote of 37-30. It eliminates a requirement that the lottery turn over 30 percent of its gross revenue for scholarships. The lottery staff and lobbyists for lottery vendors said scrapping the funding requirement actually would one day lead to significantly more money for scholarships. Democrats and Republicans alike were skeptical of that claim.