Legislators push to get bill heard on rent relief, thousands will be affected

New Mexico state Representatives Andrea Romero and Angelica Rubio are proposing a $77 million bill to provide rent relief through the end of the year. Romero, D-Santa Fe, and Rubio, D-Las Cruces, held an online town hall Wednesday evening to discuss the proposed bill, which they said they expect to file Thursday morning at the start of the special session. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not announce that rent relief would be on the call for the special session when announcing her priorities for the special session. Lujan Grisham’s press secretary Nora Meyers Sackett said through email late Wednesday that “legislators may file additional proposals such as (rent relief fund) and the legislative process will either see those through or not.​”

But Rubio said that she has been hearing this week that Lujan Grisham would not put something on her call that wasn’t likely to “succeed,” and that legislators would only be able to debate the bills on Lujan Grisham’s call. Romero outlined the three main points of what will be on the bill.

NM Supreme Court denies petition for open special session

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a 3-2 decision that the state Legislature can hold a special session without allowing in-person attendance from the public. 

The decision was a result of a petition filed on behalf of a long list of state lawmakers by Albuquerque-based attorney Blair Dunn. The petitioners argued that this week’s special legislative session should be physically open to the public, not just online. With the backdrop of the current COVID-19 pandemic, legislative leadership announced earlier this month that the state capitol building would be closed to the public, with some exceptions for members of the press.  

The high court issued a written order, but no written opinion. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, the only Republican on the court sided with Justices Barbara Vigil and Michael Vigil. Justices Shannon Bacon and David Thomson dissented.

A single mom in Albuquerque faces homelessness without rent relief

Albuquerque single mom Allyssa Garcia said she faces homelessness if the state doesn’t create a rent relief fund program to help residents like her during the pandemic. Garcia is not alone, said Lindsay Cutler, attorney for the nonprofit the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty. Related: Legislators push to get bill heard on rent relief, thousands will be affected 

Garcia works as a home health aid and with three young children, ages 7, 10 and 14, she struggled before the pandemic began. Her rent is $725 a month, utilities included. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average home health worker earns $24,940 a year.

Chief Justice Nakamura to retire in August

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura will retire in August, according to an announcement from the Administrative Office of the Courts. 

Nakamura became the first Republican woman elected to the high court in 2016 and became the court’s chief justice in 2017. She is currently the sole Republican on the bench. “In my years on the bench, I’ve always strived to not only make the best legal decisions possible but to improve people’s lives and advance the administration of justice,” Nakamura said in a statement. 

The announcement did not say why she was retiring, but said Nakamura’s last day as Chief Justice will be August 1. Nakamura was first appointed to the state Supreme Court by then-Gov. Susana Martinez in 2015. In an email to members of the State Bar of New Mexico, the Administrative Office of the Courts also announced that the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission will meet next month to discuss nominations for Nakamura’s replacement.

Justice Bacon: there is legal help out there

Public health orders restricting some businesses and public gatherings are slowly being lifted, but the New Mexico Supreme Court’s restrictions on eviction proceedings and limitations on civil cases in general are still in place. State Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon said she expects an increase of civil cases once courts are fully functioning. 

“What we’re anticipating with the health pandemic and the downturn of the economy and a really high unemployment rate are issues that really raise their head in the same way they did in 2008 and 2009 with the recession,” Bacon said. “So we’re reaching back in time to our experience then and trying to anticipate better what’s going to happen now.”

Bacon, the Supreme Court liaison to the New Mexico Commission on Access to Justice, wants the public to know that even with limited financial resources, people can find legal help for civil cases. Unlike criminal cases, defendants in civil suits are not automatically afforded a lawyer. 

While she said she doesn’t know when the Supreme Court will lift the stay on eviction proceedings, she is encouraging tenants anticipating or worried about the future of their housing to be proactive. She said she hopes tenants and landlords can come up with a “creative” solution to work out rent payment problems. But, Bacon said, if tenants are taken to court over rent issues, they may want to consider legal help. 

“I think it is a reasonable thing for folks, that if they believe that they’re going to be in a position to fight to keep their residence, that talking to a lawyer is a good idea,” Bacon said.

Courts start planning to restart jury trials by mid-June

The state Supreme Court said that courts can once again begin jury trials in criminal and civil trials on June 15 after taking precautions. The state Supreme Court had suspended jury trials due to COVID-19 in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, as the state appears poised to further ease restrictions to slow the spread of the disease, the courts will follow suit. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to give an update on easing restrictions during a Thursday afternoon press conference.  “As our state gradually reopens, courts can safely resume jury trials as local conditions permit,” Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura said in a statement when announcing the news. “Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexico courts have worked diligently to protect the health of people entering a courthouse.

Supreme Court asked to weigh in on stream access dispute that no one can agree on

A stream access dispute that has been brewing for years between public access advocates and landowners could be resolved once and for all, now that litigation has brought the matter to the New Mexico Supreme Court. In March, three conservation and public access organizations, the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), and Adobe Whitewater Club, filed a lawsuit against the governor and the state Game Commission. While it’s hard to boil the issue down into a few lines, balancing the rights of landowners with those of the public is an integral component of the lawsuit, which asks the Supreme Court to strike down a 2017 state Department of Game and Fish rule that enabled landowners to restrict access to streambeds and banks that line waterways located on private property. 

That rule was the result of a 2015 bill that became law, codifying thirty years of Game and Fish regulations that considered members of the public from walking onto private property from public waterways as trespassing. 

RELATED: Heinrich defends stream access as issue heads to NM Supreme Court

The state Supreme Court took up the case at the end of March, and by mid-April, a contingent of landowners and other groups, including the New Mexico Council of Outfitters and Guides (NMCOG), requested to intervene in the case in support of the 2017 Game and Fish rule, arguing that they would be negatively impacted by a potential Supreme Court ruling striking it down. 

Groups on both sides of the dispute all have different ideas about what’s at issue, and what’s at stake, but all parties are quick to point out the dispute is incredibly complicated. And while there’s no shortage of opinions on the topic, stakeholders on both sides of the fence seem to agree on one thing: it was a 2014 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Gary King that started the whole thing. 

Private property and public waters

The New Mexico constitution states that “unappropriated water of every natural stream, perennial or torrential,” within the state of New Mexico, is “declared to belong to the public and to be subject to appropriation for beneficial use, in accordance with the laws of the state.” 

Everyone agrees that the waters of New Mexico are public, Kerrie Romero, executive director of NMCOG, told NM Political Report. What’s in dispute is how the public can access those waters.

NM Supreme Court denies request to expand inmate release

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Monday that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office did not willfully ignore the health and safety of state prison populations by releasing inmates in a limited manner during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The high court’s decision was in response to a petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the state’s Law Offices of the Public Defender, alleging that Lujan Grisham’s office subjected inmates in state-run detention centers to cruel and unusual punishment by not broadening the scope of who is released. 

Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, ruling from the bench, said since the court did not find that Lujan Grisham’s office was “deliberately indifferent” to a possible COVID-19 outbreak in state detention centers there was no need to consider whether inmates’ rights were violated.  

“It’s a two prong analysis,” Nakamura said. “The court is not addressing prong one. We’re basing our decision on prong two. And that’s the prong which specifically focuses on whether or not [Lujan Grisham’s office] are deliberately indifferent to the health and safety of inmates. On this record the court unanimously finds that the answer is ‘no.’

Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NM Political Report that regardless of the court’s decision, his office will keep pushing for more releases.

NAACP officials keep wary eye on New Mexico data

A local advocacy group is keeping a watchful eye on equitable health care for African Americans during the pandemic. Pamelya Herndon, the first vice chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Albuquerque chapter, said the NAACP is not aware of discrimination against African-Americans during the pandemic in this state. But, the NAACP encouraged African-Americans to reach out to their local NAACP chapter if they experience prejudice during the public health emergency. One reason to worry is because African-Americans tend to have higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes, which could put them at greater risk for mortality from COVID-19 related illness than whites. Herndon said she would like to see a plan put into place to better protect the African-American community, especially given the already present health disparities.

It could be awhile before the NM Supreme Court decides to rule on cannabis tax case, if at all

Medical cannabis producers in New Mexico will be on the hook for gross receipts taxes for the foreseeable future, or at least until the state Supreme Court decides whether it will weigh-in on the issue. 

Last week, a response filed by New Mexico cannabis producer Sacred Garden was the latest in a pending case between the producer and the state’s Taxation and Revenue Department (TRD). Earlier this month, the TRD filed a petition asking the high court to consider the case, with the hopes that it might overturn a previous state Court of Appeals decision. 

Santa Fe attorney Joe Lennihan, on behalf of Sacred Garden, argued that a review by the Supreme Court was unnecessary since the Court of Appeals already determined that medical cannabis should be viewed in a similar light as prescription drugs, which are exempt from gross receipts taxes. 

“Sales of medical marijuana are restricted to patients approved to use it and must do so under the care and supervision of a physician,” Lennihan wrote. 

Both TRD and Sacred Garden have repeatedly made their respective arguments in previous court filings and now both must wait to see if the state Supreme Court decides to weigh-in. 

For the most part, TRD has argued that since medical cannabis use is recommended, not prescribed, by a doctor, medical cannabis sales are subject to gross receipts taxes. Sacred Garden’s view on the matter is that because a 2019 update to the state medical cannabis law states that medical cannabis should be viewed in a similar light as any other prescription drug, medical cannabis producers should be exempt from the tax. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Sacred Garden, citing a lack of expected tax revenue in legislative financial impact reports. 

But in its request for the Supreme Court to consider the case, the TRD turned the legislative intent argument around and said that if the Legislature wanted to exempt medical cannabis from gross receipts taxes, it could have specified this by amending state tax laws. 

Gross receipts taxes, sometimes incorrectly referred to as sales taxes, are charged by the state and local municipalities for goods and services. Businesses often pass the tax along to the consumer, although they are not required to.