Environmental Database Act aims to increase transparency for publicly-available state data

A transparency bill that would make it easier for the public to access environmental data is awaiting the governor’s signature. HB 51, the Environmental Database Act, aims to make data that is already available through state agencies easily accessible at a single location. While the information that would be included in the database is already publicly available, Judy Calman, New Mexico Director of Policy for Audubon Southwest, said there is a difference between available and accessible. Calman drafted the bill, which was sponsored by state Representatives Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.. The bill would create a central map-based database where the public could freely view the information.

New Mexico state employee accuses Governor’s Office staffer of ethics breach

A former Public Employees Retirement Association trustee has filed an ethics complaint against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s chief operating officer, claiming Teresa Casados pressured her into voting for a pension reform bill she opposed. 

Claudia Armijo, an attorney, claims Casados last year prodded her to take part in voting to endorse a state Senate bill Lujan Grisham strongly backed as a measure to eventually pull the state’s pension system out of deep debt. In 2020, the system had an estimated $6.6 billion in unfunded liability. 

Armijo said Casados never outright told her to vote in support of the measure, but felt an implicit threat that she would lose her job if she didn’t. A board trustee is supposed to be independent of politics and vote according to a proposal’s merits or flaws, Armijo said. 

“It’s very inappropriate of her to even order me to vote,” Armijo said in a phone interview. “What she did was improper.” 

Casados’ office didn’t respond to attempts to seek comment. 

Armijo said she was notified that the State Ethics Commission will investigate her complaint. 

She said she decided to go public with her complaint because she is concerned about the governor pushing House Bill 162, which would change the pension board from elected trustees to political appointees. 

That would enable the governor and other politicians to handpick board members who would do their bidding, even if it runs counter to the pensioners’ interests, Armijo argued. That would eliminate trustees who would object to proposals, as she did, she said. 

“This is a power grab for all the wrong reasons,” she said. 

Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s spokeswoman, dismissed Armijo’s claims about Casados and the governor seeking to control the pension board. 

“The allegations are thoroughly unsubstantiated,” Sackett wrote in an email. 

Armijo said Casados did something she had never seen during her four years as a board trustee: She relayed a message to Armijo’s supervisor to call her. 

On the phone, Casados told Armijo the bill was important to the governor, so she needed to vote. 

“She certainly was not telling me to vote against it,” Armijo said.

Bill to establish Health Care Affordability Fund expected during legislative session

A bill designed to lower insurance premiums for state residents on the New Mexico health care exchange is expected to be filed for the 2021 Legislature. The bill is a priority for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and is still being drafted, so not all the details have been worked out. But Nicolas Cordova, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said one of the benefits of the Health Care Affordability Fund is that it would encourage more individuals to enroll and that, in turn, could lead to insurance premiums dropping for residents who are on the exchange. The bill, if it becomes law, would apply a surtax on insurance companies of 2.75 percent. That would generate $110 million in net revenue for the state, Cordova said.

Legislators will again try to repeal antiquated abortion ban

With a new set of members in the state Senate, a bill to repeal the New Mexico 1969 abortion ban is expected to be filed in the upcoming New Mexico Legislature. Six Democrats who support abortion rights beat Republicans in November, in some cases after defeating anti-abortion Democrats in June’s primary, for state Senate seats, tipping the balance of power further to the left in the upper chamber. The state Senate defeated the 2019 effort to repeal the antiquated state law that bans abortion with few exceptions. Related: State Senate shifts left with progressive wins

Of the eight Democrats who sided with Republicans on the repeal vote two years ago, only two remain: state Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, and state Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas. Incoming state Senators Carrie Hamblen, Siah Correa Hemphill and Leo Jaramillo, all progressive Democrats who ran on reproductive health, defeated their incumbent Democrat opponents in the primary and then won again in November against their Republican challengers.

During pandemic, a privately run detention center sought to find new migrants to detain

A private detention center in southern New Mexico sought to increase the numbers of detainees within its facility after the state declared a public health emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic. Management and Training Company (MTC), which operates the Otero County Processing Center (OCPC), sent a letter to Otero County Manager Pam Heltner dated March 31. The letter stated that due to an anticipated “significant decrease,” in migrant detainees, the company would terminate its agreement—but offered a solution. NM Political Report received the letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request. The letter stated:

“MTC would be happy to explore with you the possibility of partnering with other state or federal agencies to co-locate detainees or inmates at the OCPC in order to increase the overall population at the facility and make MTC’s continued operation of the facility financially viable.”

MTC houses migrants held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

School budget cuts could be worse than thought, advocates say

Just as the New Mexico Legislature passes a new budget that will cut 0.6 percent out of the school budget for the next fiscal year, a newly released report shows that New Mexico is, again, at the bottom for child well being. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropic organization focused on children, released its annual report this week on child well being and ranked New Mexico as 50th in the nation. James Jimenez, executive director for the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, said New Mexico has ranked near the bottom for “a very long time,” but came to the lowest ranking in 2013 and has been there “for a few years.”

“It’s a reflection of the fact that despite what people say, that kids are our most precious asset, it’s not true in the way we invest our money in state and local government,” Jimenez said. Last week the state passed a revised state budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 that will cut 0.6 percent from the school budget despite cries from some school superintendents and advocates that this will be detrimental and will put the state in a position where it cannot live up to the requirements of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, which said the state did not provide adequate education for students. Related: Superintendents: Proposed cuts to education will worsen racial and economic inequity

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to sign the solvency budget, though she can veto by line-item.

Superintendents: Proposed cuts to education will worsen racial and economic inequity

Proposed education budget cuts could worsen racial and economic inequities in the state, according to some school superintendents. Veronica Garcia, the superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said that if the Legislative Finance Committee’s proposed budget cuts in education are passed, she expects to be looking at a $10.3 million hole in her district’s budget. She is starting with a $7 million deficit in her school budget and if the LFC’s proposed cuts go through, she expects to see another $3.3 million loss. Like the state, Garcia has to balance her budget annually. She says that situation will leave her with no choice but to make cuts that will enlarge classroom size, reduce programming and shrink ancillary roles such as social workers, librarians, nurse aides and nurses.

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.

Democrats introduce police ‘use of force’ reporting requirements

Four Democratic state lawmakers plan to introduce legislation during the special session this week that they say would offer greater transparency and more accountability when it comes to police use of force. Amid calls from protesters in New Mexico and nationwide to defund law enforcement agencies and stop insulating officers from possible consequences over excessive and lethal use of force, state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and others have asked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to prioritize the bill. The measure would increase oversight of officers’ use of force, including requiring reports to the district attorney, attorney general and Governor’s Office following an incident in which a law enforcement officer’s action causes “great bodily harm” or death to an individual. The proposal also would allow the top prosecutor of a judicial district where an incident has occurred to request selection of a district attorney from another jurisdiction to review the case and decide whether to bring charges against an officer. Investigations into police use of force would be handled by the state Department of Public Safety, according to the legislation, which has not yet been assigned a bill number.

State will allow outdoor dining at restaurants in most of state starting Wednesday, with some restrictions

Restaurants in much of the state can serve patrons for outdoor dining—with some restrictions—starting Wednesday. Restaurants in Cibola, San Juan and McKinley counties are not included in the new lifting of patio dining restrictions. The state cited the fact that the northwest region has been hit hard by the virus. The New Mexico Restaurant Association asked that restaurants in Doña Ana County wait until June 1 to open for outdoor dining. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office announced late Tuesday that she amended the public health order to allow restaurants in most counties to begin serving patrons in outdoor patio dining areas but the outdoor dining can not be larger than 50 percent of the restaurant’s fire code occupancy.