Scaled back budget heads to Senate

Over the objections of Republicans who wanted to cut more, House Democrats pushed through a scaled back state budget to shore up a $2 billion budget shortfall caused by the pandemic and oil price crash that devastated state coffers. The House approved the roughly $7 billion budget in a 46-24 vote along party lines, with Republicans opposing the budget plan. In extended budget talks over the past several days, lawmakers continuously described the spending reductions as difficult decisions in the face of massive hits to state revenue. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has referred to the cuts as “austerity” for the state, but supported them at slightly different levels. The bill now only needs to be approved by the full Senate to get to the governor’s desk, as the Senate Finance Committee approved the House’s version Friday.

Bill that helps kids who ‘age out’ of foster care passes Senate

A bill to provide support to children who have “aged out” of foster care but still need a safety net passed unanimously in the Senate chamber Monday. SB 168 would allow children who are 18 to 21 who lack resources necessary to enter adulthood to access aid from the Child, Youth and Family Services Department. CYFD would be able to leverage federal dollars to pay for the services. Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, is sponsoring the bill. Padilla said while on the Senate floor that the bill aligns New Mexico with federal law and federal requirements for funding already available.

Senate passes public records bill, chides Martinez administration

The New Mexico Senate unanimously passed a bill Saturday that would allow the public to immediately view records pertaining to claims against the government, as legislators admonished financial settlements made under the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez. Senate Bill 64, sponsored by Sen. Sander Rue and three other lawmakers, would remove a requirement that the state must wait 180 days before publicly disclosing information about such settlements. It would also eliminate criminal penalties for revealing confidential records related to these types of claims. The bill now moves to the House. Lawmakers said they were compelled to introduce the bill after millions of dollars in secretive settlements were made during the Martinez administration, many of which were found to have been carried out without adequate investigation or documentation. During debate on Saturday, senators had harsh words for officials from that administration and the attorneys involved, saying they allowed corruption to continue unchecked in New Mexico.

Bill to eliminate settlement confidentiality period stalled indefinitely

Legislation aimed at eliminating a six month confidentiality period after legal settlements with the state stalled indefinitely in a Senate committee, pending changes suggested by some members. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee decided on Monday to postpone SB 64, sponsored by Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque and Democratic Sen. Linda Trujillo until more changes to the bill are made. 

Committee Chair Joseph Cervantes said he is trying to avoid making changes in committee and suggested the sponsors take some of the recommended changes into consideration and bring it back to the committee. Concerns from other members ranged from a lack of penalties for releasing information before a settlement is made official to unclear language about when a claim with the state is considered settled. 

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, bluntly told the bills sponsors, along with General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz, that the bill was unclear. “Frankly, I think you’re so far in the weeds you’re not clear,” Ivey-Soto said. 

Ivey-Soto’s suggestion was that the sponsors completely strike the section of law that currently requires a confidentiality period and start from scratch. 

Just before Rue presented his bill, State Auditor Brian Colón presented a summary of his office’s findings related to 18 settlements made in the final weeks of former Gov. Susana Martinez’s time in office. Late last year Colón’s office conducted an audit of those settlements and found “abuse of power” and wrongdoing by the Martinez administration. 

The Martinez settlements’ three year confidentiality period went well beyond 180 days. Some committee members said they were concerned that Rue and Trujillo’s bill did not do enough to prevent a confidentiality period being written into the terms of a settlement. 

Regardless of Cervantes’ hesitation to pass the bill along as-is, he said he was frustrated with the revelations of the Martinez settlements.

New Mexico’s capital outlay process is often a crazy mess, lawmakers say

On Friday morning, three Santa Fe firefighters in uniform walked up to state Sen. Peter Wirth in a Roundhouse hallway. They came bearing a form, and if the majority leader would sign on the dotted line, they’d be one step closer to getting new equipment. 

They weren’t the only ones to seek Wirth’s help. The Palace of the Governors wanted interior renovation. The yet-to-be-constructed Vladem Contemporary art museum needed solar. Tesuque Pueblo was after remote monitoring for a drinking water system.

Legal settlement transparency bill breezes through first committee

The Senate Public Affairs Committee unanimously approved a measure that would eliminate a confidentiality period for legal settlements made with state departments. 

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, presented SB 64, which would make significant changes to a law that requires a confidentiality period for claims settled with the state. Currently, any claims settled by the state’s Risk Management Division must remain under wraps for 180 days. Rue’s bill not only changes the triggering events that start the 180-day clock, but also eliminates the confidentiality period all together. 

There was little discussion and no debate among panel members during the hearing. Members of the public who spoke in favor of the bill included representatives for good government groups like Common Cause New Mexico and the New Mexico Foundation for Government as well as the Office of the State Auditor. No one spoke against the bill. 

Prior to the committee hearing, Rue told NM Political Report that he decided to sponsor the bill after it was revealed last year that millions of dollars were paid out in secret legal settlements under the previous governor Susana Martinez.

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.

Senate votes to raise cap on film credits, measure moves to House

The New Mexico Senate voted Tuesday night to raise the limit on tax credits paid to the film industry and pay off a mounting backlog. Senate Bill 2 has been a priority for newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and a burgeoning sector of the state’s economy that has brought a certain renown to New Mexico. But budget hawks on both sides of the aisle have been wary of eliminating the current $50 million annual limit on tax credits, arguing that the state needs some sort of cap for reliable budgeting. And critics contend efforts to subsidize the film industry here just aren’t worth it and amounts to sending money to out-of-state corporations. Still, when it came times to vote, the bill passed by a vote of 32-8, with several Republicans joining Democrats to back the measure.

After Senate vote, wage issue heads for showdown with House

The lowest paid New Mexicans are closer to getting a raise. The Senate passed a bill Friday night that would raise the statewide minimum wage to $9.25 from in October, phasing in increases all the way up to $11 in 2022, which would still be below the wage floor established in cities like Santa Fe. While it passed 25-17, Senate Bill 437 represented a messy compromise after the state House of Representatives had approved a higher increase backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and in turn stirred heavy opposition from the business sector, particularly the restaurant industry. The Senate’s industry-backed proposal goes now to the House. But even though it would allow Democrats to follow through on a central campaign promise from last year’s election, several lawmakers from the party argued Friday night it does not go far enough.

Lawmaker confident about criminal justice reform’s chances of passage

In the New Mexico Legislature, Democratic Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas’ name could be synonymous with criminal justice reform. Now, in his 12th year as a lawmaker, Maestas wants to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. In 2016, when the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives and then-Gov. Susana Martinez championed legislation to increase criminal penalties and reinstate the death penalty, Maestas was the leading voice against those efforts. Now, Maestas, a former prosecutor, is headed into the 2019 legislative session armed with what he calls an omnibus package of bills that have historically seen bipartisan support, but fell victim to Martinez’s veto pen. Maestas thinks, with a new governor, this is the year for reform.