House Majority Leader gave staffer big contracts after the session ended

New Mexico lawmakers haven’t been in session for nearly seven months, but that didn’t stop the Majority Leader of the state House of Representatives from awarding more than $100,000 in contracts to his top staffer. But Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, defended the contracts of his de-facto chief of staff Ryan Gleason as “well worth the expenditure.”

Gentry snagged Gleason—an attorney who previously was a legislative assistant Sen. Pete Domenici, the New Mexico state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a research director for the state Taxation and Revenue Department—from state Speaker of the House Don Tripp, R-Socorro. Gleason worked as Tripp’s full-time chief of staff from January 2015 through the end of this year’s general legislative session in February. Gentry’s position of majority leader is directly under Tripp in state House Republican leadership. Gleason’s switch from working for Tripp to working for Gentry reflects how the bulk of policy decisions in the House Republican leadership start with Gentry.

Guv’s office doesn’t keep financial records of contingency fund

The governor’s office contends a taxpayer-funded account used to host dignitaries and throw parties isn’t subject to open records laws to the same extent other public funds are. Sometimes the subject of controversy, the account catapulted into public view last winter when one of the parties its money was used for ended with police responding to noise complaints from a possibly intoxicated Martinez. Each year, the state Legislature grants $70,000 in taxpayer money to the governor for a contingency fund, which per state law she can use for “purposes connected with obligations of the office.”

The fund is unusual in that, unlike most state government accounts filled with public money, the state Legislature exempts it from required annual audits. But after NM Political Report filed an Inspection of Public Records Act request with the governor’s office this spring for six years worth of expense documents associated with the contingency fund, the office only provided broad summaries of the expenses. Missing were documentation like the checks, purchase orders, reimbursements and purchase requests associated with the fund that we asked for.

Three progressives compete in southern NM primary

LAS CRUCES — In a southern New Mexico Democratic primary election to replace Rep. Jeff Steinborn, the race appears remarkably civil. But the race between three Democratic candidates vying for the open seat is also very competitive. So far, all have raised between $10,000-$12,000 each for the June 7 election. And each candidate offers their own flavor. Angelica Rubio, 36, emphasizes her broad organizing experience that involves successfully leading a push to raise the minimum wage in Las Cruces and managing the campaign of City Councilor Kasandra Gandara, a progressive who won election last fall by just 18 votes.

School clinics want answers after state pulls funding

Five health clinics located in public schools will see a complete stripping of their state funding, likely leading all five to shut down. The cuts, announced by the state Department of Health earlier this month, come as part of several money-tightening measures placed in the state budget this year amid declining oil and gas revenues. The budget, passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, cut $300,000 for school-based health clinics. Now critics are panning state health department officials for a lack of transparency in how they decided to issue all of the cuts to a handful of 53 such clinics across the state. “The criteria they used is still unknown to us,” state Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez said in an interview.

Gov’s office kept unused party cash, review finds

Gov. Susana Martinez isn’t properly managing the account she used to pay for her infamous holiday pizza party last year, according to an independent audit released this month. The finding stems from the governor’s contingency fund, which the state Legislature grants roughly $70,000 each year to for “purposes connected with obligations of the office,” according to state law. That’s been interpreted by past governors and Martinez as entertainment expenses for hosting officials and staff. Specifically, Martinez’s office is supposed to revert any unspent money remaining in her contingency account by the end of a fiscal year to the state’s general fund, according to the audit. Instead, her office kept leftover money into that account.

Who’s running for state House, Senate seats?

Today is filing day for all seats in both chambers of the state legislature. All 112 seats (42 in the Senate, 70 in the House) will be up for election this November. But first, candidates must run in their party’s respective primaries. Earlier, we looked at some key seats to keep an eye on as November draws ever closer. By the end of the day, we’ll have the full list of legislators who are filing to run for reelection.

‘Flawed’ campaign finance system in NM leads to more questions

State lawmakers are coming under more scrutiny since New Mexico Secretary of State’s office recently started investigating a handful of state legislators for possible campaign finance violations. State Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, Roger Madalena, D-Jemez Pueblo and Andy Nuñez, R-Hatch, are all under fire for discrepancies in their campaign finance reports. But perceived problems with campaign spending aren’t limited to them. New Mexico Political Report also found questionable campaign spending by state Reps.

NM special ed funding problems run deep

As a report from the New Mexico State Auditor’s Office reaffirmed, New Mexico has had serious problems with funding special education in recent years. But the state’s ongoing struggles with special education go deeper than the audit, which found the state underfunded special education by $110 million from 2010-2012. Throughout the years, state lawmakers have clashed with Gov. Susana Martinez on how to fix the problem. The issue goes back to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), a landmark federal law passed in the 1970s that mandated public education access to special-needs students. Part of the law requires every state increase special education money each year or keep it level from the year before to make sure each special needs student services are met.

Civil asset forfeiture ban, other laws go into effect today

Starting today, cops in New Mexico can no longer take personal property without convicting someone, child predators will face tougher penalties and frozen powdered alcohol products are now recognized as being under state liquor control. These are just a handful of the 62 laws passed earlier this year during the regular state legislative session. Seventy-nine other new laws went into effect last month, while others with the emergency clause went into effect even earlier. The new civil asset forfeiture law is perhaps the most impactful and passed both chambers of the Legislature with wide support, netting no votes against it from either the state House of Representatives or the state Senate. Before, law enforcement officers could arrest someone and seize a personal item, such as their car, without proof that this person committed a crime.

Why capital outlay can still happen, weeks after deadline

After on-and-off negotiations since the end of the legislative session in March, state lawmakers recently came to an agreement with Gov. Susana Martinez on a capital outlay and tax package deal that will bring them back to Santa Fe for a special session next week. This, despite repeated statements from state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, that a special session had to occur by May 18—more than two weeks ago. “We don’t think we can do that after the 18th,” Smith told New Mexico Political Report last month. From our May 14 report:
Smith said if legislators can’t strike a deal before a creeping deadline of Monday, May 18, all bets are pretty much off. That’s because New Mexico’s next fiscal year starts July 1, and bond sales for state infrastructure projects need 30 days to advertise before then.