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.

Deb Haaland

NY Times highlights Congresswoman Deb Haaland

During a New York Times’ “Women in the Public Spotlight” discussion, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland said Congress needs more women. The New York Times invited the Albuquerque Democrat to participate in an online event called “Women in the Public Spotlight” on Tuesday as part of the Times’ recognition of 2020 as the centennial of when women’s suffrage went into effect. Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the right to vote, in 1919. Haaland answered questions, along with Reshma Saujani, founder and chief executive of an organization called Girls Who Code and author of “Brave, Not Perfect.” Monica Drake, assistant managing editor of The New York Times hosted. Haaland said she ran because she wanted more Native American women in Congress and she said that Congress should be 50 percent women.

Guv signs bill protecting pregnant workers

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill into law Friday that protects working mothers and new moms from discrimination in the workplace. HB 25, or the Pregnant Worker Accommodation Bill, amends the state’s Human Rights Act to make pregnancy, childbirth and conditions related to either a protected class from employment discrimination. “It’s good to sign a bill that does what is so obviously the right thing to do,” Lujan Grisham said through a written statement. “There is no world I can imagine in which it would be right or fair to discriminate against a woman for becoming a mother.”

The bill allows a pregnant person or new mom to ask for “reasonable accommodations” such as a stool, extra bathroom breaks, or time to make prenatal visits. The new law prohibits an employer from forcing a pregnant worker or new mom to take time off because of their condition unless requested by the employee.

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.

A bill to protect pregnant workers passes first hurdle

A bill that advocates say protects pregnant workers passed unanimously through its first committee Tuesday with no opposition. HB 25, called the Pregnant Worker Accommodation Bill, went before the House Labor, Veteran, Military Affairs Committee. This isn’t the first time House committee members have heard this bill. Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the bill in past sessions, but she said the bill introduced during the 2019 session went through negotiation with the Hospitality Association and New Mexico Counties, an association that represents all 33 counties, and that took ten days. It then died on the House floor.

State says they paid $1 million to settle claims against DPS

The state of New Mexico released the specifics of another settlement on Monday from the final days of the Susana Martinez administration that showed the state paid $1 million to settle claims related to a discrimination lawsuit filed by former state employess. The state paid $900,000 to settle claims from three former Department of Public Safety employees against State Police chief Pete Kassetas and the state Department of Public Safety. The state also paid $100,000 to settle alleged violations of New Mexico’s Inspections of Public Records Act. The DPS employees, Lt. Julia Armendariz, Deputy Chief Michael Ryan Suggs and Sgt. Monica Martinez-Jones, filed a lawsuit alleging discriminatory and retaliatory behavior from Kassetas after sexual harassment and other behavior. 

Kassetas has denied the allegations.

Dismal Kids Count data tracks with Martinez administration

The easiest number to understand in the just-released 2019 Annie E. Casey Kid’s Count report is that New Mexico ranks 50th overall in child well-being. That’s a stark ranking, the second year in a row New Mexico earned that distinction. For detractors and supporters of former governor Susana Martinez, there’s a lot to digest in the numbers released Monday because they track with nearly her entire tenure. The chart below shows the Kids Count rankings in several categories for 2012-2019, but most of the data comes from 2010-17 (Rankings go back to 1990, but a different methodology was used in those years, making direct comparison difficult). New Mexico results in the annual Kids Count report prepared by NM Voices for Children

“It very much is a reflection of what happened, and more specifically, what didn’t happen during the Martinez years,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which monitors the indicators for New Mexico.

State to audit $1.7 million of settlements from late in the Martinez administration

Days after a local news report on $1.7 million worth of court settlements, paid by the former Gov. Susana Martinez administration to about a half dozen former state employees, one state official said his office will conduct an audit. Since the story broke earlier this month, New Mexico’s State Auditor announced an official audit to examine how and why the legal settlements were made confidential for years instead of the statutory deadline which outlines six months. Meanwhile, lawyers for some of those employees want a local television station to remove their story on the issue from its website.  

State Auditor Brian Colón announced Tuesday morning that his office will conduct a special audit on the settlements between the state and a half dozen former state employees who claimed they were targets of harassment and retaliation from former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. “I’m concerned by the lack of transparency, the extreme length of confidentiality of the settlement terms, and the timing of these settlements, Colón said in a statement.

NM GOP calls out former administration for secret payouts

New Mexico’s Republican Party condemned the Gov. Susana Martinez administration Thursday for reportedly paying out $1.7 million in confidential settlements to former state officials. “We are deeply troubled by the recent breaking news about secret payouts to state employees that appear to have violated state procedures which are supposed to protect taxpayers from paying out frivolous claims,” a press release from the party said. The party’s announcement came after KRQE-TV reported that not only did the state settle with a handful of former state employees, but that the specifics of the settlement are confidential for almost five years. Normally, New Mexico statute requires all settlements that go through the state’s Risk Management Division be kept confidential for 180 days. It’s still unclear why both the former state employees and Risk Management agreed to an unusually long confidentiality period.

Pay hikes considered for state agency heads

Members of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet could get a raise. A proposed state budget approved by the House of Representatives last week provides $250,000 the governor’s office confirmed Tuesday would be used to increase pay for the heads of state government departments. The money comes as the new governor continues to fill out her Cabinet. Lujan Grisham has been blunt that the salaries her administration initially offered were too low for some prospective Cabinet officials. But as part of the biggest budget in state history, even this small line item is sure to draw criticism from Republicans.