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.
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.
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.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wants state legislators to allocate up to $380 million to pay off a backlog of tax credits owed to production companies that shot movies or television shows in New Mexico. Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said the buildup of unpaid rebates “creates an uncertainty in the minds of producers. The governor prefers to get this done as quickly as possible.” Paying what’s owed would require a one-time appropriation from the general fund, said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who met with the governor on Tuesday. As it stands, New Mexico’s tax incentive program for qualifying movie-makers only allows state government to pay out $50 million of rebates in any given year, regardless of how much was accumulated.
The federal government is sending more troops to the U.S. border with Mexico just as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pulls back National Guard personnel from the state’s southern frontier. But the Department of Defense is not saying whether any of 3,750 additional troops headed to the border will be coming to New Mexico. Related: Feds to boost troops at border as Lujan Grisham pulls Guard members out
“The specific units and locations are still being finalized,” Maj. Mark Lazane said Wednesday. “We hope to release that information when it becomes available, but we aren’t able to do so at this time.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday that she withdrew most of New Mexico’s National Guard troops from the border. Troops in Hidalgo County and neighboring, however, will remain in place. She also temporarily deployed six New Mexico State Police officers to Hidalgo County to assist local law enforcement agencies. “I reject the federal contention that there exists an overwhelming national security crisis at the southern border, along which are some of the safest communities in the country,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “However, I recognize and appreciate the legitimate concerns of residents and officials in southwestern New Mexico, particularly Hidalgo County, who have asked for our assistance, as migrants and asylum-seekers continue to appear at their doorstep.”
A spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham said that between 11 and 15 National Guard troops will remain deployed, out of 118 before her order.
A single, secret donor gave $150,000 to New Mexico Legacy, the group that has been buying ads and distributing mailers promoting former Gov. Susana Martinez. The New Mexican first reported on the nonprofit group’s emergence in late 2017 when it bought radio spots touting highlights of the Republican governor’s administration as she entered her final year in office. New Mexico Legacy has since heralded Martinez in glossy mailers. But who paid for this advertising is apparently a secret. New Mexico Legacy is not a political action committee.
Gov. Susana Martinez left office with low approval ratings, according to Morning Consult.
Meanwhile, both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senators’ approval ratings remained over 40 percent, with a high amount of voters with no opinion. The pollster found Martinez’s approval rating among all registered voters in her final three months in office was just 35 percent, while 49 percent disapproved of the Republican’s job performance. That was the ninth-highest disapproval rating among all 50 governors in the same time period. In her final year in office, Martinez’s approval rating remained in the mid-30 percent range. Senators
Martin Heinrich easily won re-election to the U.S. Senate in a three-way race in November, defeating Republican Mick Rich and Libertarian, and former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson.
Gov. Susana Martinez announced Friday morning that the New Mexico Department of Public Safety (NMDPS) processed 1,388 sexual assault evidence kits from local agencies over the past three years. That’s roughly a quarter of the total backlog, but thousands of untested kits remain, mostly in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. For victims, there’s an even longer road ahead, with investigations and prosecutions still to come. Now DPS is offering to help reduce the 3,138 backlog for both Bernalillo county and Albuquerque Police Department (APD). In 2016, then-State Auditor Tim Keller found New Mexico had the highest backlog of untested sexual assault evidence kits per capita in the nation, with kits sitting in storage units or freezers untested for decades.
Rachel Conn was in a state wetlands meeting Tuesday when she heard the news: The Trump administration had released its revised Clean Water Rule. For Conn, who has been working on issues related to the rule for more than 15 years, it was another twist in a legal and administrative saga that could leave most of New Mexico’s streams and wetlands without clean water protections. Under the new rule issued Tuesday, almost 60 percent of the waterways and wetlands nationwide would no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act. The new rule says streams that flow only in response to snowmelt or rainfall—“ephemeral” streams—would not be protected. It also questions removing protections from “intermittent” streams, or those that have a baseflow from groundwater recharge, but may not run above-ground throughout the entire year.