Jennings, New Mexico In Depth's executive director, is an award-winning veteran journalist who has worked at newspapers across the nation, including in California, Connecticut and Georgia. Besides working at the Albuquerque Journal and Santa Fe New Mexican, Jennings was part of a team that started the New Mexico Independent, an influential online newspaper.
I wrote the following essay for NMID’s weekly newsletter and am posting it on NMID because I believe we as a country must have a conversation about race. Our president, and his actions, are forcing us to. In a democracy, which relies on a vigorous competition of ideas and viewpoints, one of journalism’s duties is to prompt and join in on discussions about uncomfortable subjects. And race, at least for a significant portion of our country’s population, is uncomfortable. Hopefully this essay will invite such a discussion. Feel free to comment, but keep it respectful.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law this week a bill (SB41) that ensures service providers accused of overbilling or defrauding Medicaid can review and respond to allegations of wrongdoing before state action is taken.
It’s a response to the bombshell announcement the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez made in June 2013. That summer, the Human Services Department publicly accused 15 organizations treating New Mexicans for addiction and mental illness of overbilling Medicaid by up to $36 million. There was even a chance, the agency said, the organizations had defrauded the government’s health insurance program for low-income people. The organizations weren’t allowed to review or respond to audit findings that led to the allegations – a break with normal auditing practices – or dispute the state Human Services Department’s decision to cut off Medicaid funding to a dozen or so of the 15 providers.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham celebrate the end of the 60-day session in a jubilant mood. Republicans had a different experience of the session. Photo credit: Trip Jennings
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrapped up her first session with the Legislature Saturday agreeing to the most significant increase in public school spending in decades and putting New Mexico in the hunt once again for leadership in the nation’s “green” movement. A three-term congresswoman and former state cabinet secretary, Lujan Grisham began talking about a “moonshot” for education before she was sworn in as governor. No one expected a “moonshot” overnight, although to hear the governor Saturday, her first session behind her, she seemed ready for Mars.
With hours to go in the 60-day session, state lawmakers reached a deal on a new, independent ethics commission New Mexicans overwhelmingly demanded in November’s election. The House voted 66-0 Friday night to approve the latest version of ethics legislation that has undergone multiple metamorphoses in the last several days. The Senate accepted the changes soon after, sending the bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk for her signature. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who helped shape the bill approved by the House, said late Friday“tonight was step one,” of the state’s first independent ethics commission that would have oversight of state public officials. He predicted that the Legislature would return in coming years to add local government officials to those the ethics commission would oversee.
With less than 48 hours left in the 60-day session, the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday evening set up the potential for a legislative showdown over a new, independent ethics commission as time runs out on the 2019 session. It happened when House Judiciary members dramatically altered the Senate’s vision for the new commission, sending it to the full House for a vote. It was another strange turn in the long trip for ethics commission legislation during this year’s session as state lawmakers seek to honor New Mexicans’ wishes. Seventy five percent of voters in the November election approved amending the state constitution by adding an independent ethics commission with subpoena power following a series of scandals.
That the fate of a new commission might be decided in a game of legislative chicken in the final 36 hours of this year’s session isn’t a surprise.
A bill that would make information about state agency settlements involving sexual harassment and other discrimination claims more accessible to the public is a step away from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk after clearing an important committee
The House Judiciary unanimously passed SB 317 after a short discussion Wednesday. The legislation would require posting to the state Sunshine Portal amounts of taxpayer dollars paid out in individual settlements related to human rights, including sexual harassment and discrimination based on disability, sexual orientation and race, and the state agencies that are involved. Currently, it is difficult to find out about such complaints across the many agencies in state government or to know when information about individual settlements become public. The bill does not require names be published on the Sunshine Portal, so as “to not discourage anyone from filing claims,” said Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, co-sponsor of the bill, “but we do want to know when those claims are being paid out.” Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, co-sponsor of the bill, said that the bill speeds up when the information is made public.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is worried a bill that would prohibit local law enforcement agencies from enforcing federal immigration law might cost New Mexico money. The governor’s skepticism effectively dooms SB 196, which would bar local law enforcement agencies and New Mexico State Police from using state or local resources to enforce federal immigration law. It also would stop them from detaining immigrants when a person’s immigration status is their sole focus. It wouldn’t stop law enforcement from pursuing crimes by undocumented immigrants, including when authorities have a warrant or a person is suspected of a crime, however.
The measure has been stuck in Senate Judiciary Committee since late January.
A few weeks ago, Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, mentioned the option of passing a memorial creating a task force to study an independent ethics commission through 2019. Just in case, he said. Nibert wanted to see legislation that dictates what powers such a commission would have and how it would operate. But it was clear, even weeks ago, that agreement on a subject the Legislature has debated for 13 years might be difficult despite 75 percent of New Mexicans voting to enshrine the idea in the state constitution this November. But Nibert waited before asking a legislative agency to draft the memorial.
Earlier this month, a thief stole a truck parked in the front yard of Dulce Ozuna’s home. She lives about an hour from Aztec, N.M. But rather than call the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department, she drove across the Colorado state line to report the theft in Durango. “I don’t trust the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department,” Ozuna told New Mexico In Depth through a Spanish interpreter. Her skepticism traces to when her family reported the 2016 killing of their dog by a neighbor. Nearly three years later, the killer has not been caught.
Every legislative session, the basketball game between House and Senate lawmakers – a sacrosanct ritual of feel-good joviality – gives state lawmakers a chance to vent steam toward the end of each year’s arduous slog of lawmaking. Perhaps more importantly, it raises tens of thousands of dollars for the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.
On Wednesday evening, no one was jovial, and tensions were high, as Capitol police interrupted the annual roundball contest to drag seven senators back to the state Senate to debate a piece of energy legislation. For the first time in as long as anyone can remember at the Roundhouse, the basketball game had become collateral damage to legislative strife. And a lot of longtime Roundhouse observers were trying to remember the last time something like this had happened.