Senate implodes, disrupting the annual House-Senate basketball game

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.

Important House committee passes ethics legislation

A House bill creating an independent ethics commission with subpoena power passed an important House committee Wednesday, sending the measure before the full House of Representatives for a vote possibly as early as later this week.  

Members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee approved the measure unanimously after a short discussion and lowering funding for the proposed ethics commission to half a million dollars, from $1 million. Committee chairwoman Patricia Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup, explained the Legislature could add money to the commission midyear when state officials learn how much a full year of its operations would cost.Lundstrom’s explanation was heartening to committee member Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, who had expressed a desire that the commission be fully funded. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. New Mexico state lawmakers are trying to flesh out the powers, funding and operations for the seven-member independent ethics commission after 75 percent of voters added the commission to the state constitution in November.

Ethics commission bill clears first committee

The Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 Saturday morning to approve HB4, launching the ethics commission proposal on what likely will be an obstacle course with three weeks to go in the 2019 legislative session. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque, is in a race against the clock, needing to clear another House committee and a floor vote in the House before heading to the less friendly forum of the Senate, which has earned a reputation as a killing ground for ethics legislation over the past decade and a half. The proposal approved Saturday appropriates $1 million for a proposed ethics commission empowered to fine individuals guilty of violating ethics rules. The commission could also issue subpoenas to pry loose information in an investigation and if a target refused to comply ask a state court to enforce it. Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales

Hearing panels to investigate ethics complaints would use the civil standard of preponderance of the evidence, instead of higher legal standards, to find violations.

Plaintiffs in historic suit cite new court filing to back up their money demands

Plaintiffs in a historic educational lawsuit on Friday pointed to a new court filing from Judge Sarah Singleton to say that state officials should reverse how they’re funding public education: Instead of seeing how much they have to spend first, they should identify educational needs and then figure out how much they cost. Singleton’s eight-page order, issued Thursday, comes as the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and allies are in a tug of war with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature over how much new money to earmark for the state’s public schools. A coalition of plaintiffs, teachers, parents, students, district superintendents, bilingual experts and nonprofit organizations want the governor and state lawmakers to dedicate $1 billion in new funding, double what the governor and the Legislature are proposing.   

Singleton’s order is short compared to her ruling last year, which found New Mexico guilty of shirking its constitutional duty to adequately educate at-risk students, but it packs a wallop. The judge wrote of New Mexico’s school children caught in an “inadequate system” who will “be irreparably harmed if better programs are not instituted,” And that the state’s duty is to “not conserve financial resources at the expense of our constitutional resources.”Those shortcomings should be addressed “as soon as practicable,” Singleton wrote.

Is it ‘Groundhog Day’ for ethics reform in NM?

This commentary is part of New Mexico In Depth’s weekly newsletter. Trip Jennings, NMID executive director

2019 is beginning to feel a lot like the 1990s Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day.”Twelve years ago, at about the same time in the legislative session as we are now, I reported that ethics reform efforts were on life support. I’m not ready to make the same call in 2019. But with four weeks to go in this year’s session, agreement on a bill to flesh out the powers, funding and operations for a seven-member independent ethics commission added to the state Constitution by 75 percent of voters in November isn’t looking quite as inevitable as it once did. As of today, there are competing ethics commission bills.

Ethics commission legislation in race against time

With a month to go in the legislative session, history may be  about to repeat itself. But voters probably won’t be too happy about it. State lawmakers have four weeks to agree on a bill to flesh out the powers, funding and operations for a seven-member independent ethics commission voters added to the state constitution in November. As of Thursday, there are competing bills and both are in a race against time in a legislative body that’s as prone to kill good government ideas as approve them, based on the New Mexico Legislature’s track record over the past decade. The week started with the introduction of a state ethics commission  bill (HB4) sponsored by Rep. Damon Ely, D-Albuquerque.

Advocates critique budget, education process

As a powerful House committee nears completion of a draft state budget this week, leaders of a movement to transform New Mexico education through multicultural, bilingual education reforms say crucial funding to achieve their vision could go missing from the soon-to-emerge spending plan. And they say it’s already gone missing from a House omnibus education bill. They worry too that legislative leaders aren’t taking seriously the need to strengthen three state laws focused on multicultural, bilingual education that are at the core of a historic court ruling by a state judge last year. In her scorching July 2018 ruling, Judge Sarah Singleton found the state guilty of depriving large swaths of public school children of their constitutional right to a sufficient education. “I don’t think there is direct opposition that I see,“ Rep. Tomas Salazar, D-Las Vegas, said of funding and multicultural, bilingual education ideas during a late-morning press conference put on by Transform Education NM, a coalition of teachers, parents, students, district superintendents, bilingual experts and nonprofit organizations.

Ethics legislation drops, but tricky path ahead for popular idea

NMID Executive Director Trip Jennings

A bill to create an independent ethics commission was introduced Monday, nearly halfway through the 2019 legislative session. That’s later than expected given the overwhelming public support in November for the idea. The legislation, HB 4, introduced by Albuquerque Democrat House Rep. Damon Ely,  would flesh out how much power the seven-member independent ethics commission will have, its funding and how transparent it is. But it won’t be alone for long. Whispers are that there will be competing ethics measures.

Top Democrat in U.S. House to speak to NM Legislature

Congressman James E. Clyburn

Congressman James E. Clyburn of South Carolina will speak to a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature on Friday as part of African American Day at the Roundhouse. Clyburn, House Majority Whip, is the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Clyburn started his career as a public school teacher and is a veteran of the civil rights movement, helping to organize marches and demonstrations as a student leader at South Carolina State College, according to his congressional website. He met his wife, Emily, in jail following a student demonstration.Clyburn, whose speech will cap Friday’s celebration of African Americans in New Mexico, will speak to members of the state House and Senate around noon.

Lujan Grisham says her administration will look into Hepatitis C prison problems

At a news conference Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham responded to a New Mexico In Depth story that showed while the state has the largest known share of prisoners diagnosed with hepatitis C in the nation, few are being treated. That’s despite new, nearly fail-safe treatment medications coming onto the market at increasingly low prices.  

New Mexico faces difficult choices, Lujan Grisham said, partly because so much is out of its control. Incarcerated individuals who contract the disease on the outside might only become aware of their plight after a screening in prison, Lujan Grisham said. Beginning in 2009, New Mexico began offering all prisoners screening for hepatitis C, which is not a universal practice.