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.
With 12 days left in the 60-day session the New Mexico Legislature might or might not be heading toward a repeat of last year. It’s difficult to tell. Last year, in the final days of the 2016 session, the House of Representatives approved by a 50-10 vote, and with great fanfare, an independent ethics commission proposal. It would have asked voters to enshrine the commission in the state constitution. It died in the state Senate.
A piece of legislation moving through the New Mexico Legislature offers a window into how difficult it is to pay for and deliver healthcare during a state budget crisis, particularly at a moment when uncertainty in Washington clouds the future of healthcare in the U.S.
Sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Bandy of Aztec and supported by GOP Gov. Susana Martinez, House Bill 316 seeks to reduce state spending on Medicaid by pushing hundreds of people off a little-known state program – the New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool, also called the “high risk pool” — and onto the state’s health insurance exchange. The high risk pool currently offers health coverage for the sickest of the sick, more than 2,700 people who suffer from heart disease, cancer, Hepatitis C, neurological disorders and HIV/AIDS. The bill is one of many proposals that would save money as New Mexico attempts to survive a state budget crisis. The legislation, in effect, is a one-two punch to health insurance companies, closing what Martinez considers a tax loophole by phasing out a tax credit for health insurers. It would trim Medicaid costs in a way that would end up increasing some health insurers’ costs, too.
With four weeks to go in this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers have time to pass an independent ethics commission proposal, Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said Thursday. Egolf made his prediction an hour or so after a House Committee cleared a proposal that would ask New Mexicans to amend the state constitution to create an independent ethics commission. The bill has only one more stop – the House Judiciary Committee – before it would head to the floor of the House of Representatives. But the question mark regarding ethics reform has never been the New Mexico House of Representatives. That chamber has passed several versions over the years.
The sponsor of legislation that would require lobbyists to disclose more about what they spend each year on state lawmakers and other public officials said he was considering changing the bill after a fifth state lawmaker publicly stated his opposition Friday morning. “Clearly there is heartburn with some of the progressive ideas that I’ve proposed” in SB 168, Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said. Steinborn’s reconsideration came after Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, became the fifth lawmaker on the Senate Rules Committee to openly block the legislation. On Wednesday Candelaria had voted against a motion to not pass SB 168 out of the Senate Rules Committee, joining three other Democrats against four Republican Senators who wanted to table the legislation. The bill’s main goal is to fix a transparency loophole the Legislature created last year that allows lobbyists to disclose much less about how they spend money on public officials.
New Mexico In Depth attempted to ask Gov. Susana Martinez about her reaction to the uncertainty in Washington surrounding the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have made it a priority to repeal major provisions. Any action from Washington would ripple through New Mexico. Early in her term Martinez was one of the few Republican governors across the nation to agree to expand the Medicaid program, which was a major provision of the ACA. Her decision resulted in around 250,000 additional New Mexicans getting health insurance.
Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, has filed her own version of a bill that would create a state ethics commission. And as with similar legislation she filed in 2016, the legislation contains provisions that would enable officials to punish anyone who talks publicly about a confidential complaint filed with the proposed panel with up to $35,000 in fines and a year behind bars, or both. You can find the language in Section 16 of SB 218 on page 23:
A. Disclosure of any confidential complaint, report, file, record or communication in violation of the State Ethics Commission Act is a misdemeanor and shall be punished by a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or by imprisonment for not more than one year or both. B. In addition to a penalty imposed pursuant to Subsection A of this section, a court may impose a civil penalty not to exceed twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) for each violation of Section 12 of the State Ethics Commission Act. The language appears close to if not exactly the same as language in a bill Lopez filed in 2016 that would have created a state ethics commission.
Last week marked the start of the 12th installment of a long-running debate among New Mexico state lawmakers. In previous years the discussion could be summed up in two questions: Should the Legislature create an independent ethics commission; and, if so, what form should it take? The perennial answer to the first question was “no ethics commission this year,” rendering moot the second as to the shape and form it would take. This year, unlike in previous sessions, however, state lawmakers will be able to debate both questions at once. With positive votes from the House State Government, Indian & Veterans’ Affairs committee on Jan.
With a budget crisis confronting the New Mexico Legislature, some legislators plan to float a controversial idea gaining momentum across the nation: Legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana, or cannabis. Adult recreational use is now allowed in eight states plus the District of Columbia, and more than 25 already authorize it for medicinal purposes. And in 2016, after three years of being bogged down in Senate committees, an effort to legalize recreational use in New Mexico made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Last year’s Senate Joint Resolution 5, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque, asked voters to amend the state’s constitution to allow possession and personal use of cannabis by people 21 years or older. It would also have regulated production and sale of cannabis, and allowed collection of a tax on the sale of the drug.
New Mexico’s lawmakers over the last decade have balked at creating an independent ethics commission even as a parade of elected and appointed public officials stood accused of corruption and, in some cases, were convicted of crimes. Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico and a perennial supporter of ethics legislation, reached back to 1990s American cinema for an analogy: Groundhog Day, a 1990s comedy classic in which the main character is forced to repeat the same day over and over again. “We are freakin’ Bill Murray,” Harrison said. Harrison hopes 2017 will break the cycle, however, and on the surface the odds in Santa Fe appear favorable. New Mexico’s lawmakers convene for the 2017 60-day legislative session with two supporters of the ethics legislation — Sen. Peter Wirth and Rep. Brian Egolf – in powerful leadership posts.
District attorneys from around New Mexico are working on a statewide policy for investigating and prosecuting shootings by law enforcement, Andrew Oxford reports in today’s Santa Fe New Mexican. It’s the second action taken by public officials since the Santa Fe New Mexican and New Mexico In Depth published a story that examined the challenges inherent in investigating and prosecuting fatal law enforcement shootings. Last week Attorney General Hector Balderas announced he had created a committee to audit how each law enforcement agency around the state reviews the use of deadly force by its officers. On Monday Balderas announced he was collaborating “with the New Mexico District Attorney’s Association on its effort to standardize what is currently a patchwork of often-unwritten protocols across 13 judicial districts when it comes to police shootings,” Oxford reports. Oxford writes that police in New Mexico have fatally shot 41 people since January 2015, more people per capita than in any other state, according to The New Mexican’s analysis of data maintained by The Washington Post.