Judge sees progress in state efforts on Medicaid, SNAP

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales laid out the stakes in a long-simmering lawsuit over the Human Services Department’s record of denying food stamp and Medicaid benefits to eligible New Mexicans during a status hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Las Cruces. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales

He’d visited the HSD office on Utah Street in Las Cruces where he had looked over cases with a front-line worker there. One client was a single mom with two kids under 6. She’d lost SNAP benefits because she had not submitted documents that apparently were already in the system. Then her family lost Medicaid benefits, even though they weren’t up for renewal, because of the decision on food stamps — something that violates federal rules.

NMID wins top honors in regional, state journalism contests

New Mexico In Depth collected six awards – two first-place and four second-place – in a regional journalism contest that pit it against the largest newspapers, radio and TV stations in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The honors, part of the annual Society of Professional Journalists’ Top of the Rockies contest, were announced last week at the Denver Press Club.  

NMID took first place in the legal enterprise and education enterprise reporting categories, according to SPJ. In the former, Jeff Proctor and Justin Howarth won for a three-story collaboration between NMID and the Santa Fe Reporter, Santa Fe’s alternative weekly newspaper, beating out the Salt Lake City Deseret News newspaper and Westword, an independent news outlet in Denver, for top honors. The series examined how an influential New Mexico powerbroker might have escaped a drunken driving charge in Albuquerque and disclosed that prosecutors had misled the public about a plea deal with the former Cabinet secretary in Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration.

The hygienist will see you now at Lynn Middle School

There was something poetic about Lynn Community Middle School’s dental clinic opening on Wednesday. That day the school hosted its monthly food pantry for neighborhood families. And it was the same day Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law House Bill 589, which sets up an initiative to take the community school model statewide. Every Wednesday, students at Lynn Middle School will be able to get preventive dental care right down the hall from their classrooms. The clinic is staffed by dental hygiene students from Doña Ana Community College. Those are just the kinds of things community schools are meant to do — bring social services to students so they can concentrate on learning, and become a resource for the surrounding community.

Legislature was good to young children, advocates say

Some children’s advocates are in an unusual position. After years of talk about state lawmakers taking a timid approach to early childhood education and child well-being, they say there were big wins from the just concluded legislative session. The biggest they cite is approval of a new Cabinet-level Early Childhood Education and Care Department. But when it comes to the incremental funding approach the state continues to take for programs serving children under 5, the assessment was mixed. Amber Wallin, deputy director at New Mexico Voices for Children.

Renewable power plan aka ‘Energy Transition Act’ heads to governor

Solar panels at PNM’s Santa Fe Solar Center. It went online in 2015 and produces 9.5 megawatts, enough energy to power 3,850 average homes. New Mexico’s lawmakers have approved the Energy Transition Act, SB 489, committing the state to transitioning to 80 percent renewable power by 2040. The act also helps Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) with the costs of closing the San Juan Generating Station. It  directs $30 million toward the clean-up of the coal-fired power plant and the mine that supplies it and $40 million toward economic diversification efforts in that corner of the state and support for affected power plant employees and miners.

Immigration bill would change how law enforcement interacts with ICE

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.

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.

NM lawmakers pass high dollar education legislation

The House and Senate on Tuesday both overwhelmingly passed multimillion dollar education bills that are in large part an answer to the Yazzie Martinez funding lawsuit that found New Mexico was shortchanging at-risk students in violation of the state Constitution. The nearly identical bills, which will now have to be reconciled in a committee from both chambers, put about $337 million toward raises for teachers and other educators, extend the school year by 25 days for up to 91,000 elementary school students and more than double dollars dedicated to those at-risk students: low-income, English language learners and Native American students. “This bill is a once in a lifetime game-changer for all the students across the state. While many components of House Bill 5 address the requirements of the recent lawsuit, there are multiple dimensions that will have far reaching impact over decades to come,” House Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a co-sponsor of the bill, exhorted forcefully as she called for a vote. “For example, by doubling the at-risk funding factor, schools will make important decisions that will fit their students to help them be successful.”

The bill passed that chamber successfully by 53-14.

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.

School funding plan boosts all districts, but some more than others

Thursday evening, the House of Representatives voted 46-23 to approve a $7 billion state budget proposal, and the single-largest ticket item, no surprise, is public education. With a nearly half a billion dollar increase in spending proposed, the draft budget would funnel around $3.1 billion, up from $2.6 billion this year, into public school districts around the state starting July 1. The rising tide will lift nearly all boats in New Mexico, according to a spreadsheet that shows the extra funding school districts and charter schools could receive if the proposal clears the Legislature and earns Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s signature. If you want to see to how much your local district could see in new education dollars, check out the chart we’ve embedded below this story. All told, school districts around the state would see around a 19 percent bump in State Equalization Guarantee (SEG) money.