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.

New teachers would need training in teaching ESL students under bill

If the bills that deal with education in this legislative session were snowflakes, we’d have a blizzard in the Roundhouse. There are more than 100 bills dealing with K-12 education alone. Higher education, early education and other extracurriculars double that number. But there’s a whole subset of bills that aim to tailor New Mexico’s education system to its diverse student body, especially Hispanic, Native American and English learner students. The bills would ensure students have access to bilingual and multicultural education, teachers who look like them and social services so that disadvantaged students thrive when they are sitting at their desks.

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.

Oil Conservation Division could issue fines again under legislation

For the last decade, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division has been like a traffic cop that can’t write speeding tickets. That’s the metaphor advocates give for a bill that would reinstate the division’s right to issue fines for bad actors, which, amid booming oil business in the southeastern parts of the state and an increase in spills documented by the department, have hovered near zero. The state’s highest court in 2009 ruled the division couldn’t issue fines because the Oil and Gas Act didn’t grant it that authority. “If you look at the way the penalties were collected, it basically fell off a cliff, and the last administration didn’t show any interest in actually enforcing our oil and gas regulations, so I think it’s time that we stepped up and got back to doing that,” said Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe. McQueen and Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, are cosponsoring SB 186, legislation that would empower the Oil Conservation Division to once again issue fines.

Bill tackles child care ‘cliff effect’ by expanding eligibility

Preschool teacher Brittany Polanco does an evaluation of a student at Alpha School in Las Cruces for
the New Mexico Pre-K program. Most government safety net programs like welfare, Medicaid and food stamps have a “cliff effect.” It’s when someone gets a raise at work that makes them ineligible for financial help from the government, and they lose benefits that are more valuable than that bump in salary. Most benefit cliffs are fairly small, but the one for child care assistance in New Mexico looks like Wile E. Coyote just chased the Roadrunner off a mesa. Advocates for working families are hoping to change that financial cliff in child care assistance into a glide path for parents who are working toward financial security. New Mexico Voices for Children said its data shows that nine out of 10 people who get help with childcare costs from the Children Youth and Families Department are single parents with two kids.

Effort continues to make “super secret” capital outlay list public

The House made quick work last week passing a measure that would lift a veil of secrecy on how individual lawmakers allocate capital infrastructure money under their control. Currently, New Mexico is the only state in the nation that allows legislators to divvy up among themselves a big chunk of infrastructure money to direct to projects as they see fit. And it allows them to keep secret which projects they choose to fund, although the information is readily available in an existing database. Sen. Sander Rue discusses capital outlay transparency with the Senate Rules committee in 2018, during which rural legislators explained their reservations about the measure. Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, called it the “super-secret private list which is the one that actually appropriates the money” last year during a Senate Rules Committee debate on the issue.

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.

Lawmakers seek safe passage on highways for wildlife, drivers

Drive a rural highway, particularly in the colder months and at dusk or after dark, and the primary road game often comes down to dodging deer. Each year, drivers lose that fight, and vehicles collide with animals at least 1,600 times, according to New Mexico Department of Transportation. The department estimates that tally of officially reported accidents underrepresents the problem by half. “You stand a chance of hitting a large game animal virtually anywhere in the state,” says Mark Watson, terrestrial habitat specialist with the Department of Game and Fish. The Transportation Department’s 2016 report found 738 instances of serious injury or fatality from 2002 to 2016 as a result of these accidents.

Big push is on for early education funding from school permanent fund

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is proposing $60 million more this year for early childhood education — part of a five-year plan to make access to preschool in New Mexico available to all 3- and 4-year-olds. Legislation has been introduced that expands the prekindergarten program in public schools and adds preschool classrooms to the school building fund. With a $1.1 billion surplus to ease financial pressures, both the governor and Legislature are proposing a huge boost in dollars meant for public schools. Given all that, does it still make sense to pursue the long-fought goal to tap the $17.5 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to help pay for early childhood education in New Mexico? The governor, for one, says yes.