NM Corrections Dept. gets interim secretary; search for permanent boss continues

A cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Corrections remains one of the few holes in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s leadership team as she approaches the end of her fourth month in office. Alisha Tafoya Lucero was named interim Corrections secretary on April 9. The first-term Democrat thought she’d filled the post in late January when she named Julie Jones, former boss of the Florida prison system. But Jones backed out in late February, citing “unexpected personal issues in my life that prevent me from being able to move to New Mexico.”

Jones would have succeeded David Jablonski, who served as Corrections secretary from November 2016 through Dec. 31, 2018, former Gov. Susana Martinez’ last day in office.

NMID’s Trip Jennings receives NM First award for excellence

NMID Executive Director Trip Jennings

New Mexico In Depth Executive Director Trip Jennings has received the Spirit of Journalistic Excellence award from the nonpartisan, statewide public-policy organization New Mexico First, an organization known for convening town halls around the state to build consensus on pressing public issues. “New Mexico First is proud to recognize lawmakers, journalists and community leaders who put the people of New Mexico first and work to find good solutions to the challenges we face,” said former state senator Cynthia Nava, selection committee chair, in a news release. “This award shines the spotlight on hard-working role models who put good policy or fair coverage above partisan politics.”

“I’m humbled by the award,” Jennings said, “which is both an honor and a reminder of the necessity of journalism that is both vigorous and thoughtful, and that grounds public debates in people’s lives and the communities they live in rather than the fickle winds of partisan politics.”

Trip started his career in Georgia at his hometown newspaper, The Augusta Chronicle. Since then he’s worked at newspapers in California, Florida and Connecticut. Trip moved to New Mexico in 2005 and has worked for the Albuquerque Journal, The New Mexico Independent and the Santa Fe New Mexican covering everything from political corruption and how political decisions are made to the challenges confronted by those without political power when they seek change.

Gov vetoes probation, parole reforms — with some reluctance

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has vetoed a set of reforms to the state’s probation and parole systems that would have, among other changes, reduced the number of “technical violations” that could land someone back behind bars and required the Parole Board to detail denials for those sentenced to 30-years-to-life who are seeking release. The move comes after state Attorney General Hector Balderas and New Mexico’s 14 district attorneys pushed back against the bill in a letter to the governor as this year’s 60-day legislative session came to a close last month. The prosecutors argued that House Bill 564, if signed into law, “poses a significant public safety risk.”

Lujan Grisham’s veto message is time-stamped Thursday at 11:12 p.m.

“It’s something we’re not necessarily happy about,” Lujan Grisham’s spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, told New Mexico In Depth Friday morning. Changes sought through the bill “will be aggressively and expeditiously addressed in the interim with the DAs and the attorney general. The governor has that full expectation.”

In her veto message, Lujan Grisham sided with HB564’s sponsors — Republican Sen. Sander Rue and Democratic representatives Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Gail Chasey — in pointing out that the prosecutors waited until after the session to complain about the bill.

Governor signs into law legislation to prevent another behavioral health scandal

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.

Oil and gas had little to fear during legislative session

Storage facilities in the Permian Basin. Photo by Elizabeth Miller. Stepping to the microphone at a press conference wrapping up this year’s legislative session, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, hammered the podium to the drum beat for Queen’s “We Will Rock You” before declaring it the “best, most productive” legislative session in state history. He proclaimed major achievements in education funding, criminal justice reform, a path for carbon-free electricity — and a bill that would save 100,000 acre feet of water each year from use in oil fields. “The produced water bill, I think, is going to go down as one of the greatest environmental accomplishments to come out of the state legislature of New Mexico,” Egolf said.

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.

Spokesman: NM Gov will sign solitary confinement reform, ‘ban the box’ bills

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will sign a bill reforming the way solitary confinement is used in the state’s jails and prisons and another that restricts when private employers can ask job seekers about their past criminal records, her spokesman told New Mexico In Depth on Tuesday. The first-term, Democratic governor is still reviewing — in a few cases, with some consternation — a handful of other criminal justice reforms lawmakers passed during the recently concluded 60-day legislative session, said Tripp Stelnicki, Lujan Grisham’s communications director. Solitary confinement has been a heated issue in New Mexico for years, bringing multi-million-dollar lawsuit settlements and allegations of human rights abuses against inmates in the state. Four Democrats sponsored House Bill 364, defining solitary confinement as holding someone in a cell alone for 22 or more hours a day “without daily, meaningful and sustained human interaction.” Lujan Grisham’s signature will limit the instances in which state and county jailers use solitary on juveniles, people living with mental illness and pregnant women. The new law also will bring some transparency to the use of solitary.

Institute will take effort to combat child trauma statewide

Las Cruces City Councilor Kasandra Gandara is bringing together behavioral health, education, community organizing, child wellbeing and health groups in an effort to gather data on Adverse Childhood Experiences and use that information to combat childhood trauma. Tackling childhood trauma in a data-driven, community-based fashion went from an idea to an institute within the space of a year. Las Cruces City Councilor Kasandra Gandara knew from her years as a social worker at the Children Youth and Families Department that even front line workers in child protective services, faced with the hardest cases of abuse and neglect, were not aware of or trained in the theory of Adverse Childhood Experiences and the lifelong effects they have on health and learning. So when she read the book, “Anna, Age Eight: The Data-driven Prevention of Childhood Trauma and Maltreatment,” written by Katherine Ortega Courtney and Dominic Cappello, from research done at CYFD, she embarked on a mission to use data to prevent the heart-breaking instances of abuse she witnessed first-hand in Las Cruces and Dona Ana County. That project has grown swiftly.

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.

Lujan Grisham vetting capital outlay, including small projects

In the wake of the 2019 legislative session, people across New Mexico are taking stock of how much Legislature-approved money to fund infrastructure will end up in their communities. There’s a lot of it–$933 million in the main capital outlay bill and an additional $60 million in “junior” spending bills drafted after lawmakers realized how flush the state is in oil money. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until April 5th to sign legislation. Before she signs off on the infrastructure spending, called capital outlay, it’s possible she’ll use her line item veto authority to strike some of the projects. She asked state agencies to “vet” projects, according to an email sent last week to potential recipients by the Department of Finance and Administration.