DA with six-figure salary claims poverty, judge grants her free lawyer (updated)

Editor’s note:New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur told NMID reporter Jeff Proctor during an interview in late June that he knew nothing about a public defender being appointed for southern New Mexico district attorney Francesca Estevez. On Monday evening, Baur emailed to say, in fact, his office had hired a private attorney, Keren Fenderson, to file a motion on Estevez’s behalf without informing Estevez. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Baur confirmed that he was unaware of the arrangement at the time of the interview with Proctor. Francesca Estevez is too poor to pay for a lawyer. That’s according to state District Judge Douglas Driggers of Las Cruces, who made the finding in a May 1 court order appointing the public defender’s office to represent Estevez as prosecutors pursue alleged violations of the Government Misconduct Act against her.

Blistering brief accuses Legislature of shorting public schools

This legislative session, state lawmakers pumped nearly half a billion dollars into New Mexico’s public schools. The plaintiffs in a landmark education funding lawsuit have three words to say to that: 

It wasn’t enough. 

In a scorching court brief filed this morning, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents the plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez vs. State of New Mexico case, said almost all of the money appropriated by the Legislature is going toward teacher salary increases. That has left little or nothing to expand programs that were specifically promoted by Judge Sarah Singleton as ways to sufficiently and equitably educate low-income, Native American, English language learner students and those with disabilities, said the Center in the brief. 

The plaintiffs say the increase in education funding, when adjusted for inflation, still doesn’t bring the state back to pre-2008 funding levels. 

That puts the state in direct violation, they contend, of the court order that stipulates the state rectify a failure in its constitutional duty to educate children. Lauren Winkler, staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty

“Unfortunately, the Legislative Finance Committee made financial decisions before education policy could be designed, so that led us to where we are now,” Lauren Winkler, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, told NMID.

Lawmakers drill down on response to education lawsuit

Lawmakers got a status report of sorts on New Mexico’s response to a landmark education court decision last year when members of the Legislative Education Study Committee met Wednesday in Santa Teresa. After a day of hearing from rural superintendents, the Transform Education NM coalition that formed after the lawsuit, and deputies from the Public Education Department about progress made toward resolving the state’s failures in educating at-risk children, it’s clear there are still a lot of questions.  

Much of the discussion centered on implementation of new laws and how additional money lawmakers appropriated this year is being spent. Committee members generally were happy with teacher raises, but had pointed questions about the roll out of extended learning time programs, the way some districts handled raises and how money was being spent. 

“Let’s talk about the students first. We’ve increased funding for at-risk, ELLs, special ed. That’s trickling down to the districts and I hope it’s something positive,” said Rep. Raymundo Lara of Chamberino, whose district includes the Gadsden schools where the meeting was held.

Lobbying influence game largely in the dark

A reporter sits at her desk looking at a spreadsheet. The rows and columns show the spending lobbyists reported to the Secretary of State’s Office for the first five months of 2019, which includes the 60-day legislative session.  She wants to tell a story about what that spending bought. But there’s only so much to glean, because so much isn’t reported. That was me the other day.

Police Watchdog raises concerns over State Police ‘Surge’ in ABQ

A member of Albuquerque’s official police watchdog group is questioning the tactics and results of the recent “Metro Surge Operation,” in which 50 New Mexico State Police officers flooded the city ostensibly to help fight violent crime. “This is the perfect atmosphere, the perfect storm for civil rights violations, and it completely undermines the serious energy people have invested in police reform in Albuquerque,” Chelsea Van Deventer of the Albuquerque Police Oversight Board told New Mexico In Depth earlier this week. Homicides and non-fatal shootings have gone up in Albuquerque in recent months, including the high-profile murder of a University of New Mexico baseball player outside a Nob Hill bar last month. In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mayor Tim Keller, both Democrats, agreed on the “surge,” with Keller’s office saying publicly the operation would focus on “targeting violent crime in Albuquerque.”

The results, according to a KOAT-TV story, have not matched the stated goal. The station reported 452 arrests by State Police during the operation; 300 people were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor crimes.

After initial bump, CYFD proposes tighter eligibility for child care help

When NM In Depth reported on a settlement earlier this month in a lawsuit against the Children Youth and Families Department over its policies on child care assistance, a big money question was left hanging. CYFD agreed to temporarily bump initial eligibility for child care subsidies to families earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level, from 150%, but the department would need supplementary funding if it was going to keep it at that level. Part of the settlement with OLÉ and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty also said the department needed to come up with new eligibility rules within 90 days, and give the public a chance to weigh in. This week the department posted those proposed changes — taking eligibility to apply for assistance to just 160% of the federal poverty level. Those who already have the benefit would continue to keep it until they reach 200% of FPL.

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.