NM In Depth editors and reporters discuss 2024 legislative session outcomes

New Mexico In Depth reporter Bella Davis joined Executive Director Trip Jennings and Managing Editor Marjorie Childress on Tuesday for a chat about the 2024 legislative session, which ended Feb. 15. 

Childress began by reminding everyone that all bills passed by the Legislature are still subject to vetoes from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Jennings added that the $10.2 billion dollar state budget and $1 billion dollar capital outlay legislation are subject to line item vetoes. That’s because they appropriate money and the state constitution gives a governor the power to eliminate words, passages and individual appropriations in any bill that spends state money. 

The audience asked what New Mexico In Depth was least happy about coming out of the session. “I’m upset that I don’t know more about how much money lobbyists spend on lawmakers,” Jennings said.

Legislature calls on attorney general to create new missing and murdered Indigenous people task force

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T). The New Mexico Legislature has asked Attorney General Raúl Torrez to create a new task force focused on a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people after a memorial containing the request passed in the final hour of the legislative session, which concluded at noon today.Senate Joint Memorial 2 cleared the House on Thursday morning after passing in the Senate last week. 

A spokeswoman for Torrez didn’t respond to a question from New Mexico In Depth about whether he plans to act on lawmakers’ request. Unlike a bill, the memorial isn’t enforceable. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham quietly dissolved a task force dedicated to finding solutions to the crisis in mid-2023. 

Her staff said the group achieved its objectives and the state is carrying forward its recommendations. But some task force members believed their work was just beginning, and a handful of impacted families protested the governor’s decision in October.

Tribal education trust fund is dead, legislative sponsor says

The sponsor of a proposal to create a trust fund that would’ve given tribes in New Mexico millions of dollars to build education programs said Wednesday that he is pulling the bill from the Senate, meaning it is effectively dead. 

With less than 24 hours in the 2024 legislative session, Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from Sandia Pueblo, says he decided to pull House Bill 134 after learning a number of amendments were going to be introduced on the Senate floor. 

The proposal would have created a trust fund with a $50 million appropriation, generating interest for the 23 tribes in New Mexico to spend on language programs and other needs related to education. It garnered bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, and a number of tribal leaders, Indigenous students, and educators spoke about how impactful it would be at committee hearings throughout the legislative session. But how the money would be distributed was the source of significant debate this year — and in the 2023 legislative session, when Lente unsuccessfully pushed for the fund. The Navajo Nation in particular had concerns about how to ensure the funds were distributed equitably. 

“As much as I thought that we were good to go and how it’s received so much support through the House process and even through Senate Finance,” Lente said, “we’ve come to a point where the discussion amongst tribes is a bit too great for me to want to comfortably have that discussion publicly in the Senate and I don’t think it’s fair for tribes to be put in that position.”Lente would not say where the Senate amendments came from and what they would do. But he said he’s asked Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth to not pull it up for debate in the Senate “out of respect for the tribes.” 

“I want to make sure that I respect 100% the tribal sovereignty of each pueblo, nation and tribe in New Mexico.

Governor says she’ll push for tribal education trust fund

As New Mexico lawmakers decide how to prioritize spending during another year of historic revenue, Pueblo leaders say they “do not appreciate” being forced to choose between a tribal education trust fund and money for infrastructure on tribal lands. 

A letter Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent late last week asking for their input on funding priorities put them in that position, they told her in a letter Wednesday. Having to pick one or the other is “fundamentally wrong and adverse to the commitments of partnership that we have made with you and state legislative leadership,” wrote the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 19 Pueblos in New Mexico and one in Texas. 

Instead, each initiative should be funded at $50 million, the council wrote. 

In response to questions from New Mexico In Depth on Thursday, the governor’s office provided the letter from the council and said the governor will work with the Legislature to deliver on the council’s request. 

It’s the first indication that Lujan Grisham will back the trust fund proposal, which would give tribes more money and control over how they educate their own children. 

But it’s not a total win. 

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, stands in his office at the Roundhouse on Jan. 25, 2023. Lente, chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, is sponsoring a proposal designed to give tribes more money and control over the education of Indigenous children. Credit: Bella Davis/New Mexico In Depth

The fund’s sponsor, Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, is seeking a $100 million trust fund, rather than $50 million. 

The House Budget includes $50 million, following the Legislative Finance Committee’s recommendation before the legislative session began.

House budget leaves out money for state employees to focus on missing and murdered Indigenous people

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T). A proposed bureau within the Indian Affairs Department focused on a crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people might be in peril. 

At issue is how much money the Legislature will give the department.The Legislature’s budget-making Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) says the department, which has a 40% vacancy rate, should use its existing personnel budget to staff up the new bureau. (About 18% of positions across state government were vacant in fiscal year 2022, according to a 2023 report from the LFC to state lawmakers.)But a department spokesman said the agency wants to both create new staff positions to carry out a state response plan the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force issued in 2022 and fill the existing vacancies. Officials announced their plan to seek funding for more staffers after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration was criticized for quietly disbanding the task force last year. 

The proposed state budget the House passed Wednesday, however, followed the recommendation of the LFC, and only included $120,000 extra — enough to hire one full-time employee — instead of the $600,000 the agency sought. 

Spokesman Aaron Lopez told New Mexico In Depth the department won’t hire more staff to concentrate on missing and murdered Indigenous people unless they get more money. Some of the state task force’s recommendations could be achieved by passing new laws but during this legislative session and last year’s, legislation directly responding to the crisis has been sparse. 

Asked in December if the department would be advocating for any legislation this year to address the crisis, Secretary-designate Josett Monette, then the deputy secretary, only mentioned the request for additional employees.

Lawmakers want attorney general to create new task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T). Five New Mexico lawmakers want the state attorney general to establish a task force focused on missing and murdered Indigenous people. 

They’ve made the request via Senate Joint Memorial 2, which they introduced this week. The memorial puts on display the disagreement some lawmakers have with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s quiet shuttering last year of a task force dedicated to finding solutions to what’s been identified as a national crisis. Indigenous women in the state, according to the memorial, have the highest homicide rate among all ethnic groups. Because this year’s 30-day session is reserved for putting together the state budget in addition to whatever priorities the governor pinpoints, the lawmakers were limited to proposing a memorial, which is not legally binding. 

Task force members decried the governor’s disbanding of their group last year, telling New Mexico In Depth in October their work was just beginning.

Controversial Indian Affairs secretary leaving agency

This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists: Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T). After a tumultuous tenure as Indian Affairs Secretary-designate, James Mountain is departing the agency to join Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office as her senior policy advisor for tribal affairs, her spokeswoman announced Friday. Deputy Secretary Josett Monette will replace Mountain as Indian Affairs cabinet secretary. 

Mountain’s departure comes about 10 months after several members of a state task force on missing and murdered Indigenous people — housed in the Indian Affairs Department — denounced his appointment. Since then, the governor has steadfastly rebuffed demands from task force members and some state lawmakers to replace Mountain.It was unclear why Mountain departed and whose decision it was: Mountain’s or the governor’s. Cabinet secretaries serve at the pleasure of the governor.

Searching for answers at Missing in New Mexico Day

Darian Nevayaktewa went missing 15 years ago from northeastern Arizona. He was 19 and living in New Mexico with his mother, Lynette Pino. But it was during a summer visit to the Hopi reservation where his father lived that he disappeared after going to a gathering and never coming home. 

Pino hasn’t stopped looking for answers about what happened to her son. 

“We take it one day at a time and just pray that one of these days something will come out,” Pino said. 

Her search brought her from Tesuque Pueblo to Albuquerque on Sunday for the second annual Missing in New Mexico Day. Nearly 200 Native Americans are missing from the state and the Navajo Nation, according to an FBI list last updated in November. While geared toward people missing from New Mexico, Pino, who also attended last year, said the event provides face-to-face conversations with law enforcement and information about resources like search and rescue teams. After winter, she hopes to be able to organize another search for her son. 

Over the past decade and a half, she’s struggled to get the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which still lists her son’s case as open on its website, to communicate with her. 

From unanswered calls to dismissed concerns and victim blaming, dealing with law enforcement is one of the main obstacles in getting justice for missing or murdered relatives, Indigenous families say.

New Mexico isn’t doing enough to end missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis, lawmakers say

Lawmakers and advocates this week said an advisory council on missing and murdered Indigenous people Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration announced Tuesday isn’t a good replacement for a task force disbanded earlier this year, and questioned why state officials aren’t asking for more money to confront the crisis. Asked by lawmakers Tuesday about what the state is doing, Indian Affairs Secretary-designate James Mountain pointed in part to the advisory council, which he said will hold state agencies accountable as they carry out recommendations made last year by the defunct task force. 

But Mountain’s update didn’t satisfy lawmakers or Indigenous families who have lost loved ones. 

“We’re fighting for our families,” Vangie Randall-Shorty told Mountain and other officials during public comment of the Legislature’s Indian Affairs Committee in Albuquerque. Her son, Zachariah Juwaun Shorty, was found dead from gunshot wounds on the Navajo Nation in July 2020. “These are human beings and you don’t take this serious. Come on, get it together for us.

Lawmakers gave the attorney general $1 million in 2022 to help find missing Indigenous people. The money hasn’t been spent. 

Nearly two years after state lawmakers set aside $1 million for the New Mexico Attorney General’s office to create an online portal to track cases of missing Indigenous people, and potentially give tribes grants to help in that search, the office hasn’t spent the money. Lawmakers in early 2022 considered the need so great they attached an emergency clause to the legislation, meaning then-Attorney General Hector Balderas could have started spending the money that February instead of months later, the usual practice for most new laws. 

An audit of programs completed earlier this year, though, revealed the funds weren’t used while Balderas was in office, according to Lauren Rodriguez, communications director for Balderas’ successor, Raúl Torrez. Balderas couldn’t be reached for comment. 

Despite Torrez taking over more than 10 months ago, the money continues to sit untouched. Part of the reason, according to Rodriguez, is that about six months after lawmakers appropriated the money for the attorney general’s office, the FBI created a database of Indigenous people missing from New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, to which all law enforcement agencies, including tribal, can submit information. But other provisions in the statute haven’t been met, either.