New Mexico’s inaugural use of a nonpartisan committee in the once-a-decade political tradition that will reshape state elections for the next 10 years could mark a milestone Friday. The seven-member committee created by state lawmakers earlier this year is scheduled to select maps that would redraw the boundaries of legislative and congressional political districts and send them on to New Mexico’s 112 state lawmakers. The process is undertaken after each U.S. Census to ensure political districts represent roughly the same number of people.New Mexico’s new Citizens Redistricting Committee’s recommendations are non-binding. State lawmakers will decide whether to accept or reject them and approve different plans when they meet in Santa Fe in December. But the committee’s monthslong process of collecting public input from hundreds of New Mexicans and disparate groups provides a window into choices before the Legislature.
While nearly a third of New Mexico’s state prisoners who disclosed where they were living prior to incarceration gave Albuquerque addresses, in the country’s once-a-decade census they’re counted as living in smaller towns and rural areas.Roughly a quarter of New Mexico’s population lives in Albuquerque, so it’s no surprise to find a prevalence of residents from New Mexico’s largest city in the corrections system.But corrections data obtained by New Mexico In Depth suggest the city’s voting power is diffused to smaller towns and rural areas where New Mexico’s prisons are, a practice criminal justice reform advocates refer to as “prison gerrymandering.” That’s where prison communities — often rural, and nationally, more white — benefit as prisoners from elsewhere increase their populations without being able to vote. Advocates are pushing New Mexico to end the practice in coming months as the state’s new Citizen Redistricting Committee, and state lawmakers, participate in a once-a-decade redistricting that will shape New Mexico’s political landscape for years to come.
And at least one says the last addresses inmates give corrections officials as they enter prison could achieve that goal.The ideal solution would be for the Corrections Department to hand over the same records it gave to New Mexico In Depth to the Citizen Redistricting Committee, said Mario Jimenez, campaign director of Common Cause New Mexico. If the committee were to request those records, the Corrections Department “would absolutely share that with them,” spokesman Eric Harrison wrote in an email.
Samantha Osaki, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said ending the practice of counting prisoners in the areas they’re imprisoned would create a more equitable redistricting process.“Bernalillo County residents who are already suffering from the loss of parents, friends and neighbors due to mass incarceration then doubly suffer from the loss of political representation,” Osaki said. New Mexico In Depth obtained the last addresses of 5,082 inmates after filing a records request. The Corrections Department initially refused to disclose the information but turned the records over after the New Mexico Attorney General’s office found the department had denied the request improperly.
We are digesting the news this week that investigators at the Attorney General’s office suspect Democratic House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque funneled almost a million dollars of public money out of Albuquerque Public Schools, her employer, to benefit herself.
To learn that a trusted champion of under-served communities and one of the most powerful lawmakers in the state may have orchestrated a long-running scheme to grab a slice of public money for herself, is sad news. We are holding out hope that it’s not true, not one more tragic episode in the annals of corrupt New Mexico leaders. The investigation is laid out in a 32-page search warrant, centered on discoveries of money from a company with a sole source contract with the school district going to organizations or businesses she appears to have substantial control over.
Buried among the details in the damning search warrant is $50,000 in state capital outlay money that in 2007 Williams Stapleton directed to the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs to purchase and equip vans for the African American Performing Arts Center at the State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque. In a 2008 email between Williams Stapleton and Expo New Mexico, she explained the vans were for programs at the center. Their upkeep would be the responsibility of the Charlie Morrisey Education Center and a company called Robotics Learning Management Systems.
The search warrant makes the case that the Charlie Morrisey Education Center is an organization that Stapleton had substantial influence over, and that she directed capital outlay money to it.
Four candidates hope to fill New Mexico’s first congressional district seat vacated by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland this March. But voters had little say in who’s on the ballot.
That fell to a few hundred party insiders who picked candidates, one of whom will emerge victorious on June 1 to represent roughly 690,000 New Mexicans in Congress. In New Mexico, the organizing committees of political parties select their candidates for special elections, and this year’s process created a spectacle for both Democrats and the GOP. On the Republican side, a state senator offered to run two weeks before the selection and won the insider vote. On the Democratic side, candidates sought to get their supporters elected to their party’s selection committee, then garner support from a majority of those 200 insiders.
Government transparency is more than good, it’s essential. The dark corners of government make it difficult for the people (as in, all of us) to exercise our right and our duty to ensure those we elect are governing in our best interest.
In a cash-strapped state like New Mexico, transparency in how elected officials spend public money is even more important. For that reason, we applaud the publication of a list of how individual lawmakers spent public infrastructure funds under their control. Lawmakers have long resisted making that information public, but finally relented this year after sustained public pressure. We’ll be able to see the so-called capital outlay spending of individual lawmakers from now on.
Following the confirmation of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, New Mexico will hold a special election on June 1st to fill her seat representing the Albuquerque-centered first congressional district. But the public doesn’t get a say in who the nominees will be.
Rather than a primary election, state law allows the political parties themselves to select their own candidates. These choices are being made even while there’s been a gap in public disclosure of who’s contributed money to the various candidates.
Yesterday, the Republican state central committee, with less than 140 members, convened over Zoom to choose State Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, while about 25 members of the Libertarian Party chose Chris Manning.
The Democratic state central committee will select their candidate on Tuesday, a highly anticipated choice given the Democratic tilt in the district for more than a decade. Just over 200 people–– a smattering of local party members, elected officials and other party insiders–– will be eligible to vote for one of eight different candidates seeking the nomination. On March 23rd, the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County held a virtual candidate forum exclusively for their members.
Despite some early optimism from advocates, state lawmakers took a pass this year on requiring greater transparency around the work of lobbyists. In fact, lawmakers didn’t even give the topic a full hearing during the recent legislative session. That’s despite a significant lack of disclosure about how powerful lobbyists work to influence legislation in New Mexico. In a 2015 report, the Center for Public Integrity graded the state an “F” for lobbying disclosure, the 43rd worst in the country. It’s not improved since then. Drive a few hours north, and the sort of transparency proposed for New Mexico is just business as usual.
The Legislature concluded today, which also happens to be the final day of Sunshine Week, so it’s only fitting that we review a couple of transparency measures taken up by the Legislature.
In short: it’s a mixed bag. One prominent measure five years in the making passed, and if the governor signs the bill, lawmakers will no longer be able to allocate public works dollars in secret. But another measure that sought to fix a loophole in campaign finance disclosure laws was dead in the water.
Lawmakers shine light on themselves
Once a contentious measure among lawmakers, a bill that requires a list of how lawmakers allocate public infrastructure dollars be published on the legislative website sailed through the 2021 session. It’s momentous, considering the long history of secrecy surrounding how lawmakers decide what projects to fund. The public list will only pertain to projects this year and in the future.
The Senate passed a measure Wednesday that would enable New Mexicans for the first time to see how each lawmaker spends public infrastructure money under their control.
Should House members agree with Senate amendments, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sign it into law, the measure would require legislative staff to automatically publish a list 30 days after the session ends that details how individual lawmakers spend millions of dollars in most years — a far cry from the secrecy that has surrounded such decision making at the Roundhouse for as long as people can remember.
House Bill 55, sponsored by Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, sailed through the Senate after some debate, a much different outcome than in previous years.
In 2015, New Mexico In Depth discovered that such information was a secret after filing a public information request for a list of individual lawmaker’s infrastructure spending allocations and finding out that information wasn’t subject to public scrutiny. That’s because of a long established statute that makes confidential any communication between individual lawmakers and legislative staff. That statute still stands, but now, if the measure becomes law, details about lawmakers’ individual spending choices will be exempt from the rule.
During the February House floor debate on the bill, McQueen said it’s important to make the information readily available to everyone who’s interested. Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said during Wednesday floor debate in the Senate that making the allocations public was long overdue and “fundamentally the right thing to do.” He listed three reasons: it’s public money that the public has the right to see; making it public prevents fraud; and transparency will result in money better spent.
Since 2016 when the first bills were introduced by McQueen and former senator Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, the transparency measure has been hotly debated, with opposition largely hinging on the political costs to lawmakers if their spending decisions are known to the public. This concern has been voiced largely by rural lawmakers who represent multiple counties, who say they must juggle many more funding requests from their constituents than they can possibly fill.
But a 2019 investigation by New Mexico In Depth found the issue wasn’t a cut-and-dried example of a so-called rural/urban divide.
That year, we asked every lawmaker to give legislative staff permission to share their capital outlay allocations with the public.
The Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would close a “loophole” in the state’s transparency laws, and would require legislators running for federal office to disclose their contributions every 10 days during the legislative session. The loophole allows nonprofit organizations to avoid disclosing donors behind political spending if those giving the money requested in writing that their donations not be spent for political purposes, even if the group decides to use the money for politics anyway. The amended SB 387 ultimately passed the Senate on a 35-3 vote after clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee last Friday, where State Ethics Commission Executive Director Jeremy Farris spoke in favor of the bill. The bill now heads to the House for consideration. “I think it closes the gap,” said Farris, noting that Wirth’s bill was similar to recommendations the commission made in its 2020 annual report.