Lawmaker Calls For State Hiring Freeze, NM Braces For Budget Crunch

Feb 11, 2016

Lawmakers Calls For Freeze On State HiringAlbuquerque Journal

An influential lawmaker is calling for a freeze on hiring state workers and a ban on nonessential travel as New Mexico faces ongoing budget struggles.

The Albuquerque Journal reports Democrat John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, warned of more fiscal pain on the horizon and other lawmakers predicted a budget shortfall of up to $800 million this year.

Officials with the Department of Finance and Administration said it’s not yet certain there will be a shortfall. However, revenues from oil and gas, which fund a significant chunk of government operations, dropped by 32 percent in the first seven months of this fiscal year.

The House approved a $6.3 billion budget last weekend, but Senate Minority Whip Bill Payne from Albuquerque said he thinks lawmakers will have to return for a special session on the budget.

New Mexico Braces For Budget Crunch Linked To Oil PricesThe Associated Press

Leaders of the New Mexico Senate are urging state agencies to institute cost-saving measures and plan to rewrite a budget for next year approved by the Republican-controlled House in response to declining revenue forecasts.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith said Thursday that general fund reserves are likely to be drawn down during the current fiscal year and that revenues are no longer expected to increase next year.

Falling revenue expectations are linked to low energy prices and the New Mexico's dependence on oil and natural gas production to keep the government up and running.

The House has approved a $6.3 billion budget that increases spending by $81 million on Medicaid health care, early childhood education and prisons while cutting funding to state colleges and universities.

Grand Jury Probes Police Chief's Role In Taser DealThe Associated Press & The ABQ Journal

A grand jury is looking into a former Albuquerque Police Department chief's role in the $2 million contract the city awarded to Taser International to outfit officers with body cameras.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that subpoenas have been served on city officials requesting former Chief Ray Schultz's emails, payroll stubs and memos as well as other records. The grand jury is part of an investigation by the office of the Attorney General in the wake of a scathing state audit that suggested Schultz may have given Taser an unfair advantage when awarding the contract.

Schultz is now assistant police chief in Memorial Villages, Texas. He says he has spoken to legal counsel but feels confident that the grand jury will find there was ple

New Mexico Senate Dem Says REAL ID Bill Negotiations OngoingThe Associated Press

A key Senate Democrat says he is negotiating with a Republican colleague to resolve a conflict on a bill that would make New Mexico compliant with tougher federal identification requirements.

Sen. John Arthur Smith said Thursday senators still have not solved a dispute on whether to require immigrants in the country illegally should submit fingerprints before getting a "driver's authorization card."

A compromise proposal moving through New Mexico Senate would make the state compliant under the federal REAL ID Act. Immigrants living in the country illegally would be allowed to apply for that card but could no longer get a New Mexico driver's license.

However, House Republicans say the bill doesn't require fingerprints from immigrants and that provision might kill the bill.

Lawmakers have a week to resolve the matter before the session ends.

Report Says EPA Knew Mine Spill Was PossibleThe Associated Press

A U.S. House probe of a mine waste accident in Colorado that fouled rivers in three Western states has found further evidence that government workers knew a spill from the gold mine was possible.

A U.S. Environmental Protection agency official in charge of the site at the time of the August accident said in an email that he "personally knew" the plugged, inactive mine could contain large volumes of water.

The email from Hays Griswold was provided to The Associated Press by the House Natural Resources Committee.

An EPA cleanup crew triggered the spill during excavation work at the mine's entrance, unleashing a 3-million-gallon deluge that contaminated rivers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

An Interior Department investigation pinned responsibility on the EPA for not checking to see if the mine held pressurized water.

Education-Related Groups Lead Lobbying Efforts In New MexicoThe Associated Press

A new report shows retirees and teachers unions are among those who have had the widest lobbying presence at the New Mexico capitol in recent years.

The Center for Public Integrity analyzed lobbying registration data from 2010 through 2014.

In New Mexico, the list includes the New Mexico Association of Educational Retirees, AARP, the New Mexico chapter of the National Education Association, the League of Women Voters of New Mexico and the Realtors Association of New Mexico.

Nationally, the analysis also highlighted an 11 percent increase in the number of entities registered to lobby in the 50 states over the five-year period.

However, New Mexico is bucking that trend. A review of state data by The Associated Press shows there are fewer interest groups registered in New Mexico this year than in any year since 2013.

Congress Votes Final OK To Banning Local Internet TaxesThe Associated Press

Congress has voted to permanently bar state and local governments from taxing access to the Internet.

The Senate voted 75-20 Thursday to give final approval to the wide-ranging bill, which also revamps trade laws. President Barack Obama is expected to sign it.

The Internet tax prohibition has broad support, with few senators eager to oppose the election-year measure and open the door to taxing online access.

Still, some lawmakers are unhappy over the trade provisions and because the bill left out a separate, more controversial proposal to let states force online retailers to collect sales taxes for their transactions.

The bill would require the seven states currently imposing Internet access taxes to phase them out by mid-2020. They are Hawaii, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.

Spring Enrollment Down Slightly At University Of New MexicoThe Associated Press

University of New Mexico officials say enrollment is down slightly this spring but in line with projections.

Initial enrollment numbers for the spring semester show a total of 25,299 students.

The enrollment figure for spring 2015 was 25,816.

UNM officials say a record number of freshmen — more than 3,000 — returned for their second semester this school year.

More than 91 percent of those students are continuing into the spring semester on their way to completing their first year of college.

University president Robert Frank says that retention rate is a positive sign for future enrollment projections.

Grand Jury Investigating Former Police Chief Role In Taser Deal – Albuquerque Journal

A grand jury is looking into the role of Albuquerque’s former police chief in a sole-source contract between the city and Taser International.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that the review is part of an investigation by Attorney General Hector Balderas. The $2 million contract was to supply lapel cameras to officers.

State Auditor Tim Keller last year found that Ray Schultz potentially violated ethics rules by influencing that contract and then going to work as a consultant for Taser.

The city’s Inspector General’s Office also issued a report that found the deal had an “appearance of impropriety” according to the Journal.

Schultz is now assistant police chief in Memorial Gardens, Texas. He told the Journal he had already left APD when former chief Allen Banks signed the contract.

New Mexico Prison Guards Caution Against Tougher SentencesAssociated Press

New Mexico corrections officers and their union leaders are concerned that a slate of legislative proposals for tougher criminal sentencing could aggravate safety problems at understaffed state prisons.

Connie Derr speaks for a public employees' union overseeing about 9,000 state corrections workers. She said Wednesday that more funding will be needed to recruit and pay for corrections officers if the Legislature approves tougher sentencing provisions backed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

Corrections officers say they are working dangerously long hours to make up for vacant positions.

The House of Representatives has approved increased spending of $5.7 million on salaries for prison guards and supervisors next year at the New Mexico Corrections Department. Supporters of tougher sentencing provisions say that funding will address growth in the prison population.

New Mexico Official Blasts EPA Over Colorado Mine SpillAssociated Press

The head of the New Mexico Environment Department is blasting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying federal officials are downplaying the long-term effects of the Gold King Mine spill.

Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn on Wednesday told members of a state legislative committee that the agency plans to monitor water quality for one year to ensure it's safe for recreational use.

Flynn said the agency instead needs to treat the incident as a human health issue.

New Mexico announced last month it intends to sue the EPA, the state of Colorado and the owners of two Colorado mines over the Aug. 5 spill. The EPA claims a contractor accidentally unleashed more than 3 million gallons of contaminated water during a cleanup project.

The EPA did not immediately respond to Flynn's criticisms.

GOP Lawmaker Puts New Mexico Bail Bond Proposal On HoldAssociated Press

A Republican lawmaker has asked the House to suspend action on a proposed constitutional amendment he drafted to allow judges to deny bail to defendants deemed a flight-risk and danger to the public.

Rep. David Adkins' proposal had been scheduled for a state House floor vote Wednesday. It countered a version first put forward by Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, that has garnered some bipartisan support and endorsements from criminal defense and district attorneys associations, and judges.

Wirth proposes allowing judges to deny bail to certain defendants and grant pretrial release to those who aren't considered a danger but remain in jail because they can't afford bail.

Adkins said addressing pretrial release for poor, nonviolent offenders could wait. Bail bondsmen backed his proposal, indicating Wirth's bill would undermine their business, and pose unforeseen financial and public safety costs.

City of Albuquerque Sues Company Over Missing Bus Fare MoneyKRQE-TV

The city of Albuquerque is suing an armored car company it says stole bus fare money.

KRQE-TV reports the city claims Miracle Delivery Armored Services stole $250,000 over a number of years. The company was contracted to take the money to the bank for deposit.

The Texas-based company denied the charges in court documents. The city now uses another company and it also has city employees count the fare money.

Survey: Solar Workforce Grows In New Mexico Associated Press

State energy officials say the solar industry's workforce is growing in New Mexico.

The state Energy Conservation and Management Division teamed up with the nonprofit Solar Foundation to develop the solar jobs census for 2015. They found 299 jobs were added to the solar workforce last year.

As of November, a total of 1,899 workers were employed by the industry and solar companies said they expected to hire another 234 workers this year.

State Energy Secretary Dave Martin said job growth in the solar workforce is a signal that the state is diversifying its economy and its energy supply.

New Mexico House Approves Police Double Dipping BillAssociated Press

New Mexico's House of Representatives has approved provisions for some retired law enforcement officers to return to work while also receiving pension benefits.

The Democratic-led Senate has not yet voted on the double-dipping rules. Republican Gov. Susan Martinez supports the plan.

The legislation was designed to help Albuquerque's police force and other local law enforcement agencies address shortfalls in staffing and difficulties with recruiting new officers.

Rehired officers can make up not more than 10 percent of the workforce at any agency under the plan. They would continue to contribute to a state pension fund but would not be able to accrue additional pension benefits.

The Public Employee Retirement Association that manages officer pensions opposes the use of its benefits to address staff recruitment and retention issues.

Diocese Of Gallup To Get Ciudad Juarez Papal Mass Tickets Associated Press

The Diocese of Gallup says it also will be getting tickets to a Papal Mass in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Diocese spokeswoman Suzanne Hammons said Wednesday the diocese will get 200 tickets for an open-air Mass scheduled for Wednesday.

Ciudad Juarez, on Mexico's northern border across from El Paso, Texas, is the last stop in the pope's schedule 5-day visit to Mexico next week.

Pope Francis is slated to finish his Ciudad Juarez trip with the open-air Mass in a large field near Benito Juarez Stadium in Ciudad Juarez.

The Juarez Catholic Diocese said last week it also has designated 5,000 tickets for the Las Cruces Catholic Diocese and 10,000 for the El Paso Catholic Diocese.