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FRI: Election certifications going smoothly, NM AG to be next Pres. at NNMC, + More

Election_Certification
Scott Sonner/AP
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AP
Signs are displayed outside the Washoe County Commission chambers to demand a hand count of ballots before commissioners were scheduled to canvass the vote in Reno, Nev., Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. Across the country, election certifications have gone smoothly, with little controversy despite troubles earlier this year. (AP Photo/Scott Sonner)

Election certification proceeding smoothly, avoiding chaos — Morgan Lee, Scott Sonner, Associated Press

Certification of this year's midterm election results appears to be proceeding smoothly with little controversy across the country, calming fears that local commissions consumed by talk of election conspiracies would create chaos by refusing to validate the will of the voters.

Action has been orderly even in places where suspicions about election fairness ran deep and led to bitter clashes at local public meetings.

Friday was the last day to certify for counties in Nevada, a state that has been a hotbed of election conspiracy accusations and movements to ditch voting machines in favor of hand-counting all ballots. Still, all 17 counties were on pace to certify their results by the end of the day.

In rural Elko County, the county commission unanimously certified the results just weeks after questioning the reliability of voting machines and expressing support for hand-counting all ballots.

Commissioners praised county Clerk Kris Jakeman for a post-election audit that included random hand-counts backing up the results from machine tabulators. Some commissioners had watched the audit and said it helped relieve some of their skepticism.

"I've learned a lot this year," said Commissioner Delmo Andreozzi. "And I appreciate everybody's willingness to help educate me and help me become more aware about the whole process."

It was much the same story in New Mexico, where several rural county commissions have been under intense pressure by some residents to reject certification since the state's primary election in June.

In Otero County, where a crisis occurred this summer when commissioners initially denied certification after the primary, the general election results were certified this week with a drama-free unanimous vote.

"In my heart of hearts, I think Otero County does a good job," Commission Chairwoman Vickie Marquardt said. "I have no reason not to certify this election."

In another rural New Mexico county, where a livid crowd in June berated county commissioners as "cowards" and "traitors" as they certified the primary results, the room fell silent this week as the all-Republican board pored over vote tallies and signatures from poll judges. Commissioners peppered Torrance County election officials with questions before voting 3-0 to certify.

The commission had spent months responding to doubts about voting systems with a hand recount of the primary ballots and invitations to attend security testing of ballot-counting machines.

"I'm not seeing any discrepancies, commissioners. Are you?" Republican commission Chairman Ryan Schwebach told colleagues. He won reelection to the local post with roughly two-thirds of the vote, defeating a challenger who said vote-counting machines can't be trusted.

Conspiracy-focused protesters rallied Friday outside an election board meeting in Reno, Nevada, with signs reading "Don't certify before hand count" and "We the people demand hand count." Despite the protests, the Washoe County commission voted 4-1 to certify the results.

County Commissioner Jeanne Herman, who represents the most rural part of the county, which stretches north to the border with Oregon, cast the lone dissenting vote. She made a failed attempt earlier this year to push an election reform package that, among other things, would have posted National Guard troops at polling places and relied almost exclusively on paper ballots.

Christiane Brown, a Reno gun control activist, told the commission that the system worked this year, and even most candidates who had embraced the 2020 election falsehoods conceded defeat.

"Denying results does not change them," she said. "The people rejected lies, disinformation, intimidation and ignorance, as well as hatred. The voters spoke, the system worked, and the rule of law held."

In Arizona, the state's 15 counties are just beginning to certify their election results and have until Nov. 28 to do their canvass and send final vote tallies to the secretary of state. Kari Lake, the Republican who lost the race for governor, has refused to concede and in a Thursday video said she has a team of lawyers reviewing whether Election Day issues at the polls disenfranchised some voters.

Despite the potential for legal action, there was no indication that any county might vote against the certification that will be needed before a recount can proceed in the race for state attorney general, which is too close to call.

Under Arizona law, the only role of the elected county boards is to accept the numbers as they are tallied by their elections departments. If they refuse to do so, either the secretary of state or a candidate would sue.

Election certification emerged as an issue after the 2020 presidential election in Michigan, where Trump and his allies pressured Republicans on both the state certification board and the one for Wayne County, which includes Detroit. The results, showing Democrat Joe Biden winning the state by 154,000 votes, were eventually certified.

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said her office anticipates having no problems with certification of the Nov. 8 general election. By midday Friday, 65 of the state's 83 counties had certified results.

"More Michigan citizens cast ballots than ever before in a midterm election, and now bipartisan canvassing boards across the state are certifying the results in accordance with state law," said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. "We are optimistic that all canvassers will continue to demonstrate this level of professionalism and commitment to upholding the will of the voters."

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Sonner reported from Reno, Nevada. Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Gabe Stern in Reno; and Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this report.

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Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP's election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.

New Mexico attorney general selected as college president — Associated Press

Outgoing New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has been selected as the next president at Northern New Mexico College.

He was the unanimous choice as the school's board of regents voted Thursday. Balderas was among four finalists for the position following a monthslong national search.

The next step will be contract negotiations between the college and Balderas, who will finish his second term as the state's top prosecutor at the end of the year. In a statement issued Friday, Balderas said it will be an honor to work with the regents, faculty and staff to take the institution into the future and build on student successes.

"I'm inspired that the community was involved in the selection process. They have hope for change," Balderas said.

The finalists visited the campus earlier this fall and spent two days interviewing with students, faculty, staff, alumni and others during a series of community forums.

Board of Regents President Michael Martin said Balderas, who grew up in the rural community of Wagon Mound, identified strongly with the college community during his visit last month.

The other finalists included Patricia Trujillo, the deputy secretary of the state's Higher Education Department; Bruno Hicks, vice president of academic affairs at Dalton State College in Georgia; and Southern Illinois University professor of applied psychology Yueh-Ting Lee.

Barbara Medina has led the college on an interim basis since the departure of Rick Bailey, who left in January to become president of Southern Oregon University.

US gives protections to rare Midwest bird as prairie suffers - Associated Press

The U.S. government announced protections Thursday for two populations of a rare prairie bird that's found in parts of the Midwest, including one of the country's most prolific oil and gas fields.

The lesser prairie chicken's range covers a portion of the oil-rich Permian Basin along the New Mexico-Texas state line and extends into parts of Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. The habitat of the bird, a type of grouse, has diminished across about 90% of its historical range, officials said.

"The lesser prairie-chicken's decline is a sign our native grasslands and prairies are in peril," said Amy Lueders, Southwest regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The crow-size, terrestrial birds are known for spring courtship rituals that include flamboyant dances by the males as they make a cacophony of clucking, cackling and booming sounds. They were once thought to number in the millions, but now, surveys show, the five-year average population across the entire range hovers around 30,000.

Environmentalists have sought stronger federal protections for decades. They consider the species severely at risk due to oil and gas development, livestock grazing, farming and the building of roads and power lines.

Republicans in Congress said greater protections weren't needed and the government instead should rely on voluntary conservation efforts already in place. Kansas' newly elected Republican attorney general promised to challenge the Fish and Wild Life Service's decision in court once he takes office in January.

The decision covers the grouse's southern population in New Mexico and the southern reaches of the Texas Panhandle, where they are considered endangered, and their northern range, where they received the less severe "threatened" status. The rule takes effect in late January.

Landowners and the oil and gas industry say they have had success with voluntary conservation programs aimed at protecting habitat and boosting the bird's numbers.

But population estimates reveal that the southern areas have lower resiliency and may have as few as 5,000 birds remaining, with the estimates dropping to as low as 1,000 in 2015 and 2022 following drought conditions, officials said.

The federal government in 2014 classified the bird as a threatened species, but was forced to reverse that two years later after court rulings determined the agency didn't properly consider the voluntary conservation efforts.

Landowners and oil companies already participating in such programs won't be affected by Thursday's decision because they have been taking steps to protect habitat, officials have said. It prevents activities that result in the loss or degradation of existing habitat.

More than 9,375 square miles were covered by conservation agreements as of last spring.

"In their final rule, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first commended landowners' voluntary efforts to increase lesser prairie-chicken populations in Kansas, and then unilaterally decided that the federal government is better equipped to address these local areas," Kansas Republican Rep. Tracey Mann of Kansas said in a statement.

A 2014 Kansas law says the state has the sole power to regulate the species — along with the larger, darker and more abundant greater prairie chicken — and their habitats within state limits. It authorizes the attorney general or county prosecutors to sue over any federal attempt to enforce conservation measures.

Kansas Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach — a strong advocate of the 2014 state law when it was enacted — had predicted during his campaign this year that President Joe Biden's administration would act on the lesser prairie chicken and said its move "seriously impairs" building wind farms and pushes oil and natural gas production "to the brink of extinction."

"What a surprise they waited until after the election to announce this move!" Kobach said in a statement. "As attorney general, I will fight this illegal action in court."

Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity said having protections for the animals is "terrific" but came too late for prairie chickens in some areas. Robinson's group sued the government last month because it was five months late in releasing a final decision. The initial petition for protections for the bird was filed in 1995.

"We wish that the Fish and Wildlife Service hadn't delayed this protection for 27 years," Robinson said, "because quicker action would have meant a lot more lesser prairie chickens alive in a lot more places today."

Officials don’t intend to ask for more state money next year for uranium mine cleanup - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

Even though the state Legislature passed a uranium mine bill that was signed into law by the governor, it’ll likely be years before the state actually begins to clean things up. More money is needed for the effort, but because the early stages of work are moving slowly, officials don’t expect to ask for additional funding in the next legislative session.

Uranium mining boomed in New Mexico from the 1950s to the 1980s, before there were many state and federal environmental regulations in place. The United States government used most of the uranium to develop nuclear weapons. Once demand dropped, many companies abandoned their mines, despite numerous environmental and health risks the sites pose.

The mines that dot the landscape have been poisoning people for decades, exposing them to radioactivity. Many of the sites are concentrated in northwestern New Mexico and on Navajo Nation, and they expose people to radiation. Groundwater contamination means people can ingest excessive levels of saline, nitrate and uranium via their drinking water. Uranium can cause severe health consequences, even for infants after maternal exposure, studies have shown.

So this year, legislators unanimously approved a cleanup bill in the Roundhouse, and it went to the governor’s desk, where she signed it in March. But not much has happened in the nine months since it’s been a law.

State environment and resource officials presented to the Legislature’s Radioactive & Hazardous Materials Committee on Monday about the ongoing work to make the intent of House Bill 164 a reality.

The legislation requires the N.M. Environment Department to lead reclamation efforts, working with other state agencies to develop a plan and a timeline. But that can’t even begin until an NMED coordinator is hired.

Jonas Armstrong is the director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives within NMED. He said the department conducted interviews in October for the coordinator.

Spokesperson Matthew Maez said NMED is in the process of issuing an offer letter to a chosen candidate. He said work will accelerate when the position is filled, which will hopefully happen in December.

Armstrong said once the coordinator is hired, they’ll figure out if existing funding will be enough, look at other programs to find good remediation plans and determine how to get more resources that are needed, either through federal appropriation or lawsuits — though he didn’t verify if that would be suing mining companies or the federal government.

But that’ll take time too. The department likely won’t ask for any additional state funding in the upcoming legislative session because there won’t be enough information collected yet on the plan. Armstrong said they anticipate requesting more money in 2024.

“A lot of this is strategic planning work as is laid out in the bill and will take some time,” Armstrong said.

He mentioned the settlement that New Mexico reached with the U.S. government after the Gold King Mine spill when federal contractors unleashed nearly 1 million pounds of heavy metals spill into a watershed in the state in 2015. He said that at least required the federal government to establish a point of contact that can be used for this uranium mine cleanup work, too.

John Rhoderick, director of NMED’s Water Protection Division, said the mines aren’t only on state land, so many tribal, state and federal agencies are involved in this effort, which adds to the complexity.

“If it was simple, it would’ve been done a long time ago,” he said.

WHO FOOTS THE BILL?

Rhoderick said just figuring out what kind of remediation strategies will work is a huge task. While not much information has been gathered yet, he said the department knows the state will need money to get cleanup moving.

“A big part of what we’re doing with this first year is evaluating whether the tools we have in the toolbox are sufficient, or whether we need additional authorities, whether we need additional tools,” Rhoderick said. “What we know is we need additional money.”

Fixing the messes will be costly. Officials from the N.M. Environment Department and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department reiterated multiple times at the meeting that one of the big challenges is finding the money to cover the expenses.

Rhoderick said it’s up to the mining companies and federal government — the entity that needed the uranium — to pay for the messes they left behind. Jerry Schoeppner, director of EMNRD’s Mining and Minerals Division, added that one of the first things to get done with the cleanup coordinator is making sure responsible parties are paying.

“The responsibility of our state agencies — New Mexico Environment Department, and Mining and Minerals — is to hold those entities accountable and coordinate the work to protect not only our current people here in New Mexico but also future generations,” Rhoderick said.

New Mexicans shouldn’t be the ones paying for this, Rhoderick said. But Rep. Eliseo Lee Alcon (D-Milan) questioned that, since the state made money off of the uranium mining. Rhoderick said not all potential entities to be held responsible have been identified, so he can’t address the issue definitely yet.

“The intent is not to leave any rock unturned,” Rhoderick said.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) sponsored the cleanup bill. He said the law doesn’t prevent New Mexico from helping cover the costs.

“Should we find ourselves with an extra billion dollars and want to put it into remediation, it would not be the wrong answer,” Steinborn said. “It would not be the wrong thing to do.”

However, responsible parties should be paying whenever possible, he said.

Schoeppner pointed out that not everyone who left the waste behind will pay for it now.

“We know there’s a handful of viable responsible parties still out there, but very few,” Schoeppner said. “Most of them have since blown away, gone away.”

But the state government isn’t even sure of where all of the abandoned mine sites are or exactly how many remain. So that’ll have to be figured out first, Rhoderick said.

“First is the scope. Then we look at cost estimates,” Rhoderick said. “Then we’re looking for who’s going to pay for those. Our goal is for it not to be New Mexicans.”

USING A DATABASE THAT’S OVER A DECADE OLD

What the state knows about where abandoned mines are is based on information that EMNRD put together in 2008.

The department identified about 260 legacy sites that produced at least 5,000 pounds of uranium before they were deserted.

There are also about 450 other sites that didn’t produce quite that much uranium and didn’t make it into the database, Schoeppner said. He said there needs to be more research done on the risks those mines still present.

“There could be some environmental issues there. We need to dig into those,” he said. “Those are really the unknowns at this point.”

He said this database is really a starting point, and the department plans to update it.

The federal government could also help find more sites. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Defense-Related Uranium Mines program verifies locations of mines that were used in producing nuclear weapons. Clint Chisler with the EMNRD’s Mining and Minerals Division said that federal work is ongoing to assess defense mines in New Mexico.

But when Steinborn asked if the feds will go beyond assessment to actually cleaning up the sites, Chisler said no reclamation work is planned.

Still, Steinborn said he’s glad the state agencies at least are finally working together to make uranium mining cleanup a priority.

He encouraged the state officials to follow up with New Mexico’s federal delegation to get funding for remediation projects. He said he has a talk soon with Sen. Martin Heinrich about where dollars could come from.

“This is going to be expensive work,” he said.

Cleanup is also a priority for Secretary of the Interior Department Deb Haaland, who oversees 500 million acres of public land and has talked about her own experiences with uranium causing health issues across Laguna Pueblo. She’s said people who have suffered from contamination should be compensated, though many still haven’t been.

“This has been an issue that we haven’t seen enough movement on,” Steinborn said.

Senators to FTC: Probe Twitter security, take needed action - By Marcy Gordon Ap Business Writer

Reacting to the tumult and mass layoffs at Twitter under its new owner Elon Musk, a group of Democratic senators on Thursday asked federal regulators to investigate any possible violations by the platform of consumer-protection laws or of its data-security commitments.

The senators also asked Lina Khan, head of the Federal Trade Commission, to take enforcement action if needed against Twitter and company executives for "any breaches or business practices that are unfair or deceptive."

The FTC said last week it is "tracking recent developments at Twitter with deep concern."

A key focus is the 2011 consent agreement that Twitter signed with the agency, requiring the San Francisco company to address serious data-security lapses. Twitter paid a $150 million penalty in May, several months before Musk's takeover, for violating the consent order. An updated version established new procedures requiring the company to implement an enhanced privacy-protection program as well as beefing up information security.

Developments on the ground at Twitter have been chaotic, and experts and Twitter employees are warning of serious security risks flowing from the drastically reduced staff and deepening disorder.

In the latest turn, employees faced a 5 p.m. Eastern deadline Thursday to reply to a Musk email asking them to click "Yes" on a link if they want to be part of the "new Twitter." Those not replying by that time were to receive three months' severance, according to his email.

Musk, who completed the $44 billion takeover of the company in late October, fired much of its full-time workforce by email early this month and is expected to eliminate an untold number of contract jobs for those responsible for fighting misinformation and other harmful content.

A number of engineers said on Twitter they were fired after saying something critical of Musk, either publicly on Twitter or on an internal messaging board for Twitter employees.

Musk is fundamentally overhauling the offerings of the influential social platform, and it's not known whether he is telling the FTC about it, as required under the 2011 agreement.

In recent weeks Musk "has taken alarming steps that have undermined the integrity and safety of the platform, and announced new features despite clear warnings those changes would be abused for fraud, scams and dangerous impersonation," the seven Democratic senators, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said in a letter to Khan.

"Users are already facing the serious repercussions of this growth-at-all-costs strategy," they wrote, noting recent incidences of fake accounts impersonating President Joe Biden, lawmakers, athletes, companies and others.

"We are concerned that the actions taken by Mr. Musk and others in Twitter management could already represent a violation of the FTC's consent decree, which prohibits misrepresentation and requires that Twitter maintain a comprehensive information-security program," the letter says.

Commenting last week on the developments, the FTC said "No CEO or company is above the law, and companies must follow our consent decrees. Our revised consent order gives us new tools to ensure compliance, and we are prepared to use them."

The agency would not say whether it is investigating Twitter for potential violations. If it were, it is empowered to demand documents and depose employees.

FTC officials declined to comment on the senators' request Thursday.

After the FTC's warning came to light last week, Musk said "Twitter will do whatever it takes to adhere to both the letter and spirit of the FTC consent decree."

Also signing the letter to FTC Chair Khan were Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

Western US cities to remove decorative grass amid drought - By Sam Metz And Kathleen Ronayne Associated Press

A group of 30 agencies that supply water to homes and businesses throughout the western United States has pledged to rip up lots of decorative grass to help keep water in the over-tapped Colorado River.

The agreement signed Tuesday by water agencies in Southern California, Phoenix and Salt Lake City and elsewhere illustrates an accelerating shift in the American West away from well-manicured grass that has long been a totem of suburban life, having taken root alongside streets, around fountains and between office park walkways.

The grass-removal pledge targets turf that people don't work on, like in front of strip malls, in street medians or at the entrance to neighborhoods. It doesn't mean cities plan to rip up grass at golf courses, parks or in backyards, though some may pay homeowners to voluntarily replace their lawns with more drought-resistance landscaping.

Beyond reducing ornamental grass by 30%, the agencies say they'll boost water efficiency, add more water recycling and consider actions like changing how people pay for water to encourage savings.

"Recognizing that a clean, reliable water supply is critical to our communities, we can and must do more to reduce water consumption and increase reuse and recycling within our service areas," read the memo.

The agreement did not include details about the amount of water the agencies were collectively committing to save, but cities account for about one-fifth of Colorado River water use. The rest goes to agriculture.

"Cities — the 20% — can't solve the math problem. But we can certainly contribute to solving the problem," said John Entsminger, the Southern Nevada Water Authority's General Manager.

The commitments, light on details, could spur agencies to offer payment for property owners to tear out grass and replace it with drought-tolerant desert landscaping.

The commitment to tear out 30% marks the first time water agencies throughout the region have collectively committed to a numerical benchmark targeting one specific kind of water use. It comes as the states scramble to reduce their consumption to meet demands from federal officials who say cuts are needed to maintain river levels and protect public health, food systems and hydropower.

The letter adds additional signatories to an earlier agreement five large water districts reached in August. Water agencies in Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Denver are among those who signed.

Denver Water spokesperson Todd Hartman said the city hoped to replace roughly 75 million square feet of non-functional turf but didn't share how much water that would conserve. He said the agency hopes to roll out programs by 2024.

No matter the savings, the new commitments will amount to far less conservation than is needed to keep water flowing through the Colorado River and prevent its largest reservoirs from shrinking to dangerously low levels.

Phoenix wants its program up and running by the spring; it will be the city's first time offering payment for people to rip up grass, said Cynthia Campbell, the city's water resources management adviser. Even without a program, lots of people have removed grass anyway. In the 1970s, about 80% of homes had grass covering most of their property; today, it's 9%, but that doesn't include the sprawling suburbs outside of city boundaries, she said.

Like others, she stressed that water savings from cities won't solve the river's problems.

"There is no level of municipal conservation in the entire western United States that could make up for the water that's going to be needed to be" conserved, she said. But, "we are giving till it hurts, as much as we possibly can."

The letter doesn't include any commitments from agriculture, which uses about 80% of the allocated water in the seven states that rely on the river — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the river's two main reservoirs, are each about a quarter full.

In June, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton warned the states needed to dramatically cut their use, but amid squabbles over who would shoulder what burden, officials failed to answer her call. The bureau has since offered varying levels of payment for water districts to reduce their use, through things like leaving farm fields unplanted or asking urban residents to use less at home.

Proposals for some of that money are due Nov. 21.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water for about half of California's residents, in October urged cities and water agencies in its territory to ban the addition of any new decorative grass in business parks, public spaces and neighborhoods. Its board also urged agencies to stop watering and consider removing such grass that's already planted.

Southern Nevada has for decades used a mixture of cash incentives and fines to discourage grass watering and limit both functional and non-functional turf. The agreement has little effect on the area because a state law passed last year requires 100% of the non-functional turf be torn out in the Las Vegas area by 2026.

Utah passed a statewide conservation program last year that included $5 million to incentivize turf removal and has targeted decorative grass on public property. Yet some municipalities maintain ordinances passed for aesthetic reasons that prohibit residents from replacing grass with drought-tolerant landscaping.

N.M. public defenders beg lawmakers for funding as workloads grow heavier  - By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

New Mexico’s public defenders say they have too many clients and nowhere

Near enough attorneys to represent them. Without more funding from state lawmakers, they say people accused of crimes are losing out on their constitutional rights to adequate defense and due process.

When someone is charged with a crime in New Mexico, there is a good chance that they can’t afford their own attorney and must be provided one by the state.

And among those attorneys, many are not actually employed by the state Law Offices of the Public Defender but are contractors instead.

And when a contractor takes on, for example, a first-degree murder case, they are paid a base rate of $5,400. For the whole case.

That means, on average, that attorney is making $13.81 per hour representing their client, according to a study of New Mexico public defenders’ workloads published in January.

“Those numbers should shock us,” Rep. Ryan Lane (R-Aztec) told the Legislative Finance Committee on Tuesday afternoon.

The caseloads that public defenders have are still too high, and what the office pays to contract outside help is still way too low, said Thomas Clear, chairperson of the state Public Defender Commission.

Lawmakers are taking testimony this week from various state agencies in order to decide how much funding to provide in the next fiscal year.

It’s very important for contract attorneys to make a competitive rate, said Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur, because they represent people in cases where there are co-defendants all over New Mexico.

“In many of our counties, in the rural counties where we don’t have an office, they provide the only representation,” Baur said. “And we are committed to providing excellent representation in every county of New Mexico,” Baur said.

A CONSTITUTIONAL MANDATE

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1963 ruled that the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution entitles people accused of crimes to help from a lawyer in their defense, even when they cannot afford to pay for one.

In a later case, the Supreme Court determined that if an attorney is unable to effectively represent their client, that could call into question whether the trial was fair or that with better help, there was a reasonable chance the client would have been found not guilty.

Rep. Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos) said on Tuesday that more staff at the Public Defender’s Office is needed to ensure all criminal defendants in New Mexico receive effective legal representation.

“It is not simply just talking about a budget,” Chandler said. “It is talking about whether we are providing enough support to ensure that indigent individuals in the state are receiving the legal representation they deserve under the law.”

The office is asking the Legislature for $13.2 million more from the state’s General Fund — about 21% more than what’s being spent now on public defenders.

The request includes $4.2 million to increase contract attorney compensation, $1.2 million for in-house attorney compensation, and $5.7 million to add 60 full-time staff, including 30 attorneys.

The request for funding more staff is based on recommendations from a four-year-long workload study released in January that found three times more defense attorney hours are needed across New Mexico to provide adequate legal representation, Baur said.

So the Public Defender’s Office created a five-year plan to show how it could get “pretty close to what reasonably effective assistance of counsel would be,” Baur said.

The plan calls for ramping up resources for in-house and contract public defenders, and reforming charging and prosecution practices to “cut down on the number of people coming into the system without necessarily affecting public safety,” Baur said.

Over the last couple of years, prosecutors and courts have gotten more money from the Legislature than public defenders, Baur said. The office is also asking the Legislature for funding to begin to even that out.

A pay equity study will be published soon, Baur said, “and we think it’s going to show that we do need additional monies to make sure that we can compete with district attorneys to both bring in and retain attorneys.”

The $1.2 million for increased in-house attorney compensation would also help pay for travel expenses for lawyers, expert witnesses, and more frequent trial costs. Trials were backlogged because court systems shut down early on in the COVID pandemic but are moving forward again.

And to keep people from coming back into the criminal legal system, Baur said, the Public Defender’s Office needs money to pay for social workers who could “take our clients to the point that they are less likely to reoffend and they are more likely to become productive members of the community.”

“We can be the biggest part of the system of all, because our clients can grow to trust us before anybody else,” Clear said.

STILL TAKING ALL CASES

Clear and the Public Defender Commission proposed rules in 2018 that would allow public defenders to refuse taking on new cases instead of providing inadequate legal representation to poor clients.

They haven’t implemented those rules, Clear told the LFC, “because we don’t want to disrupt the system. We want to make things better, but we need your help.”

In 2016 and 2017, things were so dire in several local branches, particularly the one in Lea County, that the office told the court there they temporarily could not take more cases, Baur said.

That issue became the subject of a case before the state Supreme Court, which didn’t make a decision, Baur said, but asked the Public Defender’s Office to gather more data about how much work one lawyer can do while actually providing effective representation to their clients in the criminal legal system.

Clear said the public defenders in New Mexico want to make a difference in their clients’ lives, “but they have too many cases. They can’t do it because they’re triaging.”