THURS: New Mexico House advances plan to boost annual state spending by 6.5%, + More
New Mexico House advances plan to boost annual state spending by 6.5% - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press
New Mexico's Democratic-led House of Representatives endorsed an annual budget plan Wednesday that would extend — but slow down —- a spending spree linked to a windfall in income from oil production.
The House voted 53-16 to send the spending plan to the Senate for consideration and likely amendments. The bill would increase annual general fund spending by roughly $620 million to nearly $10.2 billion — a 6.5% boost for the fiscal year that runs from July 2024 to June 2025.
It would also divert portions of a multibillion-dollar surplus to a series of endowments and trusts aimed at sustaining future investments in public education, environmental conservation programs, housing and more.
The state is forecasting a $13 billion windfall in general fund income for the coming fiscal year, providing a $3.5 billion surplus over current annual spending obligations.
Legislators have until Feb. 15 to deliver a state budget to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who can veto any and all provisions — but not make additions. Annual spending on K-12 education would increase by 6.1% to $4.4 billion under the House-approved budget plan.
The governor wants the state to devote $1 billion — partly through debt obligations — to initiatives that spur housing construction and the treatment and recycling of used water from the oil industry and other desalination projects to quench industrial demands for water in the arid state.
The proposed budget increase is smaller than double-digit expansions enacted by lawmakers last year and the year before as New Mexico's unprecedented surge in oil production begins to level off and lawmakers prepare for an eventual decline amid major U.S. government investments and incentives toward a transition away from fossil fuels.
The House budget bill would transfer nearly $1.2 billion in general fund income to support a series of endowments and trust accounts to support future spending on conservation programs, financing for housing construction and more.
The bill also would transfer funds to establish a nearly $1 billion endowment to make good on promises of tuition-free college education for New Mexico residents, a signature initiative from Lujan Grisham, who was reelected in 2022 to a second term. Approval of companion legislation is needed to create the trust.
Major progress in public education has been elusive in recent years as lawmakers increased per-student spending and teacher salaries without also raising average high school graduation rates and academic attainment to national averages. State support for annual school district spending has increased from roughly $2.8 billion in 2019 to $4.1 billion currently.
That's one reason leading Democratic legislators advocate for a new "accountability" trust fund that would make as much as $300 million available for pilot programs in public education, childhood well-being, workforce training and more — and measure progress for three years before permanent funding is guaranteed.
"We know New Mexicans need results now in these important areas, and so a three-year time frame is sufficient to make sure that the money is working on the ground," said Democratic state Rep. Nathan Small of Las Cruces, chairman of the lead House budget-writing committee, at a news conference.
As an example, Small highlighted a fellowship program for educators aimed at improving teacher-student ratios in the classroom.
Republican state Rep. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena – the top-ranked Republican on the House budget committee – expressed skepticism that permanent funding will be withheld from lackluster pilot programs.
"We just keep funding everything that has a poor report card and not holding them accountable," she said at a committee hearing this week. "I have problems with the government accountability fund in general."
New Mexico is bracing to spend more on health care as federal subsidies recede in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and in efforts to bolster rural networks of health care providers.
Spending on Medicaid health care for the poor and people living on the cusp of poverty would increase by 11%, or $180 million, under the budget proposal.
About $63 million in general fund spending would go toward rate increases to medical providers – allowing reimbursements of up to 150% of standard Medicaid rates for a variety of services including maternity care.
The budget plan leaves room for $200 million in tax relief, as proposals for tax cuts and incentives take shape.
Republican House Leader T. Ryan Lane of Aztec unsuccessfully urged colleagues to set aside more room for tax relief and for spending on roadways.
"With such an abundance of revenue, to me, now is the time to make generational changes in our tax code to make us competitive with our surrounding states," he said.
The House-approved budget bill would provide pay raises averaging 4% to state agency employees, public school staff and employees at public colleges and universities.
Alec Baldwin pleads not guilty to involuntary manslaughter charge in fatal film set shooting - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press
Actor Alec Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to an involuntary manslaughter charge in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer during a rehearsal on a Western movie set in New Mexico.
Court documents filed Wednesday show Baldwin entered the plea in state district court in Santa Fe, waiving an arraignment that had been scheduled to take place remotely by video conference the next day.
Baldwin, the lead actor and a co-producer on the Western movie "Rust," was pointing a gun at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a rehearsal outside Santa Fe in October 2021 when the gun went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza.
A grand jury in Santa Fe indicted Baldwin in January after prosecutors received a new analysis of that gun, renewing a charge that prosecutors originally filed and then dismissed in April 2023. Baldwin faces up to 18 months in prison if convicted.
Baldwin remains free pending trial under conditions that include not possessing firearms, consuming alcohol or leaving the country. Baldwin can have limited contact with witnesses when it comes to promoting "Rust," which has not been released for public viewing. Baldwin is prohibited from asking members of the "Rust" cast or crew to participate in a related documentary film.
Baldwin has said he pulled back the hammer — but not the trigger — and the gun fired.
"Halyna and I had something profound in common, and that is that we both assumed the gun was empty ... other than those dummy rounds," Baldwin told George Stephanopoulos in an interview broadcast in December 2021 on ABC News.
The grand jury indictment provides special prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis with two alternative standards for pursuing the felony charge against Baldwin.
One would be based on the negligent use of a firearm. A second alternative for prosecutors is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Baldwin caused the death of Hutchins without due caution or "circumspection," also defined as "an act committed with total disregard or indifference for the safety of others."
An analysis of the gun conducted by Lucien and Michael Haag of Forensic Science Services in Arizona concluded that "the trigger had to be pulled or depressed sufficiently to release the fully cocked or retracted hammer of the evidence revolver."
An earlier FBI report on the agency's analysis of the revolver found that, as is common with firearms of that design, it could go off without pulling the trigger if force was applied to an uncocked hammer, such as by dropping the weapon. The gun eventually broke during testing.
Morrissey and Lewis dismissed the earlier charge after they were informed the gun might have been modified before the shooting and malfunctioned.
The grand jury heard from a "Rust" crew member who was a few feet (meters) from the fatal shooting and another who walked off the set before the shooting in protest of working conditions. Weapons forensics expert Michael Haag, a Mississippi-based movie armorer and a detective with the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office also testified.
"Rust" weapons supervisor Hannah Gutierrez-Reed also has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, with a jury trial scheduled to start Feb. 22. She has pleaded not guilty to that charge and a second charge of tampering with evidence in Hutchins' death.
Gutierrez-Reed also was charged with carrying a gun into a downtown Santa Fe bar days before she was hired to work as the armorer on "Rust." She has pleaded not guilty to that charge, too.
The fatal shooting of Hutchins resulted in a series of civil lawsuits, including wrongful death claims filed by members of Hutchins' family, centered on accusations that Baldwin and producers of "Rust" were lax with safety standards. Baldwin and other defendants have disputed those allegations.
"Rust" assistant director and safety coordinator David Halls pleaded no contest to unsafe handling of a firearm last March and received a suspended sentence of six months of probation. He agreed to cooperate in the investigation of the fatal shooting.
Police won't be charged in fatal shooting of a New Mexico man after responding to the wrong address - Associated Press
Three Farmington police officers accused of fatally shooting an armed homeowner after going to the wrong house on a domestic violence call won't face prosecution, authorities said Tuesday.
New Mexico Department of Justice officials said a review showed police made a reasonable attempt to contact the people inside the victim's home and that the officers who approached the wrong address "did not foreseeably create an unnecessarily dangerous situation."
The report also said there no was basis for pursuing criminal charges.
Police body camera footage showed Robert Dotson, 52, pointed a firearm at the officers on the night of April 5 and "their use of force was appropriate," authorities added.
Mark Curnutt, an attorney for Dotson's family, said police fired more than 20 rounds at his client "despite never being fired at nor even having a firearm pointed at any of the officers."
Dotson "committed no crime, was not a suspect and answered the door after police went to the wrong house," Curnutt said. "Nothing can return Robert to his family and it appears nothing will be done to hold these officers accountable."
The family filed a lawsuit last fall in federal court, alleging that Dotson and his family were deprived of their civil rights when the officers in the northwestern New Mexico city mistakenly showed up at their home that night.
Prosecutors said they met with Dotson's family to explain their decision and show them the report by Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who now is a tenured professor at the University of South Carolina's Joseph F. Rice School of Law.
Stoughton is a nationally recognized expert in police use of force and has rendered opinions both for and against officers in state and federal cases, prosecutors said.
Curnutt said Stoughton's report relied heavily on the initial New Mexico State Police investigation, raising concerns about the validity of information provided to state prosecutors.
According to New Mexico State Police, the Farmington officers were supposed to be responding to a house across the street.
Instead, they knocked on the Dotsons' front door and announced themselves as police officers. When there was no answer, they asked dispatchers to call the person who reported the disturbance and have them come to the front door.
Body camera footage then showed Dotson opening the screen door armed with a handgun, which was when officers retreated and fired, police said.
Dotson's wife Kimberly also was armed and shot at officers before realizing who they were and putting the weapon down. She was not injured and neither were any of the officers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico said Wednesday that Dotson's death and others at the hands of officers in New Mexico demonstrate the need for statewide police reform.
Barron Jones, the group's investigation and research manager, said Dotson's case highlights the need for rigorous standards regarding use of force.
"New Mexico has one of the highest per capita rate of killings by police in the nation," he said. "It doesn't have to be this way."
Bill banning ‘source of income’ discrimination fails in narrow House committee vote - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
A push to prohibit landlords across the state from turning away tenants whose rent is partially paid by government subsidies narrowly failed in a legislative committee meeting Monday afternoon.
The bill would add “source of income” to a list of protected categories in the New Mexico Human Rights Act, alongside race, sexual orientation and other characteristics on which it is illegal to discriminate. It would mean that landlords could not legally turn away tenants who carried Section 8 vouchers or other subsidies.
Rep. Kathleen Cates (D-Rio Rancho), whose day job is as a real estate agent, sponsored the legislation and spent more than an hour defending the bill as one of many tools needed to address the ongoing housing crisis in New Mexico. She said refusing tenants based on having rent subsidies is just the latest version in a long history of housing discrimination, based in part on an assumption that tenants with vouchers are bad tenants.
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 6-5 against sending the bill forward, with two Democrats and four Republicans voting against it. Cates said in an interview Tuesday that as much as she cares about her legislation, she won’t re-introduce the bill this session. She hopes November elections will mean a shakeup in the committee next year.
“I will absolutely reintroduce it. But this year, I would have to reintroduce it with that specific group in the committee,” she said. “And I don’t believe any member of that committee is willing to change their mind.”
Dozens of advocates spoke up on both sides of the legislation, including leaders with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness in favor of the bill, and lobbyists for the New Mexico Apartment Association and realtors associations against it.
Federal voucher programs often have a deadline by which a recipient must find housing or risk losing them. A report by the Legislative Finance Committee last year found that, statewide, 18% of federal housing vouchers go unused. In Gallup, Rio Arriba County and Albuquerque, more than a quarter go unused. One of the reasons was a “lack of landlords willing to accept vouchers,” according to the report.
“Source of income” discrimination has already been banned in Bernalillo County, Albuquerque and Doña Ana County. Elsewhere in the state, including Santa Fe, it’s common for online apartment listings to contain the phrase “No Section 8 allowed.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham included the bill on her list of priorities for the session, allowing it to be heard this 30-day session despite not being budget-related.
It’s another one of her housing-related priorities that has yet to advance through a legislative committee. A bill she supported that would create a statewide housing office was pulled from a committee late Friday afternoon, as well, and has not been re-introduced.
The discrimination bill received pushback from lobbyists for the New Mexico Apartment Association, landlords and realtor groups, who spoke at the hearing to say it would impose an unnecessary paperwork burden and force them to rent to unruly tenants.
Supporters say a statewide ban could curb homelessness, reduce the concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods and prevent people who received Section 8 vouchers from running out of time.
The debate in the committee centered primarily on whether changing the state’s Human Rights Act to ban “source-of-income discrimination” would have implications outside of the rental market, including for mortgage lenders or employers, and whether child support, alimony or other non-labor income sources would apply.
Several members of the committee also said they saw the legislation as government overreach in how landlords conduct their businesses. Rep. Mark Duncan (R-Kirtland) said a bad experience with one tenant when he was a landlord prompted him to turn away tenants with vouchers.
“One day a lady that I had been renting to let her wife beater husband back in, and he destroyed my property,” he said. “That was the last Section 8 I ever took.”
Duncan didn’t provide additional details behind his allegation. Cates said in an interview she was shocked by his comment, which she said showed the prejudicial mindset that is typical of some landlords, one that has echoed over decades with different groups of people.
In the committee, she responded that anecdotes like Duncan’s can’t be used to justify discrimination.
“I know the horror stories, and they are real. They are not made up. And I understand that,” Cates told the committee. “But I can say that about every type of protected class. Does that mean that I’m allowed to discriminate (on) them based on those stories? I cannot.”
At least 11 current lawmakers, not including Duncan, report ownership of residential properties, according to a review last year of legislative financial disclosures by the Santa Fe Reporter.
New Mexico child welfare secretary confirmed amid the agency’s mounting abuse and neglect investigations - Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News
The state Senate confirmed Teresa Casados as secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department after hours of contentious hearings Wednesday. She’s led the department since last April.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reports Casados received mixed reactions from lawmakers in a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee and then the full Senate. Her confirmation comes as CYFD is embroiled in accusations of abuse and neglect of the children in its care.
When asked whether the agency is in crisis, Casados acknowledged, “there is a crisis across the state."
A recent report urged the state to take “immediate action” to resolve the issues that include high caseloads and a stack of thousands of abuse and neglect investigations.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca read a newspaper featuring a story about the report during the hearing, according to the New Mexican. Meanwhile, Majority Leader Peter Wirth expressed appreciation that Casados was willing to take on what he called “probably the most important and most difficult job” in state government.
A court employee alerted police oversight board about cop’s offer to fix DWI case months before FBI raids - By Elise Kaplan, City Desk ABQ
This story was originally published by City Desk ABQ
More than two months before the FBI raided the homes of Albuquerque Police Department DWI officers and the office of a local defense attorney, the Second Judicial District Court alerted oversight agencies to possible “questionable conduct” of one of the officers.
In early November, Katina Watson, the Court Executive Officer of the Second Judicial District Court, notified the Civilian Police Oversight Agency and the Disciplinary Board of the New Mexico Supreme Court that one of the court’s former employees had a concerning exchange with an officer when he was arrested for DWI in August.
“We did not question or conduct any sort of internal investigation; however, we have been alerted that there may be questionable conduct by the arresting/citation officer,” Watson wrote in a letter to the CPOA. “More specifically, that the arresting/citation officer put Mr. Barron in contact with a specific attorney, possibly named ‘Rick,’ who if hired, would ensure that no court case would be filed in court by APD.”
The officer who made the arrest was Honorio Alba. The Albuquerque Journal has reportedthat the home of Clear’s paralegal, Ricardo “Rick” Mendez, was also raided by the FBI.
“While we do not have first-hand knowledge of what communications and actions have taken place, we are reporting this information out of concern,” Watson wrote.
Alba, along with three other officers—Joshua Montano, Harvey Johnson, and Nelson Ortiz and a supervisor—are being investigated by the FBI along with defense attorney Thomas Clear. No charges have yet been filed.
The former court employee, a certified court monitor, was pulled over in August for driving while intoxicated. According to a citation, the 25-year-old was going 83 miles an hour in a 55 mile per hour zone with his headlights and tail lights off. He failed to stay in his lane multiple times, nearly struck a vehicle, drove over the sidewalk and had “bloodshot watery eyes and an odor of alcohol emanating from facial area,” Alba wrote.
The citation was not filed in court until November 13, 2023—ten days after CEO Watson sent in a complaint. It’s unclear why it was delayed.
The case was ultimately dismissed on January 18 “in the interest of justice,” along with more than 150 others that had been handled by Alba, Montano, Johnson and Ortiz.
A spokesperson for the District Court said “we believe the letter to CPOA speaks for itself.” She said the employee was with the court from April 2019 to the end of September 2023.
The Interim Executive Director of the CPOA did not immediately respond to questions about whether the complaint was investigated and whether it was shared with other agencies.