Legislative Roundup: 21 Days Left In 2021 Session

Legislative Roundup

A step closer to Civil Rights Act: A bill that would remove “qualified immunity” as a legal defense to civil rights complaints filed against government agencies made it out of its first Senate committee Friday after a 2.5 hour discussion and debate. The Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee endorsed a substitute and amended version of House Bill 4 “without recommendation” on a party-line 5-3 vote.

But Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, said her support of the bill wasn’t guaranteed if it reaches a floor vote.

“I will reserve my decision about how I will vote on the floor because I am still uncomfortable with the bill,” she said. “I want to see justice and retribution made for those who have been hurt, but I do think we should take this step by step.”

The committee’s approval came after a string of city and county government officials raised concerns about increased costs and argued the bill failed to address the root causes of many claims against government.

“We understand victims are absolutely created every day in our state and in our country and in our world; we ask for the tools on the front end,” said AJ Forte, executive director of the New Mexico Municipal League. “Giving us a punitive measure on the back end, the financial guillotine on the back end, is not going to solve the problem.”

The committee amended the bill to exclude smaller government entities after Arturo Archuleta of the Land Grant Council said the legislation could impact small units of government, such as land grants and acequia associations.

“We have annual budgets that for most community land grants and acequias is well below $10,000,” he said. “The cost of potentially litigating even a frivolous lawsuit could have detrimental impacts on our budgets.”

Background checks for school workers: The House of Representatives voted 62-5 to approve legislation that would add both preventive and responsive measures to deal with sexual and ethical misconduct on the part of public school employees, including more background checks and new disclosure requirements for applicants.

House Bill 128 would require people applying for jobs at schools to provide a list of former employers and disclose whether they have ever been under investigation or found to have committed an offense related to child or sexual abuse. The bill also gives district and school leaders and boards the right to tell the public why termination actions were taken against employees if they were found to have committed these offenses.

Land of Entrapment: Cabinet secretaries will be required to live in New Mexico under a bill that moved out of the Senate Rules Committee on a 7-1 vote Friday.

The proposal comes after Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said in July he had been living in Philadelphia with his wife and son for months. Stewart, who was hired by the state in August 2019, said last year his family had planned to move to New Mexico to be with him, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the move.

Senate Bill 356 would require a Cabinet secretary to file a signed affidavit stating they live in New Mexico and will for the duration of their appointment. A secretary would be removed from office for failure to submit an affidavit or maintain residency in the state. 

“My tax dollars pay their check, and if you’re going to be in charge of an agency in the state of New Mexico, you can’t do it from Hawaii or wherever he was,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, one of the sponsors. “Agency heads should be here. It’s common sense for people in New Mexico to have people in charge of the state living in the state.”

Quotes of the day: “We’re going to have an increase in population of primarily attorneys, and that’s fine. But what really bothers me is the number of billboards that are going to be put along our highways, suggesting we call this [or that] attorney. I think it’s going to be really damaging to the environment because we won’t be able to see anything.” —Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, while speaking against a bill that would remove “qualified immunity” as a defense to claims brought under the proposed New Mexico Civil Rights Act.

“She was an angel sent from Southern New Mexico.” —Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, speaking of Karen Trujillo, the former secretary of the Public Education Department and superintendent of the Las Cruces school district. Trujillo died Thursday evening after being struck by a vehicle while walking her dogs in Las Cruces.