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Sweeping tax overhaul clears New Mexico House

Morgan Lee and Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press Published 5:07 p.m. MT March 2, 2019 The New Mexico Legislature meets at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe in this photo from Jan. 24, 2019. (Photo: Morgan Lee/AP)SANTA FE – It’s billed by Democrats as New Mexico’s best chance to save thousands of children from a life of poverty by…




Morgan Lee and Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press
Published 5:07 p.m. MT March 2, 2019

SANTA FE – It’s billed by Democrats as New Mexico’s best chance to save thousands of children from a life of poverty by investing more money than ever before in public education and other government programs.

For Republicans, it’s a cover for taking money from the pockets of hard-working New Mexicans and placing unsustainable demands on the state’s coffers.

A proposal to overhaul key portions of New Mexico’s tax code prompted hours of debate late Friday as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle shared their visions for how best to jump start a state that has been stricken for decades by poverty, poor educational outcomes and slow economic growth.

“We need to rebuild our state,” said the Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf.

He pointed to a decision by his legislative predecessors to enact what amounted to a flat income tax that eroded the state’s tax base and cost a generation of New Mexicans the revenue needed to fund the schools, health care systems and roads that they deserved.

He said the proposed reforms represent the first step to turning things around.

The Democrat-sponsored measure passed on a 40-25 vote and now heads to the Senate with about two weeks left in the session.

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The bill includes changes to the tax code that would increase some personal income tax rates and impose new taxes on e-cigarettes, nonprofit hospitals and online sales. It’s designed to trim the state government’s dependence on income from the oil sector and shift some of the burden to taxpayers.

Democratic Rep. Javier Martinez, a lead sponsor, said the promised benefits of prior income tax cuts in 2003 and 2013 never materialized and that reforms are needed to broaden the tax base and underwrite improvements to public education and roads. He described it as an investment in children and in government.

“This is our attempt to reform an economy that has far too long been dependent on a single source of income,” he said.

Republican lawmakers said it does not make sense to raise taxes when the state has a significant budget surplus. They argued that targeted and sustainable investments can be made in public education without demanding more from taxpayers and making the state less attractive to businesses.

Economists expect state income to outpace general fund spending obligations by $1.1 billion for the fiscal year starting on July 1, as oil production grows at a rapid pace. They also warn that the financial windfall could quickly evaporate because of volatility in world energy markets.

Republican Rep. Jason Harper said at roughly $580 million, the changes would represent the largest tax increase in state history and would affect all New Mexico families, not just the affluent.

“In my mind the solution is not to squeeze more blood out of a turnip, it is to fertilize our field and we do that by doing real tax reform and addressing crime and these things that make New Mexico more fertile ground for families to come and grow,” he said.

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The tax proposal would create several new personal income tax brackets, while raising the maximum rate from 4.9 percent to as much as 6.5 percent for individuals who earn $200,000 a year or more or joint filers earning $300,000. Taxpayers earning less would see smaller increases, and the tax credit for families with children would double to offset tax increases caused by the 2017 federal tax overhaul.

The legislation also would pave the way for state and local governments to levy taxes on sales by online retailers, increase taxes on tobacco, initiate taxes on e-cigarettes, and require nonprofit hospitals to pay the same taxes on sales and services that other hospitals pay.

Lawmakers are under a court mandate to increase resources for public education — the outcome of a lawsuit by parents and school districts who say education has been starved of resources to the detriment of students from low-income and minority families.

In response, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed a half-billion dollar increase in annual spending on public schools. Top Republican lawmakers say the increase is too much and too quickly, for a state where government income fluctuates wildly in concert with the oil industry.

Martinez called the current tax system “inherently inequitable,” and said tax cuts made by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson in 2003 did not live up to expectations for creating jobs and economic growth.

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington called the proposal “a massive investment in government by the way of confiscating” money from New Mexicans.

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Las Cruces

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham asks New Mexico game commissioners for resignations

Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press Published 7:00 a.m. MT March 26, 2019 | Updated 8:38 a.m. MT March 26, 2019New Mexico wildlife appreciates Mark Bowen’s metal art “Shaman.” (Photo: Courtesy photo)ALBUQUERQUE — Members of an influential commission that governs hunting, fishing and other wildlife management activities across New Mexico have been asked to resign, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s…





Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press
Published 7:00 a.m. MT March 26, 2019 | Updated 8:38 a.m. MT March 26, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE — Members of an influential commission that governs hunting, fishing and other wildlife management activities across New Mexico have been asked to resign, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office said Monday.

The seven-member game commission serves at the pleasure of the governor, and last week she requested they submit their resignations. They have until Wednesday to respond.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, took office in January and has been working to install her own appointees on a number of boards and commissions. As for the wildlife board, more than 80 candidates have expressed interest.

A game commission meeting scheduled for this week was postponed indefinitely as the governor’s office has not set a firm timeline for seating a new board. Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the effort would be as expeditious as possible.

The cancellation without an explanation and rumors of the requests for resignations spurred concerns over the weekend among sportsmen groups and others who work closely with the commission and the state game and fish department.

“This is kind of a scary situation for everybody, not having any idea who the new commission is going to be,” said Jesse Deubel, executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

Deubel and others had advocated for legislation during the recent session that would have revamped the way the commission was appointed. By splitting appointments between the governor and the legislative branch, supporters argued that some of the politics would be removed from the panel.

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The measure also would have given exclusive authority to the state Supreme Court for removal of a commissioner for incompetence, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office, rather than leaving it up to the governor.

The measure cleared the House but stalled in the Senate.

“Without having just cause for removal, essentially you almost have no need for the commission. They do whatever the governor tells them to do,” Deubel said. “The idea was to provide some insulation between the governor and the game department.”

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Aside from setting rules for big game hunts and fishing, the commission’s duties also include hiring a director to lead the state game and fish department, which has an annual budget of about $40 million. It’s not clear whether a new commission would opt for making any management changes within the agency.

Michael Sloane was named as the new director last summer, having worked for the agency for more than two decades. He began his career in 1994 as a wildlife culturist at a hatchery in Pecos and went on to become chief of fisheries.

The new commission will have to address concerns about hunting permits and whether residents are getting their fair share as mandated in state law. The allocation of hunting tags has been an issue that has transcended administrations.

Other New Mexico news

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico won’t seek re-election

New Mexico State Engineer told lawmakers: ‘We need to protect our water’

New Mexico Legislature 2019 recap: What passed and what didn’t?

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Las Cruces

Former official sues Las Cruces school district claiming discrimination, retaliation

Algernon D’Ammassa, Las Cruces Sun-News Published 3:35 p.m. MT March 25, 2019 | Updated 8:04 a.m. MT March 26, 2019Human Rights Bureau had found ‘no probable cause’ in Marrufo discrimination claimStory HighlightsSuperintendent Greg Ewing started on the job Dec. 5, 2016Three former administrators have complained of discrimination and retaliationSchool board president and vice president confirm…





Algernon D’Ammassa, Las Cruces Sun-News
Published 3:35 p.m. MT March 25, 2019 | Updated 8:04 a.m. MT March 26, 2019

Human Rights Bureau had found ‘no probable cause’ in Marrufo discrimination claim

LAS CRUCES — A former associate superintendent in the Las Cruces Public Schools is the latest former district official to accuse Superintendent Greg Ewing of discrimination and retaliation. 

Elizabeth Marrufo, who oversaw the district’s human resources department before Ewing promoted her to chief strategy officer, named Ewing and the school district in a lawsuit, filed March 19 in district court. 

Marrufo claims that shortly after Ewing started on the job at the end of 2016, he became angry and promoted her out of the human resources position after she raised legal concerns about a plan to fire certain employees.

She states she was reassigned and, weeks later, placed on administrative leave until her contract expired in 2017.

Marrufo is seeking back pay and damages under the Whistleblower Protection Act and the New Mexico Human Rights Act for age discrimination. Marrufo was 60 years old at the time and her complaint states she had worked for the district for more than 30 years.

Complaints by former officials

Attorneys for Marrufo acknowledged that in 2018 the Human Rights Bureau issued a determination of “no probable cause” in response to her complaint. 

“It is important to note that a number of cases that start with a letter of non-determination or a finding of no probable case are later successfully prosecuted,” Joleen Youngers, an attorney representing Marrufo, wrote in an emailed response to the Sun-News.

Allegations of discrimination and retaliatory action also figure in a pending lawsuit brought in 2018 by Lillian Duran, a former Head Start educational facilitator whose contract expired and was not renewed in 2017.

Duran claims she was discriminated against for her age, physical handicaps and medical conditions, and retaliated against in violation of the New Mexico Human Rights Act. A pre-trial conference in the case is scheduled for July.

Additionally, Jo Galván, a former communications director for the district, initiated a complaint to the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions in 2018 alleging the district placed her on administrative leave after she questioned Ewing over a response to a lawful document request under the Inspection of Public Records Act.

‘Disgruntled employees’

The president and vice president of the Las Cruces Board of Education on Friday both said Ewing enjoys their full confidence.

“I have total confidence in the superintendent,” President Ed Frank wrote in an emailed response to the Sun-News. “Yes, there are some disgruntled former employees. The fact that they are former employees might explain why they are disgruntled.”

Frank’s email did not mention any employees by name.

Las Cruces Board of Education Vice President Terrie Dallman, reached by phone, made clear that she would not speak on behalf of the school board, but in her personal opinion she viewed Ewing as “a breath of fresh air.” 

She declined to comment on pending litigation and did not name any staff members past or present, but said Ewing had encountered resistance from some who had worked under previous administrations. 

“He does not put a Band-Aid over a bad situation, and so a lot of people that are disgruntled were not used to that type of solution and so they are upset,” Dallman said.

In accordance with policy, the school district declined to comment on any pending litigation or on personnel matters. 

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, or @AlgernonActor on Twitter.


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Las Cruces

La Academia Dolores Huerta charter school wins renewal on appeal

Algernon D’Ammassa, Las Cruces Sun-News Published 6:57 a.m. MT March 26, 2019 Decision reverses vote by Public Education CommissionStory HighlightsRenewal of the school’s charter was voted down in DecemberSchool reports 2-year renewal with conditionsBuy PhotoThe entrance to La Academia Dolores Huerta charter middle school at 400 W. Bell Avenue in Las Cruces on March 25,…





Algernon D’Ammassa, Las Cruces Sun-News
Published 6:57 a.m. MT March 26, 2019

Decision reverses vote by Public Education Commission

LAS CRUCES – New Mexico’s new Secretary of Education, Karen Trujillo, has granted a reprieve to a local charter school after renewal of its charter was voted down by the Public Education Commission.

An announcement dated March 20 posted on the school’s website states: “Dr. Trujillo has reversed the PEC’s decision and has ordered the conditional approval of LADH’s charter for a period of two years with conditions to be determined by the Charter School Division (CSD).”

On Monday, the Public Education Department confirmed that the school’s charter had been renewed, but further details were not immediately available.

The decision reverses a vote by the commission in December not to renew the school’s charter, which expires on June 30. The PED had recommended non-renewal, advising commissioners, “The school has not made substantial progress, demonstrating a downward trend, towards meeting the Department’s standards for excellence and student performance standards.”

In an emotional community meeting in January, members of the school’s governing council announced that the school’s attorney saw no grounds for an appeal, but by the meeting’s end the attorney and the council unanimously agreed to move forward with an appeal to the PED Secretary. 

At that time, it was not clear who would hear it, as newly sworn Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had not yet appointed an education secretary. 

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales led PED on a temporary basis until Karen Trujillo, a Las Cruces resident, was named by the governor later in January. Trujillo was confirmed by the New Mexico Senate on March 4.

LADH Head Administrator Melissa Miranda could not be reached for comment Friday or Monday. The school is closed for spring break this week. 

The dual-language charter middle school opened in 2004. In 2018, the school moved from its North Main Street location to the former home of Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy in Mesilla Park.

In addition to core courses, LADH students may also study ballet folklórico, mariachi and conjunto music, art, and additional language studies. The school has approximately 120 students enrolled.

The school is named for civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, a New Mexico native who, in 1962 cofounded with César Chávez the National Farm Workers Association, an organization that later evolved into the United Farm Workers of America

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, or @AlgernonActor on Twitter.

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