Big, small guardianship actions debated

SANTA FE – Faced with an approaching deadline and a multimillion-dollar price tag, backers of legislation to overhaul the state’s troubled guardianship system presented dueling substitute measures late Wednesday in a hurried attempt to pass at least some significant changes this year to improve transparency and permit families more involvement with their protected, incapacitated loved ones.

Sen. James White, R-Albuquerque, offered to amend his mammoth bill that incorporates a new model guardianship law promulgated by the national Uniform Law Commission into two parts, delaying enactment for at least a year.

But a group of state district judges, mostly from Bernalillo County, helped devise a smaller substitute sponsored by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. That proposal, which is still evolving, would allow the judiciary to implement changes by July 1 that would open currently closed guardianship hearings to the public, expand the list of parties who would be notified, require bonding for conservators and rein in guardians’ authority to limit visitation of those deemed incapacitated.

“It’s a question of what can we do right now? What can we phase in? And what makes sense to ensure we’re going to have the funding (for the future)?” Ivey-Soto said.

No votes were taken after two hours of debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is expected to continue the discussion Monday, if not sooner.

The 30-day legislative ends Feb. 15.

State District Judge Shannon Bacon of Albuquerque, who represented the judiciary at the hearing, told the committee that the courts favor improving the system, but that there are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 existing guardianship/conservatorship cases that would have to come into compliance under the sweeping model guardianship act sponsored by White.

Under some cost estimates, up to $7 million would be required in each of the first two years if White’s version of the uniform guardianship act is adopted.

“A lot of the cost,” Ivey-Soto said, “is the cost of the dysfunctionality of the system that’s existed for many years.”

White said phasing in the uniform act over the next two years would give the courts time to overhaul the system and permit the Legislature to make amendments and finance the changes along the way.

“One million is what I’ve got to get this moving,” White said, in an apparent reference to funding he has secured to begin enacting the model law.

But Bacon countered, “One million dollars doesn’t even scratch the surface.” An expensive part of the model act requires judges to appoint lawyers to advocate for the wishes of the incapacitated person at the hearing, a cost that would be borne by the government,

As to the cost of the more immediate changes under Ivey-Soto’s proposal, Bacon said the judiciary would absorb the costs. “We will, I think the legal term is, suck it up.”

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