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Governor signs guardianship overhaul law

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Gov. Susana Martinez speaks at an annual news conference after the end of the 2018 legislative session in Santa Fe this month. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez on Wednesday signed 23 bills into law, including legislation to overhaul a New Mexico guardianship system that had come under scrutiny in recent month for secrecy and financial irregularities.

The 60-page bill is designed to prevent abuse and exploitation of thousands of incapacitated people who are under court-ordered guardianship or conservatorship programs around the state.

The new changes are less sweeping than originally proposed, but involve increased transparency and greater involvement of family members. With the governor’s signature, they will take effect in July.

Meanwhile, the two-term Republican governor also struck down a bill that would have granted future New Mexico governors – not her – and other elected statewide officials their first pay raises since 2002.

Martinez had vowed to veto the salary increase legislation, which would have raised the governor’s annual salary from $110,000 to $121,000, starting in January 2019.

“Through a relentless commitment to responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars – like balancing budgets and cutting taxes – New Mexico has a budget surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars,” Martinez said in a statement. “I will not waste a dime of it on doling out taxpayer dollars on pay raises for politicians.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 176, passed both legislative chambers by decisive margins during the recently completed 30-day session, with supporters saying some state elected officials make less money than their top appointees.

In addition to governor, the bill would have raised the annual salaries of the secretary of state, attorney general, state auditor, state treasurer, commissioner of public lands and the five members of the Public Regulation Commission.

Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the idea was floated because state workers and teachers are scheduled to receive pay raises under a $6.3 billion budget plan still on the governor’s desk.

Since state elected officials’ salary levels are set by state law, adjusting them requires both an appropriation in the budget bill and approval of a change in statute.

“We thought it would be a reasonable thing to provide an increase in compensation to state officials, too,” Larrañaga said.

Among the other bills signed by Martinez on Wednesday were five measures aimed at helping military veterans and their families. The governor said the bills reflected her priority of “protecting those who put their lives on the line for our freedom.”

One of those bills, House Bill 67, will make it a crime to make false claims about military service for personal gain. Such an offense will now be a misdemeanor, starting in July.

Martinez has until March 7 to act on more than 80 bills additional bills passed during this year’s legislative session. Bills not signed by that deadline are automatically vetoed.

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