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Bill shines light on state settlements

A bill on state settlement transparency will be considered again at this year’s legislative session. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE – A bill aimed at shining more light on how much money New Mexico spends on settling allegations of discrimination within state government is being brought back for the upcoming 30-day legislative session – with the backing of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, recently said he’s been working on the issue with General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz and other legislators, and said the bill would be an improved version of the measure that passed the Senate last year, but ultimately stalled in the House.

“We’ve had everybody together at the table,” Rue said. “I think we’ve got the wind at our back.”

Under last year’s version of the proposal, any settlement agreements would have been required to be posted on the state’s online sunshine portal, along with the nature of the allegations and the total amount of public funds paid to settle the claim.

In addition, the bill would have left in place a 180-day waiting period before settlements are made publicly available, but would have made it more clear when that time period begins.

Rue said the bill currently being drafted would be more comprehensive than the 2019 version and would also make changes to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

The proposal comes as legal settlements approved by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration during her second term in office have come under intense scrutiny.

State Auditor Brian Colón announced in November that a special audit commissioned by his office had identified $2.7 million in fast-tracked legal settlements that were kept secret under confidentiality agreements.

He described the settlements as an “abuse of power” and forwarded the findings to the state Attorney General’s Office, the 1st Judicial District Attorney’s office in Santa Fe, and the new state Ethics Commission.

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the revised settlement transparency bill would be authorized by the governor for consideration during this year’s session. The shorter, 30-day sessions held in even-numbered years are typically limited to budgetary matters and other issues approved for consideration by the governor.

“We’re hoping to get that fixed,” Stelnicki said.

Under the Lujan Grisham administration, the state General Services Department started publicly listing settlement agreements in June 2019. But there is currently no law in place mandating such public disclosure, meaning the practice could be discontinued in the future.

“This information is public information – the trick is at what point,” Rue said. “We’re trying to create a situation where it will be made public automatically.”

Rue has pre-filed a proposal for this year’s session, Senate Bill 64, that would make state settlements subject to public disclosure the day they’re signed by all parties.

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