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In Brief

House OKs Public Defender Shift

The House has voted for a proposed constitutional change that would make the Public Defender Department an independent state agency, rather than one under the control of the governor.

The chief public defender would be appointed by an 11-member commission under the proposal

It’s similar to a bill that passed the Legislature in 2008 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Bill Richardson.

“There’s really no chief executive that’s going to sign off on giving up power,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor of House Joint Resolution 26.

Because it would be a constitutional change, Maestas’s proposal would have to be approved by voters statewide if it passed the Legislature.

But the governor would not have an opportunity to veto it; constitutional amendments go directly to the ballot.

The House approved it 55-13, sending it to the Senate.

House Approves Pension Change

The House has approved a proposal to require legislators to contribute more into their pension plans, but the sponsor of the measure says the Legislature needs to scale back its retirement program.

Legislators don’t receive an annual salary, but they are eligible for a retirement program that requires them to contribute $500 a year. The House approved a bill Thursday to increase those yearly contributions to $600. The measure goes to the Senate for consideration.

Rep. Dennis Kintigh, a R-Roswell, sponsored the proposal but says more change is needed to make the legislative pension system less generous.

Another Kintigh measure would establish a minimum retirement age of 62 for legislators to get their pensions, but that has been shelved by a House committee.

Bill Would Clear Crime Records

The Senate voted 35-4 on Thursday to approve a bill that would allow some misdemeanor criminal charges to be expunged five years after conviction.

Charges of driving while intoxicated, however, could not be expunged. Domestic violence charges could not be expunged for 10 years.

The bill, SB 2, would also allow felony charges to be expunged from public record in cases where a jury acquits the accused individual or charges are dropped. Law enforcement officials would still have access to those records under the bill.

Sen. Richard Martinez, D-EspaƱola, said the bill is “one step toward righting some wrongs” for people who were wrongfully charged with crimes or convicted of petty crimes they’re trying to move past.

Critics said criminal charges are important information to which the public should have access.

From my viewpoint, people in the public do have the right to know that information,” said Sen. Mark Boitano, R-Albuquerque, who voted against the bill.

Public Corruption Bill Advances

A bill to enhance penalties for public officials convicted of corruption related crimes unanimously passed the Senate on Thursday.

Senate Bill 197, introduced by Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque, is a version of a bill passed by the House last week by a narrower margin of 41-26 that would allow public officials convicted of crimes like embezzlement or accepting a kickback to face criminal fines up to the full value of the individual’s salary and pension benefits.

The House version of the bill, HB 111, also allows for public officials to face up to one year extra jail time for corruption-related offenses.

Gov. Susana Martinez has touted increased penalties for corrupt public officials as one of her top priorities for the legislative session on the heels of former Public Regulation Commissioner Jerome Block’s conviction for fraudulent use of a state credit card. After conviction, Block continued his position with the PRC for nearly two weeks.
— This article appeared on page A6 of the Albuquerque Journal