Legislators gearing up for 2014 30-day session

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When the 30-day legislative session begins next week, the primary focus at the Roundhouse will be on the state's budget. But at least two legislators representing Valencia County are hoping to get on the governor's call with bills addressing needs within the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

Rep. Kelly Fajardo (R-District 7) is putting the final touches on a bill that will basically ask CYFD, "What are your policies?"

"That seems to be biggest question," Fajardo said. "As an advocate, a parent, an attorney — what are the policies, the procedures of how you get through the system? What is supposed to happen next? If I'm a parent who messed up, I am going to do everything to get back on track. But what's the process of dotting all the I's and crossing all the T's?"

The sophomore legislator said she was hesitant to use the word "transparency" to describe what she is proposing.

"We can't put families and kids in jeopardy," she said. "This is just trying to help the system and parties along, so they can become their own advocates."

After hearing criticism of CYFD in the wake of the death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela in Albuquerque last month, Sen. Clemente Sanchez (D-District 30) said he wanted to do address what has been called chronic staff shortages within the agency.

"I'm pretty familiar with CYFD," Sanchez said, pointing out that his wife retired from the Cibola County child protection office. "She tells me CYFD doesn't want more power or authority. What needs to be done is to reduce the case loads of social workers. They can't keep up."

Sanchez is hoping to introduce two bills — one to reduce the number of cases a social worker is allowed to handle, and a second to force the administration to use the money appropriated to the department.

"The first bill would let the social workers be more in tune with what's going on with their clients by having fewer to handle," Sanchez said. "And with the second issue, the excuse will be they can't spend the money because they can't find social workers. The bill I'm proposing would allow retired social workers to come back."

Sanchez acknowledges this would cause "double dipping," but thinks it's a necessity.

"In rural areas, you can't get a lot of social workers," he said. "And the people I'm talking about coming back would not be managers and supervisors. I'm talking about social workers who help kids."

Calling himself a "fiscal hawk," Sanchez said there are some new issues to look at in this year's budget.

"There are some things that are being proposed that haven't been done in past, such as using taxpayer money to fund lottery scholarships. And I have mixed feelings about that. They should be paid through lottery proceeds. The scholarships are very important but I think they should be paid through the lottery."

Sanchez has pre-filed Senate Bill 22, an amendment that would change the deadline for tribes to become a part of the 2007 gaming compacts.

"In 2007, Gov. Richardson was trying to force five tribes to get into compacts; it was arm twisting and bullying. He gave them 240 days," Sanchez said. "This bill is trying to remove that and allow those five tribes to sign the 2007 compact."

Another bill Fajardo is cosponsoring with Sen. Michael Padilla (D-Albuquerque) will help protect New Mexico's elderly.

Fajardo said currently, there are no minimum standards of training required for people hired to care for elderly patients in their homes.

"A company can hire a 16- or 18-year-old to come in and take care of your mom or dad with no required training," Fajardo said. "This bill will address that. It will make sure caregivers know how to pick up a person if they fall, know CPR, can tell the difference between a 500 mg pill and a 1,000 mg pill."

During listening sessions around the state, Fajardo said she was expecting resistance and push back from businesses that provide in-home caregivers.

"We got a good response from the businesses. Most of them do training anyway," she said. "But we have more and more companies coming into the state and we need to watch."

Fajardo is waiting to see if the bill will make it onto the governor's call.

And while the budget looks to be in good shape, Fajardo said she is also concerned about the fate of the lottery scholarship program.

"We definitely have to deal with the problem," she said. "The thought right now is, 'Let's use state money.' But is that a long-term approach? We need real fixes before we use state money. We want our kids to go to college, but I think this needs a lot of discussion."

On the subject of capital outlay funding, Fajardo said it was her understanding that the governor wants to use some of that funding for water projects.

"If you take capital outlay from rural areas like ours, it's a huge hit," she said. "I think that's going to be contentious."

To prepare for her first session, Rep. Vickie Perea (R-50) spent most of November in Santa Fe, attending interim committee meetings to familiarize herself with the issues.

"The No. 1 priority is the budget so whatever amount of time and emphasis we need to place on the budget is our charge," Perea said.

She said she will listen carefully to all arguments about funding the lottery scholarships.

"I will say that we have a lot of students depending on the lottery," she said. "It is definitely an issue that I'm going to listen to very attentively."

While she hasn't put forward any legislation herself, Perea said she may co-sponsor bills later in the session.

"Probably besides the budget, the things that I really look to see come out of this session are ways to grow the economy — the job market is critical — and meaningful education reform," she said. "We rank 49th in education. We have got to do something."

Sen. Michael Sanchez (D-29) has pre-filed two bills for this session.

Senate Bill 1 asks for $250,000 to the state land office to assess the feasibility of buying land identified by the federal bureau of land management as being subject to disposal for the purpose of generating revenue.

Senate Bill 2 calls for quarterly meetings of the state fair commission, instead of annual, and giving the commission or individual commissioners the authority to request and receive public records of the state fair.

Sen. Michael Sanchez and Rep. Alonzo Baldonado (R-8) could not be reached for comment before the News-Bulletin's deadline.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.