County leaders air concerns on legislative session
April 21, 2017
TUCUMCARI — The state’s budget, cuts to funding and recent and future legislation were the topics of discussion Wednesday at a New Mexico Association of Counties meeting.
NMAC board members, area county officials and state senators came together Thursday at Mesalands Community College for NMAC’s District 4 legislative meeting at the North American Wind Research and Training Center.
District 4 consists of Curry, DeBaca, Guadalupe, Quay, Roosevelt and Torrance County.
“Legislators need to go back to Santa Fe, work on a budget that does not cut out funding to education and critical services,” Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said.
Woods said legislators needs to take a closer look at what to cut and where to cut.
During the recent legislative session, Gov. Susana Martinez signed 135 bills into law, pocket enacted two bills, vetoed 84 bills and pocket vetoed 56, said Tyler Massey, NMAC president.
The main bill signed by Martinez that was discussed was House Bill 4, which swept funds from the Fire Protection fund.
The bill not only swept money from the funds, but restructured the funding distribution, said Mike Cherry, Quay County commissioner.
Cherry said the funds are the main source of money used by fire departments for the operational cost, maintenance and purchasing of equipment.
Fire departments are used to receiving the funds in a lump sum in July, but this will change to monthly distribution, said Brian Moore, NMAC lobbyist.
Cherry said the problem with this is the payments will not come in until the excise tax is collected. He said this means that departments will not receive their July distribution until the end of August or beginning of September.
Cherry said all of the Quay County volunteer fire departments have been advised to closely monitor spending. He said while it does not appear this change in distribution will have an immediate impact on departments, it could become an issue in the future. Currently, fire departments cannot roll over their funding to the next year, which means any unspent money goes back to the state, he added.
Cherry said departments across the state will have to be operating on a monthly payment to cover all expenses. He said this will be an issue when trying to purchase big-ticket items and unexpected repair costs.
“This is an issue for all fire departments,” said Benjamin Smith, Curry County commissioner.
Smith said the cuts made in this last legislative session have saddled the budget on the backs of the counties. He said cuts have been made to various services that the counties are having to make up the difference or lose the service all together.
“I appreciate the NMAC for holding this meeting to give officials an update on what legislation passed, failed or is forthcoming,” Smith said.
Senate Bill 202 was discussed by Sen. Daniel Ivey Soto, District 15, and Quay County Sheriff Russell Shafer. This bill covers property forfeiture, seizure and disposal authorities by local and state law enforcement agencies; property can be seized and disposed of only following a conviction.
Soto said the bill was intended to address problems that stemmed from House Bill 560 that was passed in 2015. He said HB 560 prevented sheriff’s offices from entering into asset sharing with the federal government. This has a major impact for rural areas and drug corridors — including Interstate 40 — excluding agencies state-wide from $4.5 million in federal funding, Soto added.
Shafer said through federal asset sharing, if $600,000 was seized during a traffic stop, it would be turned over to the federal government. He said once all the court proceedings were conducted and the money was declared abandoned or proven to be connected to an illegal activity, the seizing agency would get 80 percent of that money back.
"The money could be used by the agency for different purposes, including purchasing equipment," Shafer said.
Shafer said after HB 560 was passed and the prevention of asset sharing was put into effect, the money was placed into an interest-bearing account and when the proceedings are done, it now goes directly to the New Mexico State Treasurer's Office.
Soto said the second issue to be addressed is that standards were set at the state level saying a conviction was needed to seize the property. He said this did not include municipalities, which many have their own ordinances regarding property seizure.
“This has resulted in instances where property seizure has occurred under extreme circumstances,” Soto said, citing an incident that occurred in New Mexico when parents lent their car to their daughter, and the daughter took the car to a repair shop to fix a problem. The mechanic assigned to fix the car took the car for a drive to recreate the issue.
“The driver was stopped for running a stop sign, had a prior DWI, his license was revoked and the car was seized,” Soto said.
Soto said this bill made it through the Senate but never went up for vote on the House floor. He said the bill died when legislators did not call it up for a vote unless there was an amendment made to exclude municipalities from the conviction clause.
“I was wondering why this bill died after is had so much support from the Association of Counties,” Shafer said.
Rebecca Long, NMAC vice president, said this is an important piece of legislation as there are millions in federal funding that could be coming into our state agencies from the federal government.
Long, also a Lea County commissioner, said she has worked on this issue for over a year with former and present Lea County sheriffs. She said with the state calling back money from local communities, this is a way to have money coming back.
“Anyone who can bring the ACLU and sheriff’s offices together on the same side deserves applause for their efforts,” Massey said.