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County association outlines legislative goals

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“Counties are spending about a third of their budgets on jails,” said Brian Moore of New Mexico Counties about the rationale for certain legislative goals for 2019. “We need to figure out a way to manage that better.” (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

An association representing the 33 county governments in the state has identified issues surrounding the transport and care of prisoners, tax reform, law enforcement’s handling of claimed property and a change to the structure of the State Fire Marshal’s Office as some of its 2019 legislative priorities.

“We have a new governor, a new slate of legislators, so we aren’t really sure about what things will happen,” said Brian Moore, a former state legislator who now serves as the governmental relations representative with New Mexico Counties, formerly known as the New Mexico Association of Counties. “There are some really basic issues that we want to work on this year.”

Moore spoke at a Thursday meeting of the Southeast Regional Transportation Planning Organization in Roswell, which drew several local and state elected officials.

Many of the priorities identified so far by the group are intended to improve counties’ financial situations by asking for increased funding for existing programs or ways to address prior legislative actions that have caused budgetary strains on local governments.

Three are appropriation requests, with two involving the care and transport of inmates.

An existing law provides for $5 million a year for the state to reimburse counties that house state prisoners, but the state has cut funding for the program during difficult financial years. It now stands at $2.3 million. As a result, many counties are not being reimbursed for detention of state prisoners. The association will work for funding of $5 million a year.

At prior Chaves County Board of Commissioners meetings, Chaves County Detention Center Administrator Clay Corn has talked about how the county is receiving at least $600,000 a year less than what it should be reimbursed.

“We think it really needs to be like $7 million or $8 million,” Moore said about the appropriation request, “but we thought we’d start with $5 million again and see if we can’t get this situation corrected.”

Similarly, existing legislation requires the state to reimburse counties for transport and extradition of state prisoners, but no dedicated budget has existed for more than 20 years. The association is asking for $750,000 in funding.

The group also intends to ask for $5 million for the Emergency Medical Services Fund, established many years ago under the Department of Health but without any dedicated funding. The association is asking for a separate line budget to ensure funding, which Moore said is needed to help smaller communities pay for ambulance service and other medical services.

The association also hopes to introduce new legislation to require the state to provide behavioral health for adult and juvenile prisoners, with $1.5 million suggested for funding. “Counties are spending about a third of their budgets on jails,” Moore said. “We need to figure out a way to manage that better.” He said rural counties don’t always have access to mental health providers who can assess and treat inmates for substance addiction or mental health issues. He added that programs to help treat prisoners before their release are crucial.

The association is also joining in calls for substantive tax reform, which Moore said he thinks has a chance of making it through this session. “I’ve been very pessimistic that this stuff could ever get done,” he said. “But this year the Legislative Finance Committee for the first time in memory has really taken the bull by the horns and have been working on this.” One of the association’s aims is to seek fewer restrictions on how counties can use the gross receipts taxes that they can impose, he said. For example, some are restricted to quality of life or infrastructure taxes. “Most of them are unusable and most of them are unused, so what we are trying to do this year from our perspective is to take away the earmarks.”

Moving the State Fire Marshal’s Office out from the authority of the Public Regulatory Commission is another goal, which Moore said should help improve the regularity of funding to fire departments in the state and enable the State Fire Marshal position to be filled. The post has been vacant for a year.

Another legislative goal for 2019 is one supported previously by both the Roswell Police Department and the Chaves County Sheriff’s Office, changes in how law enforcement deals with what is termed abandoned property.

Amendments in 2015 to the New Mexico Forfeiture Law had some unintended consequences, Moore said. The changes said that law enforcement cannot sell or use property acquired during criminal investigations unless there has been a conviction. While that change is not disputed, it created the problem that law enforcement agencies are now required to store vehicles, boats and other property. The law also does not clearly define “abandoned property.” Moore said that New Mexico Counties will push for legislation that allows for law enforcement to cover its expenses in dealing with property issues.

In September 2017, the Roswell City Council passed a resolution to support legislation that would allow it to recoup its costs for storing property obtained during criminal cases.

Moore said additional goals could be developed after meeting with officers of the New Mexico Municipal League and in the remaining days before the legislative session starts Jan. 15.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.