- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

New Mexico now has a law that ensures children are served school meals even if their parents do not pay on time and prohibits schools from calling attention to children whose lunch accounts are overdrawn to avoid any stigma.

Gov. Susana Martinez signed the legislation ahead of Friday’s deadline for acting on the dozens of bills passed during the recent legislative session.

Advocates say the school lunch bill - also known as the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights - is novel legislation and no other state has taken such a step.

“This bill draws a line in the sand between the student and the unpaid school meal fees that their parents or guardians owe, oftentimes because they cannot afford to pay on time,” said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, a nonprofit group focuses on poverty.

In New Mexico, where poverty rates are among the highest in the nation, there was a backlash against school districts that used to serve cold cheese sandwiches to students who could not pay. So-called lunch shaming has taken on other forms elsewhere, from Arizona to Pennsylvania.

New Mexico’s legislation outlines debt-collection procedures for unpaid breakfasts and lunches at public, private and religious schools that accept federal subsidies for student meals.

Another bill signed by the two-term Republican governor bans the use on minors of conversion therapy that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Similar laws have been enacted in about a half-dozen states.

Bill sponsor Democrat Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque called the signing historic, saying New Mexico has a commitment to protect all children from abuse and that the issue transcends party labels and ideological differences.

Martinez also vetoed a number of proposals, including one that would have revealed who donates to independent political groups that spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. The bill responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United case that opened the door for corporations and unions to make unlimited independent expenditures in elections.

Martinez was also criticized for vetoing a bill designed to prevent shootings in domestic disputes by banning the possession or purchase of firearms by people under permanent protective orders for domestic violence incidents

Martinez said judges should retain the authority to prohibit or allow an individual to possess firearms in those instances. But Miranda Viscoli of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence argued that judges are not removing guns in many volatile domestic violence situations, endangering families and law enforcement officers.

The veto lengthens a list of gun-safety bills that failed to win approve this year in New Mexico. Others would have banned the open carrying of guns in the capitol building and required federal background checks on nearly all private gun transactions.

Some Senate leaders and behavioral health advocates also voiced frustration with the governor for not signing legislation that would have allowed health care providers accused of fraud to review and respond to the allegations against them in a hearing or in court.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen sponsored the bill in response to a shake-up within the behavioral health care system that started in 2013 when the state froze payments to 15 nonprofits that provided services to the state’s most needy residents.

The state pointed to an audit identifying $36 million in Medicaid overpayments. The attorney general’s office eventually cleared the providers of criminal wrongdoing.

Martinez also did not take up a bill that would have reshaped the political landscape for school boards, cities and other nonpartisan local governments in New Mexico by consolidating election and putting them before voters in November every other year.

Experts had suggested that doing so could boost turnout. Currently, such elections draw little attention, with some failing to garner a single ballot.

“Democracy and elections are not successful if only a few people vote,” Dona Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling said, vowing to keep pushing for the change.

Chile license plates also took up some of the debate during the 60-day session, but Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the bill that would have allowed plates recognizing the state’s affinity for the hot peppers to be issued and the fee to go toward supporting the state farm and ranch museum.

Instead, her administration announced Friday that the state Motor Vehicle Division would issue a plate featuring chilies and a declaration that New Mexico is the “chile capital of the world.” It will have yellow lettering on a black background.

It’s being launched as a standard plate and will require no additional fees.

Martinez said the new plates will send a strong message about the significant role chile plays in the state’s culture.

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