- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2020

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico would immediately disclose any new financial settlements that resolve accusations of wrongdoing by state officials under a bipartisan proposal introduced in the state Senate on Wednesday.

The proposal, authored by Republican Sen. Sander Rue of Albuquerque and supported by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, responds to concerns that the current system led to secretive, unjustified payouts under former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

The reforms would make public the terms of taxpayer-funded settlement as soon as agreements are either signed, paid out or mandated by a jury award.

A review last year by the state auditor found settlement payouts were awarded without proper protocols or full investigations and appeared to be engineered to protect Martinez’s political legacy. Some of the settlements were sealed until Martinez left office at the end of 2018.

“What what this bill does is close the loopholes and the opportunities for people to game this process and essentially use taxpayer dollars to, in some cases perhaps, pay individuals off,” Rue said.

The General Services Department last year began publishing all settlement agreements overseen by its risk-management division after a 180-day waiting period.

General Service Secretary Ken Ortiz says current secrecy provision appears to date back to legal claims against the state in aftermath the 1980 riot at a state penitentiary outside Santa Fe that left more than 30 inmates dead.

“The Legislature enacted this bill to prevent, I guess, knowledge of one claimant’s settlement versus another,” Ortiz said. “They wanted to handle those independently. That was the intent.”

Rue said he believes some redaction of settlement agreements should be allowed to ensure that people are not discouraged from reporting problems in state government.

The initiative is co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Linda Trujillo of Santa Fe and Christine Chandler of Los Alamos.

A related bill would ensure settlements continue to be published by future administrations on the state’s Sunshine Portal, a clearinghouse for information about state contracts, salaries, budgets and income.

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