Funding for crime victim notification system hard to find

By Matthew Reichbach

A system that keeps victims of crimes up to date on the status and court hearings of jailed offenders is still up and running in New Mexico — but for how long is not known.

The state’s district attorneys voted to continue the Victim Information and Notification Everyday, or VINE, system which was nearly a victim of shrinking budgets. Gov. Susana Martinez pocket vetoed a funding bill for VINE causing the scramble among district attorneys to keep the program for victims of crimes going.

The legislature passed a measure that would have funded “double what VINE costs by adding 10-to -35-cent-per-minute charges to inmates’ phone calls” according to the Las Cruces Sun-News.

The legislation passed the Senate on a 25-14 vote and passed the House on a unanimous 46-0 vote. The legislation was sponsored by conservative Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell. Companion legislation was sponsored by Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

The fiscal impact report on the legislation said that VINE actually would save money for taxpayers.

“VINE saves taxpayers money by eliminating the need to manually notify victims, allowing staff to focus on their core responsibilities; victim advocates currently mail notices to victims each time a change occurs in their case,” the Fiscal Impact Report stated. “Districts report that 40-50% of these notices are returned undelivered and that advocates spend nearly half of their work time on notifications. This cost staff hours, supplies and postage – and limits the protections envisioned by victim notification.”

Martinez argued that the bill which provided money for notifying victims of crimes through VINE would have created new and “arguably unnecessary state jobs.”

The Sun-News further quoted a statement from Martinez:

“As district attorney, she used the VINE system to supplement, not replace, the victim advocates in her office and wants to ensure that current and future DA offices cannot replace relationship with an automated system. The Governor supports efforts that will provide sustained funding for the VINE system to include potential partnerships with local and county entities.”

The burden on funding for the program now goes down the line to local areas in a time where government budgets are already facing shortfalls and reductions in services across the country.

The Sun-News reports that Doña Ana County will get by with local funding but it is not clear how other parts of the state will fund the program.

The system in in use around the country. Even conservative Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, whose push to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees is the impetus for historic recall elections in Wisconsin, has praised the system and approved funding as part of the state budget.

Martinez to fund food stamp extension with stimulus funds

Gov. Susana Martinez announced Monday that she was reversing a plan that would have slashed a food stamp extension that aids low income, elderly and disabled residents. The cuts were not in the budget that the Legislature passed and Martinez signed.

Martinez announced that the extension would be funded by the use of discretionary stimulus funds from the federal government. The funds will extend the program through September.

Martinez blamed the state legislature for the funds not being extended.

“Not only did our executive budget recommend an additional $10 million in Medicaid funding, but we aimed to fully fund the supplemental food stamp program for the next fiscal year as well,” Martinez said in a statement. “Though the Legislature chose to advance different priorities, I’m glad that we will be able to extend the food stamp program through September and discuss ways for it to be funded in the future.”

The money from the federal government must be spent by September or the money is taken away. Martinez previously eliminated $2.6 million in federal funding that she did not believe would be spent in time. That was money allocated by former Gov. Bill Richardson and will go towards, along with the food stamp extension, gas for state police.

The extension will continue the program where the minimum amount of food stamp benefits for elderly and disabled residents is $25 per month. The federal minimum is $16 per month, so the state covers the $9 extra per month in New Mexico.

Martinez also said that her line-item vetoes of the budget have cleared enough money to fund the program with state funds going forward. However, some of her line item vetoes are the subject of a lawsuit that seems destined for a date with the state Supreme Court. In one case, Martinez line item vetoed a single digit, turning a $150,000 appropriation to the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority into a $50,000 appropriation. Lawmakers contend this oversteps her constitutional authority as governor.

Martinez has not had much luck with the state’s high court, losing three rulings including one on slashing regulations and another on her decisions involving the state labor board. The state ruled unanimously that Martinez exceeded her authority in removing two members of the Public Employee Labor Relations Board.

Public employee unions have been the target of Republican governors throughout the nation, most notably in Wisconsin and Ohio.

Martinez hinted that the issue of funding this program could come during the special session for redistricting that will be held in the fall. Martinez has already said that the controversial issue of letting those in the country illegal get drivers licenses will be on the call for the special session.