Photo: Hermit’s Peak by Jerry Friedman

By Phil Scherer, Las Vegas Optic | February 11, 2021


The San Miguel County Board of Commissioners formally voted to oppose a piece of legislation working its way through New Mexico’s Roundhouse that would permit an individual to bring legal action against a public body for violating their civil rights. The bill would also strip entities of the qualified immunity defense.

The commission voted in opposition of House Bill 4, citing the high potential cost of claims filed if it passes through the legislature, and urging the Legislature to commit more resources to behavioral health prevention and treatment, believing that behavioral health issues are the cause for many civil rights claims against local governments.

HB4, also known as the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, seeks to strip qualified immunity from governmental agencies. Qualified immunity can shield law enforcement officers from being held personally liable for actions that are found to violate a person’s constitutional rights.

When it was originally introduced, there was no cap set on the damages individuals could collect on claims under this act, which opponents of the bill, including the San Miguel County Board of Commissioners, claim would drive up the costs on local governments, potentially making them uninsurable.

However, last week, the House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill, while adding a $2 million cap on damages per claim, which the sponsors of the bill, including House Speaker Brian Egolf, hope will alleviate some of those concerns. The latest edit to the bill also removed a person’s ability to pursue legal claims against an individual for civil rights violations, limiting the claims to only public bodies.

The bill will next be presented to the entire state House of Representatives.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners voted in support of establishing a state public bank, a measure that is also working its way through the state legislature.

Dee and George Gamble, who presented to the commission, say that establishing a public bank would help keep more money in the state, and out of big corporations, which they said would help the state’s economy. The Gambles said the public bank would work in conjunction with local banks and credit unions to help the local economy, and could provide a more convenient funding source for local governments and school districts to complete projects.

Currently, only North Dakota has established a statewide public bank, which has been in operation for over 100 years. In North Dakota, it is the only legal depository for state funds, meaning state agencies are required to place their funds in the bank. However, local agencies are not required to do so.

Commissioner Max Trujillo, who sponsored the bill alongside Vice Chair Janice Varela, said he likes that this would provide another way for local businesses to sustain themselves during difficult times, such as the one the state is currently experiencing.

“I was relieved there was another option for individuals and businesses to obtain capital and sustain their livelihood,” Trujillo said.

The bill has previously received recommendations from local governments in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe.

The Gambles said the idea would be for the bank to be established using $50 million from the state’s Severance Fund to guarantee initial loans. After that, the interest from the initial payments would help sustain the bank moving forward.

No formal action has been taken by the legislature regarding this act at this time.