A measure aimed at overhauling New Mexico’s guardianship laws cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were in resounding agreement that a system meant to protect some of the state’s most vulnerable residents was in need of serious improvement.
The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill, while acknowledging that the issue was complex and the legislation would still need more work before it could be considered by the rest of the chamber.
The committee also voiced concerns about funding for what some have described as a major paradigm shift.
“We are bringing this bill because the New Mexico guardianship and conservatorship system is very broken. It is a tragedy,” said Jack Burton, a Santa Fe-based attorney who worked on the legislation.
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The system was thrust into the spotlight following a series of investigative articles published last year by the Albuquerque Journal that raised questions about the lack of oversight and transparency.
The New Mexico Supreme Court followed up with the creation of a commission that was charged with studying the system. That panel has since made numerous recommendations, some of which have been incorporated into the bill.
The push for change also has been bolstered by recent federal criminal cases in which executives from two nonprofit firms that handled guardianship and conservatorship duties in New Mexico allegedly embezzled millions of dollars of client funds.
“We’ve been hearing horror stories for so long. … This is a real step forward for individual rights,” said Sen. Jeff Steinborn, a Las Cruces Democrat.
Those placed under guardianship or conservatorships are typically elderly, those with dementia or Alzheimer’s or others who need help with their decision-making or finances. Under the current system, guardianship proceedings are secret and families have complained about being barred from visiting or communicating with their loved ones once a professional guardian is appointed.
The measure would require guardianship proceedings to be open to the public and that more notification be given to family members when a legal guardian is appointed and if guardians fail to carry out their duties. It also spells out the powers and duties of guardians and conservators and sets limitations.
State District Judge Shannon Bacon was among top judicial officials from around the state who attended Thursday’s committee meeting in Santa Fe. She said the issue is important for New Mexicans and also for the court system.
While the judges voiced support for the changes, they also cautioned lawmakers to consider the fiscal implications. For example, they said the requirement for attorneys to be appointed in certain circumstances has the potential to create another budgetary crisis for the courts.
There would also be administrative costs associated with transitioning to a new system. Bacon estimated that some 24,000 cases would need to be reviewed to determine which are still active.
Bacon said the courts could use $1 million in one-time funding that is currently earmarked in the proposed state budget to establish the infrastructure that will be needed to eventually implement the changes.
“I feel we have a responsibility to fund it,” said Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos. “We have been treating our disabled quite badly and we need some reforms.”
Citing numerous complexities, some in the audience urged lawmakers to take more time on the issue.