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New Mexico may discipline, fine workers who release records

March 2, 2021 GMT
A fence is seen surrounding the State Capitol in Santa Fe, on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. Republican lawmakers in New Mexico have asked that the state remove protective barriers erected around the state Capitol following the Jan. 6 insurrection in which supporters of former President Donald Trump broke into the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. Republicans in the state legislature asked the Legislative Council on Tuesday to remove the fences around the facility, arguing that "the threat has not materialized." (Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican via AP)
A fence is seen surrounding the State Capitol in Santa Fe, on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. Republican lawmakers in New Mexico have asked that the state remove protective barriers erected around the state Capitol following the Jan. 6 insurrection in which supporters of former President Donald Trump broke into the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election. Republicans in the state legislature asked the Legislative Council on Tuesday to remove the fences around the facility, arguing that "the threat has not materialized." (Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican via AP)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — State employees could be fired or fined up to $5,000 for identifying people who receive public benefits or for releasing information about an individual’s immigration status, national origin, religion or sexual orientation, under a bill endorsed Monday by New Mexico’s Senate.

The bill from Democratic state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and Rep. Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque is backed by advocacy groups for immigrant communities, and the state Health Department says the restrictions could help vaccine deployment efforts by increasing trust that state agencies will treat immigration status confidentially.

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The bill advanced on a 34-6 vote of the Senate over the objections of government transparency advocates and the state attorney general’s office that oversees education and enforcement of the state Inspection of Public Records Act. State health officials still worry the bill could interfere with the sharing of data among government agencies.

Five Republicans voted against the initiative along with Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, an openly gay legislator who sought tougher legal consequences for disclosures of confidential information.

Sedillo Lopez has dismissed opposition to the bill by a government transparency group as disappointing and odd.

“What this bill will do is it will protect all of our information,” Sedillo Lopez said Monday. “State employees will now get trained about what information is confidential and state employees will also know that there are consequences.”

The bill would prohibit state employees from intentionally disclosing “sensitive personal information” with exceptions for judicial proceedings, necessary state functions, federal subpoenas, whistleblower lawsuits on government wrongdoing, health insurance access and requests made under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.

Confidential information would include the ”status of a recipient of public assistance or as a crime victim,” along with information about gender identity and physical or mental disabilities.

“Folks felt that there is sometimes a stigma attached to requesting public assistance,” said Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán, legal director for the immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido that backs the bill.

Critics of the proposal say the law already bans the release of personal data such as tax ID and driver’s license numbers and warn the new bill would make some records confidential by default, including information related to public spending.

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“We know of no wholesale release of sensitive information by state agencies. This is a hammer looking for a nail,” said Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

The state attorney general’s office says the reforms would inject ambiguity into disclosure statutes for public documents.

“Ultimately, the legislature must strike a careful balance to protect and strengthen the release of public information unless it exploits victims or endangers families,” said Matt Baca, a spokesman for the agency, in an email.

Enforcement of the initiative would fall to the state attorney general, district attorneys and the State Ethics Commission, with fines of up to $250 per violation and up to $5,000 combined, along with possible disciplinary action.