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FRI: Windfall boosts chances of New Mexico pay raises and policing, + More

New Mexico House Chamber
Morgan Lee/AP
FILE - Preparations are made at the New Mexico Senate chamber as state lawmakers trickle into the Statehouse on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M., on the first day of a 60-day legislative session. Political boundaries are being redrawn by New Mexico's Democrat-led Legislature in a sparsely populated state where Hispanics and Native Americans account for roughly six in 10 residents. The Legislature convenes Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, to forge new district boundaries for three congressional districts and 112 seats in the state Legislature, along with a Public Education Commission that oversees charter schools. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

Windfall boosts chances of New Mexico pay raises, policing - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico government economists on Friday announced a new surge in state income as legislators consider proposals to raise pay for public school teachers, a possible hiring spree for local police officers and new efforts to bolster essential public services amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The new revenue forecast predicts a $1.6 billion surplus in state general fund income in excess of current spending obligations for the fiscal year starting on July 1, 2022.

The petroleum sector accounts for most of the new money because of record-setting oil production in New Mexico's portion of the fertile Permian Basin oil and gas formation.

New Mexico has overtaken North Dakota as the nation's second-largest oil producer behind Texas. Natural gas production also has accelerated in New Mexico.

The new state government income forecast — revised upward by more than $200 million since August — sets a benchmark for budget negotiations when the Legislature convenes in January 2022 to craft a general fund spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

Economists from the Legislature and three state agencies warned that state government finances are closely linked to world oil prices that could recoil from any signal of economic recession, as health officials closely monitor the omnicron variant of COVID-19.

New Mexico's economy has recovered about two-thirds of the jobs that were lost at the outset of the pandemic in 2020, said state Taxation and Revenue Secretary Stephanie Schardin Clarke

"We still have a big percentage of our population that is in a difficult financial situation," Clarke said. "We see the stock market doing so well. ... I just want us not to forget that there is a whole sector of the economy that has not experienced those gains."

Income for many state residents has dropped with the expiration of federal stimulus payments.

New Mexico authorities have spent more than $600 million in federal pandemic aid to replenish the state unemployment insurance trust without raising taxes on employers, with more than $1 billion pandemic aid still unassigned.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is urging legislators to take action soon to appropriate that federal relief — soliciting spending bills during a special legislative session focused on redistricting that begins Monday and extends indefinitely in advance of the year-end holidays.

Democratic Senate finance committee Chairman George Muñoz of Gallup wants the Legislature to consider depositing the pandemic aid in the state general fund, which he said would buy time to thoroughly examine infrastructure projects and ways to provide better education and training to New Mexico's workforce.

Lujan Grisham is calling for a 7% pay raise for public school workers and higher minimum pay for teachers at various stages in their careers. She has roughly outlined a proposal that would provide $100 million to boost staffing at state and local police agencies.

New Mexico's political divide over federal energy policy was on prominent display Friday, as legislators on the state´s lead budget writing committee peppered economists with questions about the oil sector of the economy.

Republican state Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs warned that future state government income would be at risk if the U.S. government imposes a moratorium on oil lease sales on public lands.

The state expects to receive $1.44 billion in annual income from oil and natural gas production on federal land through payments for royalties and lease bonus payments.

¨I think it´s a huge risk down the road,¨ Kernan said. ¨I do think we are going to see an impact."

The Biden administration in November recommended an overhaul of the nation's oil and gas leasing program to limit areas available for energy development and raise costs for oil and gas companies to drill on public land and water.

The state is expected to end the current fiscal year in June of 2022 with a general fund balance of $2.5 billion — equal to about 35% of annual spending commitments.

As recently as 2017, New Mexico temporarily slashed spending to state colleges and universities in response to faltering oil prices and reduced government income.

Looming over the budget surplus are New Mexico's commitments to underwrite a portion of Medicaid coverage for people with low income.

Enrollment in the program surged during the pandemic and supplemental federal payments are set to expire in the spring of 2022.

Rio Arriba sheriff resigns following convictions, sentencing - Associated Press

James Lujan resigned as Rio Arriba County sheriff after being sentenced to prison on felony convictions of aiding a felon and intimidating a witness in 2017.

Lujan submitted his resignation Thursday after being sentenced to a three-year prison term one day after state District Court jurors convicted him following a three-day trial.

A judge denied a request by Lujan's attorney that his client remain free pending an appeal, and the 60-year-old Lujan was taken into custody by Santa Fe County sheriff's deputies.

Lujan was convicted on charges stemming from allegations he helped former Española City Councilor Philip Chacon evade police following a high-speed chase.

The jury found Lujan guilty of harboring a felon for helping conceal Chacon as police were searching for him.

Lujan also was found guilty of bribery of a witness for threatening one of his deputies to prevent him from revealing Chacon's whereabouts to other officers.

New Mexico approves public financing for cannabis businesses - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico will provide business loans of up to $250,000 toward small-scale cannabis businesses in an effort to provide economic opportunity to communities that were hit hard by past criminal enforcement of marijuana laws.

The Regulation and Licensing Department on Thursday announced that the loan program is moving forward, after a legislative panel provided approval this week.

The New Mexico Finance Authority is planning for a $5 million line of credit for cannabis entrepreneurs, with average loan size of about $100,000. The application process is expected to open in February.

Loans would be available to qualified cannabis "microbusinesses" that are licensed to cultivate and sell marijuana from up to 200 plants at a single location, operating much like a craft winery or brewery.

That business niche was authorized in sweeping legislation to regulate and tax recreational marijuana sales, signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham earlier this year. Recreational cannabis sales commence by April 1, 2022.

Terms of the small business loans will extend for up to five years with interest rates from 2% to 3%.

New Mexico Finance Authority CEO Marquita Russel has noted that traditional business loans are still scarce for small-scale cannabis entrepreneurs.

New Mexico has emphasized social and economic fairness as it prepares to legalize and tax sales of recreational cannabis.

Marijuana possession and growing remains a federal crime, despite changes in state and tribal law. And a recent federal raid on a household marijuana garden on tribal land in northern New Mexico has renewed worries about U.S. drug enforcement priorities.

Details of teacher raise proposal emerge in New Mexico - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico education officials are expected to share details of a $200 million plan to increase teacher salaries by at least 7% in a presentation to a powerful Legislative committee Friday.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced this week that she wants teachers in her state to be the best paid in the region based on 2019 numbers by raising salaries to $64,000 on average.

The Legislature is likely to back a salary increase, with a boon in revenue expected from oil revenues, and school districts already flush with cash from pandemic relief money.

Neighboring states are also getting federal money, and seeing the economy rebound.

"They're likely to be passing salary increases also," said state Sen. Bill Soules, chair of the Senate Education Committee, which will likely consider the legislation in January once it is written.

Proposed legislation in neighboring Colorado would implement a minimum salary of $40,000, slightly less than what New Mexico is now. Earlier this year, Texas created a Teacher Incentive Allotment that allows up to $32,000 in payments to teachers who oversee growth in their student's academic outcomes, meaning some teachers can earn $100,000 annually.

New Mexico has already created incentives to pay teachers to work a longer school year, but school district leaders have declined the money citing disinterest among staff and parents.

In New Mexico, fewer young people are choosing to become teachers, and those who are teaching tend to be older, tied only with Maine for the most elderly teacher population. Many are entering retirement.

"We are losing so many people out of the profession right now," said Soules ahead of the Friday hearing. "My biggest concern in education right now is there are no teachers to be had."

Teacher vacancies in the small state have increased to around 1,000 this year. Schools are also struggling to find nurses, counselors, teaching assistants, and bus drivers.

Soules said that the Legislature has made its own recommendation on pay increases for teachers that are similar to Lujan Grishams, but a lot of details still need to be worked out, like how to raise salaries for those who are between the three tiers of pay scale.

Under the Lujan Grisham proposal, entry-level teachers could see a pay increase of around 20%, bumping the minimum teacher salary to $50,000.

As with the current salary minimums, they apply equally across the state including in rural areas where living costs are lower. Teachers in urban districts like Santa Fe and Albuquerque say their pay hasn't kept up with the costs of rent and childcare.

Despite the relative pay advantage, rural districts also struggle to attract teachers. Some have resorted to four-day weeks to make teaching more attractive.

The Public Education Department has taken steps to make becoming a teacher easier, like sponsoring 500 teaching assistant positions for people who want classroom experience while they study to become a teacher.

Legislation proposed by the governor would also allocate $1.5 million for educator recruitment and $500,000 to support teachers seeking certifications that can increase their pay.

Majority-minority state redraws political map, alliances - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Political boundaries are being redrawn by New Mexico's Democrat-led Legislature in a sparsely populated state where Hispanics and Native Americans account for roughly six in 10 residents.

The Legislature convenes Monday at noon to forge new district boundaries for three congressional districts and 112 seats in the state Legislature, along with a Public Education Commission that oversees charter schools.

The process will reshape a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico that flipped to Republican control in 2020.

Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take control of the U.S. House and effectively freeze President Joe Biden's agenda on climate change, the economy and other issues.

In New Mexico, Democrats for the first time in 30 years will control both the governor's office and Legislature during redistricting, with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham holding veto authority over the process.

Advocates for ethnic and racial minority populations are pushing a plan that would divvy voters from the conservative southeastern corner of the state into three congressional districts. The state Republican Party party has denounced the plan as gerrymandering.

"I think we have different definitions of communities of interest and fair representation," said Oriana Sandoval, CEO of the Center for Civic Policy that favors an overhaul of the 2nd District that would ensure Latinos a 55% share of the voting-age population. "What we heard from our members in the current status quo is not giving fair representation to that part of the state."

New Mexico is among several states including Indiana that used a citizens advisory board to temper political inclinations without taking redistricting powers away from state lawmakers. Judges might wind up using the advisory maps to resolve redistricting lawsuits.

New Mexico's redistricting committee vetted maps at a series of public meetings across the state and endorsed three options each for Congress, the state House and state Senate. Legislators can adopt, amend or discard those maps.

"Changes are inevitable, but at the same time honoring the work that they've done," said state Sen. Bill O'Neill, D-Albuquerque. All three of the recommended state Senate maps would pair O'Neill against a Democratic colleague in the next election.

He doesn't expect Democratic legislators to press their advantage to preserve or expand power.

"We're New Mexico, we're better" than that, O'Neill said. "We have a tradition of working together."

States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years to reflect new population numbers.

New Mexico presents unusual challenges in efforts to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act and preserve communities of interest and give minority voters a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice.

Nearly 48% of state residents claim Hispanic ancestry — the highest portion in the nation. The share of New Mexico residents who identify themselves as Indigenous by race or by combined ancestry is 12.4%.

The state is home to 23 federally recognized tribes, whose growing political clout is reflected in the election of Laguna Pueblo tribal member Deb Haaland to Congress in 2016 and her promotion this year to secretary of the Interior.

The governor also has opened the special legislative session in December to new proposals for spending roughly $1 billion in federal pandemic relief.

Police in Nevada ID girl from New Mexico found dead in 1980 - Associated Press

Police in southern Nevada announced Thursday they identified a 17-year-old New Mexico girl as the victim of a killing 41 years ago, and called her case an active murder investigation.

The teen, Tammy Corrine Terrell, was last seen Sept. 28, 1980, with a man and a woman at a restaurant after a state fair in Roswell, New Mexico, said Henderson police Capt. Jonathan Boucher.

Her body was found Oct. 5, 1980, in what at the time was a desert area outside Las Vegas.

"Now we're only halfway there," Boucher told reporters during a news conference at which he asked for public help in the investigation. "Now the pursuit of Tammy's killer or killers begins."

The Clark County coroner determined Terrell died of blunt force trauma and ruled her death a homicide. With her name unknown, she was dubbed "Arroyo Grande Jane Doe" after the place where she was found.

Reports said she was stabbed and beaten to death, possibly with a hammer. She had facial injuries, multiple head wounds and puncture or stab wounds on her back. One of her teeth had apparently been knocked out.

Fingerprint and dental characteristics were logged with national databases, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children circulated a rendering of the victim in 2015. A description included references to a crude, apparently amateur "S" tattoo made with blue ink on the inside of her right forearm.

Boucher said DNA samples taken from the body at the time were recently reanalyzed and matched through genetic genealogy with DNA from two of Terrell's sisters. Boucher said the women were grateful to finally know what happened to her.

Boucher credited Henderson police Detective John Williams, the initial investigator of the case, with continuing to work on it even after he retired in 2006.

The police captain said he recently learned that Williams and his wife paid for Terrell's burial and still visit her gravesite on the anniversary of the discovery of her body.

"The amount of work Joe has put in is just astonishing," Boucher said, standing with the current lead investigator in the case, Detective Joseph Ebert. "Their efforts have finally paid off."

Rio Arriba County sheriff is sentenced to 3 years in prison -Associated Press

Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan was sentenced to three years in prison Thursday after being convicted on two felony counts of aiding a felon and intimidating a witness in 2017.

Jurors in 1st Judicial District Court deliberated about five hours before reaching the verdicts Wednesday.

Prosecutors said Lujan faced a prison term of up to 4 ½ years.

A judge denied a request by Lujan's attorney Thursday that his client remain free pending an appeal.

The 60-year-old Lujan was taken into custody by Santa Fe County sheriff's deputies.

The verdict came after a three-day trial for Lujan, which was his second on the charges that stem from allegations he helped former Española City Councilor Philip Chacon evade police following a high-speed chase.

The jury found Lujan guilty of harboring a felon for helping conceal Chacon as police were searching for him.

Lujan also was found guilty of bribery of a witness for threatening one of his deputies to prevent him from revealing Chacon's whereabouts to other officers.

The first trial in the case ended in a mistrial in June after jurors deadlocked.

Lujan still is awaiting trial on three misdemeanor counts of resisting, evading or obstructing an officer in another case involving Chacon in 2000.

Navajo Nation reports 142 more COVID-19 cases, 1 more death – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 142 more COVID-19 cases and one additional death.

The latest daily virus figures brought the tribe's totals to 39,768 cases and 1,547 known deaths since the pandemic began.

Based on cases from Nov. 12-25, the Navajo Department of Health on Monday issued an advisory for 65 communities due to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez has again called for everyone on the vast reservation to get fully vaccinated or get a booster shot and wear masks.

Health care providers and facilities across the Navajo Nation are administering COVID-19 vaccines and appointments are readily available.

The reservation covers 27,000 square miles and extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Baldwin: 'Someone is responsible' for shooting, but 'not me' - By Andrew Dalton Ap Entertainment Writer

Alec Baldwin said he feels incredible sadness and regret over the shooting that killed a cinematographer on a New Mexico film set, but not guilt.

"Someone is responsible for what happened, and I can't say who that is, but it's not me," Baldwin said in an ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos that aired Thursday night, the first time the actor has spoken in depth on screen about the Oct. 21 shooting on the set of the Western "Rust." "Honest to god, if I felt I was responsible, I might have killed myself."

Baldwin said it is essential for investigators to find out who put the bullet in the gun he fired, that was supposed to be empty, that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza.

"There's only one question to be resolved, and that's where did the live round come from?" Baldwin said.

Baldwin said in a clip from the interview released a day earlier that "I didn't pull the trigger. I would never point a gun at anyone and pull the trigger at them. Never."

He said it was Hutchins herself who asked him to point the gun just off camera and toward her armpit before it went off.

Baldwin said at Hutchins' direction he pulled the hammer back.

"I let go of the hammer and 'bang' the gun goes off," he said.

When Stephanopoulos told Baldwin that many say you should never point a gun directly at someone on a set, he responded, "unless the person is the cinematographer who was directing me where to point the gun for her camera angle."

Baldwin said it was 45 minutes to an hour before he began to understand that a live round had been in the gun, and didn't know it for sure until he was being interviewed hours later. He thought Hutchins might have been hurt by a blank at close range or had a heart attack.

"The idea that somebody put a live bullet in the gun was not even in reality."

He had one of several tearful moments when he described Hutchins, saying she was "somebody who was loved by everybody and admired by everybody who worked with her."

Baldwin said he was doing the interview to counter public misconceptions about the shooting and to make it clear that "I would go to any lengths to undo what happened."

But Baldwin said "I want to make sure that I don't come across like I'm the victim because we have two victims here."

Investigators have described "some complacency" in how weapons were handled on the "Rust" set. They have said it is too soon to determine whether charges will be filed, amid independent civil lawsuits concerning liability in the fatal shooting.

Baldwin said he met with the film's armorer Hanna Gutierrez Reed for a gun training session before the shoot, and she appeared capable and responsible.

"I assumed because she was there and she was hired that she was up to the job," he said.

Gutierrez Reed has been the subject of much of the scrutiny in the case. Her attorney has said she did not put the round in the gun, and believes she was the victim of sabotage. Authorities say they've found no evidence of that.

Baldwin, who was also a producer on the film, said there was no indication to him that crew members were unhappy with safety conditions on the set, though some resigned over the issue.

"I never heard one word about that, none," Baldwin said.

Baldwin said complaints about cost-cutting on the film have been misguided.

"Everybody who makes movies has the responsibility not to be reckless and careless with the money that you're given," he said.

Asked by Stephanopoulos whether the cost-cutting compromised safety, Baldwin said "In my opinion no."

"I personally did not observe any safety or security issues at all in the time I was there," he said.

Baldwin said he does not believe he will be criminally charged in the shooting.

"I've spoken to the sheriff's department multiple times," he said. I don't have anything to hide."

He said the incident left him emotionally ravaged.

"I have dreams about this constantly," he said, " wake up constantly where guns are going off. These images have come into my mind and kept me awake at night and I haven't slept for weeks and I've really been struggling physically."

Asked by Stephanopoulos if his career is over, Baldwin said, "It could be."

He said his next production still wants him, "but I said to myself, 'do I want to work much more after this?'"