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THURS: Work On Controversial Gila River Proposal Ends, Special Session Begins In Santa Fe, + More

Mark Harris via Flickr
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Gila River in southwest New Mexico

New Mexico Water Managers End Work On Gila River ProposalAssociated Press

A panel of New Mexico water managers has voted to end work on an environmental review related to a proposal to divert and store water from the Gila River.

The Interstate Stream Commission's 7-2 vote Thursday comes in a years-long battle over the future of the river.

Supporters of the diversion project had argued it was vital to supplying drought-stricken communities and irrigation districts in southwestern New Mexico with a new source of water.

But environmentalists have maintained that the effort would result in a $1 billion boondoggle. Officials cited the cost, missed deadlines and management concerns for their decision to pull the plug.

There already are irrigation and small diversion structures along the Gila. But U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said developing a larger diversion as proposed would have come at a high environmental price for the river. He called the Gila a jewel that needed to be protected.

Udall and fellow Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced legislation in May to designate portions of the Gila River as "wild and scenic" as a way to provide more protections for the waterway and its tributaries.

New Mexico State University Releases Plan For Fall ReturnAssociated Press

New Mexico State University is rolling out plans for students, faculty and staff as they prepare to return to campus in the fall.

The document released this week outlines the steps the university will take to ensure what officials said would be a welcoming and functioning campus environment when classes begin Aug. 19.

University officials say the plan is a living document and can be updated as more is learned about the novel coronavirus and as best practices evolve. The university planned a town hall for Thursday afternoon.

The number of positive tests in New Mexico rose to 10,153 Thursday with four additional deaths bringing that total to 456.

Legislature Considers Streamlined Absentee Voting Procedures - By Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanasi,o Associated Press

Democratic legislators have introduced a bill to change election balloting procedures temporarily in response to the pandemic that allows county clerks to ship absentee ballots to nearly all registered voters.

The New Mexico Legislature is meeting for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck in a special session to shore up state finances.

Election officials currently distribute absentee ballots only by request. Advocates for voting rights say that restriction leads to a time-consuming exchange by mail of ballot application forms before ballots are distributed.

The bill also would ensure that polling places in Native American communities are not closed or consolidated without the permission of local tribal authorities.

Many polling locations for indigenous communities were closed in the June 2 primary where Native American tribes and pueblos had closed their borders or limited access because of the coronavirus.

Education Funding At Risk As New Mexico Legislature Meets - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

New Mexico's latest oil bust and the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have gutted the state's coffers.

While education has always been a priority for lawmakers, the Legislature now faces an impossible challenge of boosting teacher pay and preserving the funding pipeline for landmark efforts to expand learning opportunities for more students.

The legislative special session begins Thursday. The stakes are enormous for New Mexico children, who are grappling with coronavirus shutdown and endemic poverty in a state that ranks near-last in most academic achievement measures.

Nearly half the state's $7.6 billion annual spending plan is devoted to public schools, with a large amount of that coming from oil and gas revenues.

The state also is under a court order to ensure adequate resources for all students.

Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed trimming teacher raises to 2%. Leading legislators are considering an average pay bump of less than 1%.

Landmark education reforms aimed at extending the school calendar by up to five weeks have been canceled or scaled back for the summer, saving the state $40 million on a program called K-5 Plus. That may deprive some teachers of additional work and pay equal to 19% of standard salaries.

Crews On Arizona Wildfires Contend With Wind-Driven Flames - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Firefighters battling large wildfires across Arizona grappled with high wind that drove flames across rugged terrain amid hot and dry weather.

About a half-dozen rural communities remained under evacuation notices Wednesday near Tucson in southern Arizona, north of the Grand Canyon and in east-central Arizona.

Hundreds of firefighters are assigned to each blaze. Weather forecasters say the fires are on par for this time of year.

The winds have been a key factor in driving up the size of the blazes that are threatening homes, state highways and popular recreation spots. 

Weather forecasters say the wind will stick around for a couple of weeks before temperatures build and the rain that the monsoon season is known for starts falling — part of the usual pattern in Arizona and New Mexico.

The fires are among nearly 1,000 that have broken out across Arizona so far this year, charring far more land to date than this time last year. Many of those are small fires that are quickly contained and tied to human activity.

New Mexico is pacing well behind, with more than 400 wildfires burning 40 square miles as of Saturday, the latest figures posted on the Southwest Coordination Center's website.

Lawmakers Begin Special Session As Pandemic Looms Over State Finances - By Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

The New Mexico Legislature is meeting for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck in a special session to shore up state finances.

House lawmakers began their session with a moment of silence for people who have died from COVID-19. Democratic House speaker Brian Egolf described an urgent need for a clear framework for economic recovery and said other proposed legislation is designed to uncover and uproot institutional racism.

Lawmakers are confronting a 25% decline in estimated state government income for the coming budget year. Solvency proposals would diminish, but not do away with, increased spending on public salaries, education and health care.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also wants legislators to enact policing reforms such as mandating body cameras and to streamline mail-in balloting procedures ahead of the November elections.

She is hoping for legislation that extends a lifeline to local governments and small business by providing low-interest loans from a state trust fund.

A bill introduced at the outset of the session would tap federal recovery funds to support state government services, create a nine-member state civil rights commission, provide small-business recover loans from a state trust fund and allow retail deliveries by liquor stores.

House Republican legislators are arguing for a more cautious approach to state spending and warning that sustained general fund budget increases now will eventually require tax increases as financial reserves dry up.

The Statehouse was closed to the general public, with interactions limited to interactive video and teleconferencing services.

Legislators took note of intermittent interruptions in video access to the proceedings.

Pandemic Looms Over New Mexico Legislature, State Finances - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Legislators are gathering to shore up New Mexico finances for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The Legislature, led by Democrats, is scheduled to start a special legislative session on Thursday at noon in a Statehouse that is closed to the public.

People can follow deliberations over the internet or by phone. 

Lawmakers are confronting a 25% estimated revenue decline for the coming budget year. New solvency proposals would down-size pay-raises at schools and state agencies to less than 1% on average, while maintaining a small share of spending to provide free tuition to two-year college students.

First-term Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also wants legislators to enact policing reforms such as mandating body cameras and streamline mail-in balloting procedures ahead of November elections. 

She is hoping for legislation that extends a lifeline to local governments and small businesses by providing low-interest loans from a state trust fund.

House Republican legislators are arguing for a more cautious approach to state spending and warning that sustained spending increases now will eventually require tax increases as financial reserves dry up.

Prosecutors Amend Charges In New Mexico Protest Shooting - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press, KUNM 

Prosecutors in Albuquerque say an investigation into a shooting during a protest over a statue of a Spanish conquistador is far from complete and they're amending charges against a man accused of opening fire after a fight broke out.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez said Wednesday it's too soon to pursue a charge related to the shooting because investigators still need to identify witnesses, verify video of the incident and gather more evidence.

Prosecutors are instead charging Steven Baca with battery for his interactions with three women during the protest. He's also facing a weapons charge.

Baca, once a candidate for the Albuquerque City Council, remained in custody. His attorney, Jason Bowles, has requested the court to quickly review the circumstances and order Baca's release while prosecutors investigate the case. He said his client had no choice but to defend himself using force.

Albuquerque police turned over the investigation to the State Police and the FBI was assisting.

Torrez said heavy tactics by APD against protesters after the shooting made it impossible for key witnesses to make statements to law enforcement. 

He also said the presence of undercover APD officers at the scene who are key witnesses, but did not intervene when tensions were escalating, also compromises APD's investigation.

Tribal Casinos In New Mexico Reopen Despite State WarningAssociated Press

Multiple tribal casinos in New Mexico have reopened despite recommendations from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to remain closed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that Isleta Casino & Resort in Albuquerque, Ohkay Hotel Casino in Ohkay Owingeh and Taos Mountain Casino in Taos all have reopened with coronavirus-related precautions.

The governor's spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, said that all casinos are encouraged to remain closed.

Tribal casinos are controlled by sovereign nations, so the state cannot prohibit them from reopening. Representatives from the casinos did not respond to requests for comment.

The state surpassed 10,000 COVID-19 cases Wednesday and there were 30 more among people held by federal agencies at the Otero County Processing Center.

There were also five additional deaths, bringing the total to 452. That includes a federal inmate at the Otero County Prison Facility. That center, which holds federal and state inmates, has a total of 581 cases.

The Department of Health has found at least one case among residents and/or staff in the last month at nearly 50 long-term care and acute care facilities.

New Mexico Senators Applaud $2.8B Conservation BillAssociated Press

New Mexico's two U.S. senators are applauding approval of a bipartisan bill that would double spending on a popular conservation program and devote nearly $2 billion a year to improve and maintain national parks.

Democrat Tom Udall described it as landmark legislation that will, for the first time, permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year.

The fund is fueled by revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing. More than $312 million has been funneled to New Mexico public lands and open spaces since it was established in 1964.

Supporters say the program is a boon to the state's outdoor economy.

According to data compiled by the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division, the state's outdoor recreation economy directly supports $1.2 billion in income and 33,500 jobs annually.

Pueblo Leaders Seek 'Meaningful' Resolution To Statue Fight - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Leaders of a coalition that represents Native American pueblo communities in New Mexico are hopeful a "fair and meaningful resolution" can be found as government officials address growing discord over statues of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate.

One man was shot and injured Monday night after a fight broke out as protesters tried to tear down a statue outside an Albuquerque museum. Another man is facing charges and police are being criticized for how they handled the situation.

J. Michael Chavarria, the governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said such incidents need to be avoided and the path forward needs to be one that recognizes a shared history and richness of the state's respective cultures.

He said he appreciated the decision by Rio Arriba County and the city of Albuquerque to remove what he called “symbols of conquest, genocide and racial injustice."

Chavarria added it's fundamentally important that every culture and every individual be treated with dignity and respect.