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FRI: Court Upholds No-Bail Release In Case, Xcel Energy Offers Solar Option For Customers, + More

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High Court Upholds No-Bail Release In Serial Burglary Case - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The state Supreme Court on Friday upheld a lower court decision allowing the no-bail pretrial release of an 18-year-old with no prior criminal history who is accused of a string of residential burglaries in Albuquerque.

The ruling rebuffs public prosecutors who say risks to the community in the case linking as many as 80 nighttime burglaries in homes where people slept can't be mitigated by electronic tracking devices and supervision.

Justice Michael Vigil announced the court's decision following oral arguments Friday and an hour of private deliberations by the high court.

"The state failed to argue or prove ... that no conditions of release will reasonably protect the safety of any other person or the community," Vigil said. "The court will affirm the decision" of the district court.

The latest clash over New Mexico's no-money bail system focused on Jesse Mascareno-Haidle, who was released from detention in February pending trial and now wears a tracking device amid school-attendance and drug-test requirements.

New Mexico's no-money bail system was initiated by statewide vote in 2016 and implemented in 2017. It's unclear whether the changes have led to fewer or more offenses by defendants during the pretrial stage or better compliance with release conditions because of limited tracking. District attorneys late last year began recording the portion of pretrial detention motions that are granted.

Mascareno-Haidle has pleaded not guilty to charges of burglary, larceny, taking a motor vehicle and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Prosecutors have said investigators linked Mascareno-Haidle to as many as 80 residential burglaries in Albuquerque and possibly in Los Lunas over a seven-month period beginning in July. Some involved stolen cars and juvenile accomplices.

Prosecutors asserted that dangers are being overlooked in the decision to release the defendant. Requests for his pretrial detention were repeatedly rejected by lower courts.

In oral arguments Friday, the Bernalillo County district attorney's office said district courts should be giving greater weight to "serial unlawfulness" and burglary as a potentially violent crime when determining whether defendants can be released pending trial.

Prosecutor James Grayson also asserted that district courts are mistakenly basing bail decisions on prior violations of release terms — letting potentially dangerous first-time defenders off the hook because they have never skipped out on a trial.

The state Law Offices of the Public Defender said a district court judge acted reasonably in releasing Mascareno-Haidle given his compliance with investigators and extensive terms of release. Public defender Noah Gelb urged the Supreme Court not to tie the hands of lower court judges as they consider the dangers and conditions of pretrial release.

Prosecutors say Mascareno-Haidle has acknowledged participation in 21 burglaries, though defense attorneys are reviewing whether the interrogations infringed on constitutional rights.

Court documents in the case include little or no data about the effectiveness of a pretrial release system that uses a complex assessment of flight risk, nor an analysis of how a ruling might influence outcomes.

In court filings, Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez has said the burglaries in question were so inherently dangerous and defiant that pre-trial detention would be justified for Mascareno-Haidle.

Under current law, prosecutors must prove that no release conditions will reasonably protect the community in order to keep defendants incarcerated.

Public defenders have said that jailing Mascareno-Haidle pending trial would undermine a system that tailors conditions of release to the situation of individual defendants.

The dispute over bail procedures takes place amid divergent trends in crime in Albuquerque, where police are under public pressure to implement more effective and humane enforcement tactics.

Reports to police of overall crime and property crime declined in 2020 amid the pandemic that kept many people at home, while reports of violent crime increased.

Homicides in Albuquerque are setting a record pace this year with 42 as of May 1. The deadliest year for homicides was 2019 with 80, and there were 76 in 2020.

Concerns about crime and policing in Albuquerque are spilling over into a special congressional election on June 1. Last year, then-President Donald Trump deployed federal agents to Albuquerque and other Democratic-led cities where he decried unchecked violence.

New Mexico Regulatory Staff Seeks Hearing On Utility Merger - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The staff of New Mexico's Public Regulation Commission is calling for a hearing on a proposed merger between the state's largest electric utility and a U.S. subsidiary of global energy giant Iberdrola.

The staff members reiterated their concerns in a filing Friday, saying the hearing should be scheduled for June so regulators can hash out whether the multibillion-dollar deal is in the public's interest. The filing notes that "significant opposition" still exists and the hearing should focus on testimony that was submitted earlier this year by numerous experts on behalf of environmental and consumer advocacy groups and the state attorney general's office.

Some critics have said a proposed agreement between Connecticut-based Avangrid and PNM Resources — the parent company of Public Service Co. of New Mexico — doesn't go far enough when it come to customer benefits or funds to support economic development in the state.

PNM and Avangrid announced concessions in April after their initial proposal failed to win the necessary support. The latest proposal includes $50 million in rate credits for customers, economic development donations of $7.5 million, additional money for energy efficiency assistance for low-income customers over five years, and promises of more jobs and being carbon-free by 2035.

Also included is $12.5 million for organizations in northwestern New Mexico, where the planned closure of two coal-fired power plants in the coming years is expected to have significant economic implications for workers, tax revenues and the community overall.

The commission's utility staff said holding a hearing on the proposed agreement would require more testimony to be filed and that would delay the case. They also noted that the proposal has been agreed to by fewer than half of the parties involved, "reflecting a fairly narrow band of interests."

PNM will be on the hook for making significant capital investments as it aims for carbon-free electricity generation over the next two decades. Experts have said the utility could benefit from a merger because of Avangrid's credit standing and access to capital markets. Meanwhile, Avangrid wants to build its assets within the U.S. utility sector.

Utility regulators in Texas this week approved the merger as it relates to PNM Resources' subsidiary that serves customers in that state.

PNM Resources chairman, president and CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn pointed to the Texas approval as confirmation that the merger is in the public interest.

PNM and Avangrid have touted the merger as a way to boost renewables in New Mexico. Still, Public Regulation Commission staff members have expressed reservations, saying the merger as currently structured would likely "chill a competitive climate" for renewable energy development in the state.

It will be up to a hearing examiner to decide next week whether to schedule a hearing on the merger application or consider the proposed agreement.

State Agency Drops Use Of Messaging App That Raised ConcernsSanta Fe New Mexican, Searchlight New Mexico, Associated Press

The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has stopped using a secure messaging app that raised concerns that material might not be preserved for investigations and for disclosure under the state's public records law.

CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock said Thursday the department stopped using the Signal app in late April, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

Searchlight New Mexico first reported the department was using Signal. Blalock said that practice began early in the pandemic after child welfare officials realized they lacked a safe and secure platform allowing employees to work remotely.

The agency liked the free service because it offered encryption and complied with a federal medical privacy law, Blalock said.

Attorney General Hector Balderas, Republican legislative leaders and others had voiced concern about use of the app, saying routine deletion of messages could hinder transparency and availability of records for investigations.

While contending the department was not deleting any records it must keep under the Inspection of Public Records Act, Blalock said he didn't want workers to use technology that weakens the public's trust of the child welfare agency.

Xcel Energy Offers Solar Option For New Mexico Customers - Associated Press

Xcel Energy says customers in New Mexico now have the option to purchase electricity generated from a solar power plant near Clovis that came online just weeks ago. 

A typical residential customer would pay about $10.80 a month more to participate in the utility's solar program. That charge includes the cost of the energy delivered from the solar facility, the cost to integrate that energy into the grid and the cost to market and administer the program. 

Customers also would get a credit for the avoided energy costs from using traditional fossil fuels. 

"It's a convenient option for customers who have considered adding solar panels to their rooftops but don't care to invest the time and money into buying and maintaining a rooftop system," Mike McLeod, regional manager for Community and Economic Development in Roswell, said in a statement.

Utility officials said companies and organizations that have sustainability goals also can participate and claim renewable energy certificates that result from the solar facility's energy production.

Xcel Energy, which serves parts of eastern New Mexico and West Texas, has set a goal of providing customers with 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. It has close to 2,500 megawatts of wind energy capacity that it either owns or purchases for customers in the region. 

Those wind resources made up about 30% of the utility's energy mix last year.

Albuquerque Police Say No Gun Brought Onto Middle School Campus Associated Press

A report that a student was seen entering an Albuquerque middle school Thursday morning with a gun has proved to be inaccurate, police said.

The Tony Hillerman Middle School was evacuated classroom by classroom while police canvassed the campus.

They said no weapon was found and it's been determined that a gun was not brought to school.

According to police, three students were speaking in a courtyard when one student pointed a cell phone at the others as though he was holding a gun.

A teacher reportedly saw the encounter and believed she saw the student holding a gun.

The school went on lockdown and police from several agencies responded.

Albuquerque police also sent a gun-detection dog through the school to confirm no weapons were located on the premises.

New Mexico Proposes More Rules To Curb Oil And Gas Emissions - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Oilfield equipment that emits smog-causing pollution would be targeted by New Mexico environmental regulators under a proposed rule made public Thursday by the state Environment Department.

The release of the proposal marks the next step in a process that started nearly two years ago as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other top Democrats in the state announced their intentions to curb emissions across the oil and natural gas sector. The state created a working group made up of industry, environmentalists and other experts to help in crafting the regulations.

The rules proposed by the state Environment Department are part of a two-pronged approach, which Environment Secretary James Kenney touted as the most comprehensive effort in the U.S. to tackle pollution blamed for exacerbating climate change. State oil and gas regulators adopted separate rules earlier this year to limit venting and flaring as a way to reduce methane pollution.

The Environment Department opted to remove all exemptions from an earlier version of its rule that was drafted last year. The proposal also includes minimum requirements for operators to calculate their emissions and have them certified by an engineer and to find and fix leaks on a monthly basis.

New Mexico is home to part of the Permian Basin, which is one of the world's most productive oilfields. Environmentalists had been pressuring the state over the past several months not to allow any exceptions, pointing to elevated levels of emissions in New Mexico's oilfields.

The Environment Department's rule will apply in counties with high ozone levels. Currently, this includes Chaves, Doña Ana, Eddy, Lea, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan, and Valencia counties.

Kenney said the state considered the reductions that could be achieved in volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides by including all types of wells, even those with low potential for emissions.

"From a science-based perspective as well as a public health perspective as well as an environmental perspective, it was the right thing to do," Kenney said of removing all of the exemptions.

While the industry generally supported the rules adopted by the Oil Conservation Division, the Environment Department's proposal spurred some concerns Thursday.

Leland Gould, chairman of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the industry group and its members are committed to protecting the health and environment of the communities where they operate and they support sound, science-based regulations to reduce methane emissions and ozone levels.

"As we review the rule in detail, we will look for opportunities to engage the department with industry's technical professionals to encourage greater innovation and cost-effective solutions, consistent with other regulatory requirements," he said, noting that responsible energy development will continue to pay dividends when it comes to supporting state spending and the overall economy.

State officials pointed to what they described as an unlevel playing field when it comes to industry and the government. There are seven inspectors for more than 50,000 wells, meaning regulators will lean heavily on technological advancements for monitoring oil and gas operations. Kenney said that will include aerial inspections, the use of special cameras and infrared drones.

The state expects the rule, once adopted sometime next year, to lead to reductions in ozone-causing pollution that would equal taking 8 million cars off the road every year. Methane emissions also would be reduced as a result, Kenney said.

"We will ensure compliance with these rules because public health is at stake," he told reporters during a briefing.

The proposed rule also establishes emission reduction requirements for equipment like compressors, turbines, heaters and other pneumatic devices.

If companies violate the rules, they could be hit with notices of violation, orders to comply and possibly civil penalties.

Kenney acknowledged that the rules will come with a cost for operators. Advocates for the industry have raised concerns about the rules pushing development across the border into neighboring Texas, which shares a portion of the Permian Basin.

New Mexico To Preserve Historic Sites From Billy The Kid Era - Associated Press

A major preservation project is underway in an area of southern New Mexico that was once the stomping grounds of Billy the Kid and Sheriff Pat Garrett.

Officials with the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs announced Thursday that the $395,000 project involves the Lincoln Historic Site, which is home to some of the most significant Territorial Period structures in the state. Many of the structures are under the protection of New Mexico Historic Sites. 

One of the six buildings included in the project is the Lincoln County Courthouse, best known as the location of Billy the Kid's final escape in April 1881. 

Another is the John Tunstall Store, which was constructed in 1877 and stood at the center of the Lincoln County War. Adobe specialists are working to stabilize the building's foundation to ensure that visitors can safely walk in the footsteps of Tunstall and the Regulators who were committed to avenging his death.  

Work also is underway at the Montaño Store, San Juan Mission Church, Watson House and Brent House.

Tim Roberts, deputy director of facilities and interpretation for New Mexico Historic Sites, said the community of Lincoln is one of the most well-preserved frontier towns in the western United States and provides a tangible link between New Mexico's unique history and those who visit the site today.

"This critical preservation work will guarantee these one-of-a-kind treasures survive to help educate future generations about New Mexico's past and sustain the community of Lincoln's historic integrity," he said.

Officials said the work is being done through consultation with the New Mexico State Historic Preservation Office and preservation specialists from Crocker Architectural Conservation.

Persistent Drought Makes New Mexico Parks Shut Boat Ramps Associated Press

New Mexico's reservoirs are shrinking because of a persistent drought, and officials with the State Parks Division said Thursday they are being forced to close boat ramps throughout the state as a result.

Officials said water levels at many state park lakes are extremely low and that the ramp closures are in place to address public safety concerns and to prevent property damage during the launching and loading of boats.

Storrie Lake State Park near Las Vegas, New Mexico, closed its boat ramp to all motorized vessels effective immediately Thursday. Other boat-ramp closures are in effect at Clayton, Conchas, Heron and Santa Rosa lakes.

One ramp at Elephant Butte Lake, the state's largest reservoir, is closed. The North Ramp at El Vado also is off limits.

Park officials said visitors still will be allowed to hand launch paddle craft or small vessels from the shorelines.

The latest drought map shows much of the southwestern U.S. is mired in drought. In New Mexico, more than 52% of the state is dealing with exceptional drought, which is the worst category. A year ago, that percentage was zero.

While there have been more dry years than wet ones over the past two decades, parts of New Mexico missed out on last summer's monsoon season. Winter did not result in much snowpack, and the rain this spring has been far from enough to put a meaningful dent in the deficit.

Climate experts say most of the rain that has fallen in recent weeks has been soaked up by the dry soil, meaning there is less storm runoff that makes its way to the state's streams and rivers and ultimately the reservoirs.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID Deaths For 4th Time In 5 Days - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 13 new COVID-19 cases, but no deaths for the fourth time in the last five days.

Tribal health officials said the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago now is 30,565 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The known death toll remained at 1,282.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said more than half of the reservation's adult population has been vaccinated, but people still need to stay home as much as possible, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

"Reports indicate that COVID-19 cases have increased in the state of Arizona in the last couple of weeks," Nez said in a statement Thursday. This data should encourage all of our Navajo Nation citizens ... to continue taking all precautions even if you are fully vaccinated." 

Last week, the Navajo Department of Health loosened some virus-driven restrictions and transition to "yellow status." 

Restaurants are allowed to have in-door dining at 25% capacity and outdoor dining at 50% capacity and parks are permitted to open at 25% capacity but only for residents and employees. 

Navajo casinos are open at 50% capacity, but only for residents and staff.