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KUNM News Update

TUES: Regulators Raise Concerns On Utility Merger, State Sees Norovirus Outbreaks, + More

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Firm's Record Spurs Concerns About New Mexico Utility Merger - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The track record of global energy giant Iberdrola's U.S. subsidiary Avangrid has sparked concerns among utility regulators and others as the company seeks approval for a multibillion-dollar merger with New Mexico's largest electric provider.

Ashley Schannauer, a hearing examiner with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, said during a meeting Tuesday that utilities owned by Avangrid have been assessed a total of $25 million in penalties and disallowances in the past 16 months for poor performance and customer service issues in Maine, Connecticut and New York.

While the information was disclosed in filings with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, Schannauer said Avangrid has been less than forthcoming with New Mexico regulators. He said the company failed to provide information about the enforcement actions in the other states as the Public Regulation Commission considers the company's proposed merger with PNM Resources.

He also pointed to audits requested by regulators in Maine and Connecticut that are aimed at the organizational structure of Avangrid affiliates and utilities in those states.

He called the failure to disclose the information troubling, saying it's relevant to the credibility of testimony provided by Avangrid's witnesses in the merger case and the transparency by which Avangrid and PNM would conduct their business if the merger is approved.

"These enforcement actions are clearly relevant to the commission's consideration of the request in this case in my opinion. Will there be similar problems in New Mexico if the merger is approved?" he asked.

Brian Haverly, an attorney for Avangrid, said the company has nothing to hide and will provide the information requested by the hearing examiner. The deadline was set for next Tuesday.

Staff members with the Public Regulation Commission in a filing Friday reiterated their concerns about the proposed merger. At issue is whether the deal is in the public's interest.

Some critics have said a proposed settlement 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.

Still, attorneys for some of the parties pointed Tuesday to Avangrid's regulatory troubles, saying New Mexico customers deserve to be protected and that more is at stake here because PNM is a vertically integrated utility that owns its own transmission and generation infrastructure in addition to selling electricity to customers.

Peter Gould, an attorney for the New Mexico Affordable Reliable Energy Alliance, accused Avangrid of not negotiating in good faith. He said not providing New Mexico regulators with information about the enforcement actions is just one example.

"We have had very much difficulty in this case dealing with this company because they do not seem to understand that they have to play by the rules," he said.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas, who serves as the top consumer advocate for New Mexicans, signed off on the proposed settlement agreement in April, saying improvements were made that would prioritize underserved tribal communities and provide more resources for union workers and coal miners affected by the planned closures of two coal-fired power plants in northwestern New Mexico.

Matt Baca, a spokesman for Balderas, said Tuesday that the attorney general will advocate for strong consumer protections as the case proceeds.

"New Mexico must have the highest customer service standards in addition to greater investment in impacted communities," he said.

New Mexico Reinstates Requirement For Jobless To Seek WorkAssociated Press

New Mexico has joined several other states that have reinstated the work search requirement for people who receive unemployment payments.

Starting this week, state labor officials said claimants must verify that they have made at least two work search contacts per week to continue receiving the jobless payments. They must provide information on when they contacted employers about prospective jobs, what type of work it was and other details.

The requirement had been waived during the pandemic as unemployment rates surged due to businesses closures and cutbacks to meet the state's public health restrictions. The change came as all but two New Mexico counties are now operating in the categories with the least COVID-19 restrictions.

"Help wanted" and "hiring now" signs are posted outside gas stations and at grocery stories and fast-food drive thru windows around New Mexico as business owners scramble to find workers.

Nationwide, U.S. employers posted a record number of available jobs in March, illustrating the desperation of businesses seeking to find new workers amid an expanding economy.

Michael O'Donnell, the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research acting director, told the KOAT television station that the idea behind reinstating the work search requirement is to give people an incentive to look for work.

"Given that there are reportedly tons of jobs available, more than perhaps people had expected, it make sense to revert back," he said.

New Mexico's unemployment rate stands at 8%, one of the highest in the country, and officials are hoping the change will help.

Meanwhile, New Mexico's vaccination rates are ticking up.

The latest data from the state Health Department show about 48% of residents over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and others hope the state can reach the goal of 60% next month, but parts of southeastern New Mexico and some rural counties in central New Mexico are lagging as not everyone wants to get vaccinated.

State officials on Tuesday announced that businesses, nonprofits, religious congregations, community centers and other organizations can request on-site vaccination events through a new page on the Health Department's website.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said the department is committed to making vaccines available to New Mexicans where they live and work.

"By offering organizations the opportunity to request on-site vaccination events, we'll make getting a shot even easier," she said.

State Health Agency Cites Multiple Outbreaks Of NorovirusAssociated Press

New Mexico public health officials say they're investigating multiple outbreaks around the state of highly contagious disease often called the stomach flu.

Precautions such as frequent handwashing are advised to prevent norovirus infection, the Department of Health said Tuesday in a statement, adding that hand sanitizer does not work against norovirus.

According to the department, it's important that precautions be taken around the very young, the elderly and people at any age with weakened immune systems because they are at risk for more serious illness from norovirus infection.

Norovirus symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and it spreads easily from person to person, the department said.

Migrant Children Held In Mass Shelters With Little Oversight - By Garance Burke, Juliet Linderman and Martha Mendoza, Associated Press

The Biden administration is holding tens of thousands of asylum-seeking children in an opaque network of some 200 facilities that The Associated Press has learned spans two dozen states and includes five shelters with more than 1,000 children packed inside.

Confidential data obtained by the AP shows the number of migrant children in government custody more than doubled in the past two months, and this week the federal government was housing around 21,000 kids, from toddlers to teens. A facility at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army post in El Paso, Texas, had more than 4,500 children as of Monday. Attorneys, advocates and mental health experts say that while some shelters are safe and provide adequate care, others are endangering children's health and safety.

"It's almost like 'Groundhog Day,'" said Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Luz Lopez, referring to the 1993 film in which events appear to be continually repeating. "Here we are back to a point almost where we started, where the government is using taxpayer money to build large holding facilities ... for children instead of using that money to find ways to more quickly reunite children with their sponsors."

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, Mark Weber, said the agency's staff and contractors are working hard to keep children in their custody safe and healthy.

A few of the current practices are the same as those that President Joe Biden and others criticized under the Trump administration, including not vetting some caregivers with full FBI fingerprint background checks. At the same time, court records show the Biden administration is working to settle several multimillion-dollar lawsuits that claim migrant children were abused in shelters under President Donald Trump.

Part of the government's plan to house thousands of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border involves about a dozen unlicensed emergency facilities inside military installations, stadiums and convention centers that skirt state regulations and don't require traditional legal oversight.

Inside the facilities, called Emergency Intake Sites, children aren't guaranteed access to education, recreational opportunities or legal counsel.

In a recent news release, the administration touted its "restoration of a child centered focus for unaccompanied children," and it has been sharing daily totals of the number of children in custody as well as a few photos of the facilities. This reflects a higher level of transparency than the Trump administration. In addition, the amount of time children spend, on average, inside the system has dropped from four months last fall to less than a month this spring, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Nonetheless, the agency has received reports of abuse that resulted in a handful of contract staffers being dismissed from working at the emergency sites this year, according to an official who wasn't authorized to talk about it publicly and insisted on anonymity.

Attorneys say sometimes, even parents can't figure out where their children are.

José, a father who fled El Salvador after his village was targeted in a massacre, said he requested asylum in the U.S. four years ago. He had hoped to welcome his wife and 8-year-old daughter to California this year, but the pair were turned around at the border in March and expelled to Mexico. The little girl crossed again by herself and was placed in the government shelter in Brownsville, Texas, on April 6. José called a government hotline set up for parents seeking their migrant children repeatedly but said no one would tell him where she was.

"I was so upset because I kept calling and calling and no one would tell me any information about where she was," said José, who asked to be identified only by his first name out of fear of endangering his immigration case. "Finally they told me I had to pay $1,300 to cover her airplane ticket and if I didn't pay, I would have to wait a month more, and I was so anxious."

For nearly three weeks, his daughter was held inside the Brownsville facility before finally being released to him in late April after an advocacy organization intervened to get the government to pay for her airfare, as is required by the agency.

Of particular concern to advocates are mass shelters, with hundreds of beds apiece. These facilities can leave children isolated, less supervised and without basic services. The AP found about half of all migrant children detained in the U.S. are sleeping in shelters with more than 1,000 other children. More than 17,650 are in facilities with 100 or more children. Some shelters and foster programs are small, little more than a house with a handful of kids. A large Houston facility abruptly closed last month after it was revealed that children were being given plastic bags instead of access to restrooms.

"HHS has worked as swiftly as possible to increase bed capacity and to ensure potential sponsors can provide a safe home while the child goes through their immigration proceedings," Weber said in a statement.

"The system has been very dysfunctional, and it's getting worse," said Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist and executive director of the nonprofit Every. Last. One., which works to help immigrant families fleeing violence in Central America. Although there have been large numbers of children arriving in the U.S. for years, Cohen said she's never seen the situation as bad as it is today.

One reason so many children are now arriving without their parents dates back to a 2020 Trump administration emergency order that essentially closed the U.S.-Mexico border to all migrants, citing public health concerns about spreading COVID-19.

Some of the facilities now holding children are run by contractors already facing lawsuits claiming that children were physically and sexually abused in their shelters under the Trump administration, while others are new companies with little or no experience working with migrant children. Collectively, the emergency facilities can accommodate nearly 18,000 children, according to data the agency provided earlier this month.

Administration officials have said that the increased need has driven them to expand the number of beds available for migrant children and that sheltering children in large facilities, while not preferable, is a better alternative than holding them for long periods at Border Patrol stations.

As for the 8-year-old girl, her father, José, said she is adjusting to life in Los Angeles, enjoying playing with her older brother and, bit by bit, opening up.

"Soon I hope she'll tell me what it was like inside," he said.

State Hits 1M Mark For Vaccine Doses, Awaits Approval To Begin Vaccinating Younger Children Albuquerque Journal, KUNM

Over 1 million New Mexicans have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Albuquerque Journal reported the state hit the 1 million mark on Monday and it means New Mexico is on track to reach the goal of fully vaccinating 60% of adults by the end of June.

The New Mexico Department of Health has set that target for fully reopening the state.

As of Monday, 60% of people 16 and older have received at least one vaccine dose and 48% are fully vaccinated. Vaccines are available to anyone 16 and older and appointments may be scheduled at vaccineNM.org.

U.S. regulators yesterday expanded the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to children as young as 12, offering a way to protect the nation’s adolescents before they head back to school in the fall and paving the way for them to return to more normal activities.

The state Department of Health said yesterday that once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weigh in, the state’s Medical Advisory Team will also need to approve it. Once that’s complete, parents will be able to pre-register their children for appointments, and the state will begin vaccinating youth ages 12-15.

On Monday state health officials reported three days worth of new coronavirus case numbers covering Saturday, Sunday and Monday. There were 570 additional cases and 8 more deaths, bringing the total number of deaths to 4,106 since the pandemic began.

Capitol Siege, Immigration Issues Mark Congressional Debate - Associated Press

Republican congressional candidate Mark Moores went on the attack against a Democratic opponent in a final pair of network television debates ahead of the June 1 election to fill an open seat based in the Albuquerque area.

Moores, a state senator, on Monday denounced a "radical agenda" from Democratic congressional nominee Melanie Stansbury on immigration, policing, the minimum wage and more.

Stansbury, a representative in the state House since 2019, rarely engaged in direct retorts as she defended her support for a $15 minimum wage, reforms to address police misconduct and systemic racism, and a more humanitarian approach to immigration.

In his only televised debate opportunity, independent congressional candidate and former state Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn Jr. used a separate Sunday debate to cast himself as an alternative to partisan bickering who refuses to be a "Trump teddy bear" or a "puppet" of President Joe Biden. 

Dunn highlighted his support for gun rights, the need for more vocational training opportunities, and support for federal legislation to end police immunity from prosecution.

Four candidates have their names on the ballot for the 1st Congressional District post to succeed Deb Haaland after her departure from Congress to lead the Department of the Interior. Early voting by absentee voting is underway for the seat held by Democrats since 2009. 

Libertarian nominee Chris Manning also is pursuing election in the 1st Congressional District.

Moores and Stansbury — the only candidates in Monday night's debate on KRQE — outlined stark differences in their approaches to the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, student debt forgiveness and accountability for people involved in the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol.

Stansbury said she wouldn't support a single dollar of spending on the border wall project initiated by former President Donald Trump and would seek out more effective use of border patrols and technology. Moores repeated the refrain that America cannot survive if its borders are not secure.

A University of New Mexico graduate who received a football scholarship, Moores said college education already is financially accessible in New Mexico and that people who go to private college beyond should pay off their own student loans.

"Now you expect somebody else to pay off that debt? That's un-American," Moores said.

Stansbury said she supports universal access to free college and student debt forgiveness proposals.

Pressed by a debate moderator on whether Trump bears responsibility for the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January, Moores said that "the rhetoric has been out of control for all, for many of us, including the president, the former president, including Ms. Stansbury."

Stansbury described the Capitol siege as an insurrection incited by Trump.

"It is critical that we send a congressperson to Washington that believes in transparency, accountability and ensuring that those who are responsible for a siege on our Capitol are held accountable," she said.

New Mexico Revives Anti-Litter 'Toss No Mas' Campaign - Associated Press

New Mexico transportation officials say roadside litter has become a persistent issue for the state so they're reviving the "Toss No Mas" campaign with a new twist. 

State Transportation Secretary Mike Sandoval said Monday his agency has nearly 900 boots on the ground picking up trash and debris year-round. The day after a stretch of road is cleaned, he said new trash shows up. 

"During the pandemic, the problem seemed to get worse. PPE was found everywhere," he said, referring to personal protective equipment used to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. "We are asking for everyone's help."

The campaign will include the messages "Can the Trash" and "Tie it. Tarp it. Pick it up." Officials said they found that the largest litter accumulations come from people not tying up their garbage bags, tarping their loads or picking up dropped debris or litter.

The "Toss No Mas" campaign was created in the '90's by Cooney-Watson Productions. Santa Fe songwriter Jim Terr wrote a memorable song with an anti-litter public service message. Taos musician Michael Hearne was then brought on to sing a soulful version of the song and it became a well-known anthem across New Mexico.

The modernization of the campaign includes a new jingle for the radio. There also will be digital ads, social media campaigns, billboards and bags of ice at gas stations that feature the slogans.

New Mexico Awaits $1.75B In Federal Pandemic ReliefAssociated Press

New Mexico's state government will receive $1.75 billion in pandemic relief from the federal government under the economic recovery plan from the Biden administration and Congress, the U.S. Treasury Department announced on Monday.

The relief funds can be delivered to New Mexico on a faster schedule than most states to counteract lingering unemployment.

The Treasury also provided new detailed guidance on how states and local governments can spend the relief.

Specifically, the guidance allows states to replenish unemployment trust funds to pre-pandemic levels. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had no immediate comment on the guidance or her administration’s plans for spending the money.

She and the Democrat-led Legislature both have signaled an interest in using a large portion of relief funds to rebuild the state's unemployment fund. That would limit future increases in payroll taxes that underwrite unemployment insurance for the private sector.

At the same time, Lujan Grisham and the legislative leaders are locked in a standoff over which branch of government has authority over spending federal aid from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Lujan Grisham in April vetoed the Legislature's plan to devote $600 million to the state's unemployment fund, $200 million to roads, $100 million to a college scholarship program and more.

The Democratic governor said in her veto message that "the Legislature lacks the authority" to tell her how to use the money and that the state should wait for federal guidance.

New Mexico Invests In Prekindergarten Literacy Software - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report For America

New Mexico officials are rolling out a new platform that will track progress among preschool children to better prepare them for kindergarten and make it easier for parents to keep tabs.

School, state, and legislative officials trained teachers on the program Monday in a Zoom call aired from a Santa Fe hotel, according to a contractor who is providing the software. The tool provides a 15-minute daily curriculum for young children.

After the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to turn to remote learning, the state experienced a 20% decline in prekindergarten enrollment and a 12.5% decline in kindergarten enrollment, according to state Public Education Department statistics cited in a recent report from the Legislature.

To prepare 4-year-olds for kindergarten, officials who oversee early childhood education and K-12 are partnering up to get the tool into parents' hands. The initiative will cost around $875,000.

"Parents will also have access to the backend data, so they can hop in anytime and see how their child is doing," said Kim Fischer, spokeswoman for Waterford, the early childhood education company that secured the contract.

She estimates around 10,000 children will have access to the tool, which will be required for teachers to use in the vast majority of districts this fall. The orientation Monday followed a limited rollout this spring.

The Early Childhood Education and Care Department says it believes that children will also have more access to in-person programming than in 2019 after being at half-capacity last year because of the pandemic.

"ECECD is also expanding our Summer Jump Start program that works with incoming kindergarteners in public, private, and tribal preK programs (previously it was only open to private preK programs) focusing on school readiness, early literacy, and social emotional skills. Our summer nutrition program serving children across the state will be operating at full swing as well," said spokesman Micah McCoy, in an email.

Ted Turner Ranch To House Relocated Wolves - Associated Press 

One of Ted Turner's ranches in southern New Mexico will be the new home for a pair of Mexican gray wolves and their pups as federal wildlife managers look at more options for boosting the genetic diversity of the endangered species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is teaming up with the Ladder Ranch for the project. While the ranch has been involved over the years with captive breeding efforts and other endangered species work, this will mark the first time a translocation of Mexican gray wolves has been done on private land.

Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, said the invitation for wolves to roam the ranch has been open for many years and the team is excited that the arrival of the new pack is imminent. He said the pair and their pups deserve a shot at trying to make a go of it in the wild.

"The lion's share of the credit for this goes to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of New Mexico for taking yet another positive smart step in the direction of advancing wolf recovery," he said Monday during an interview.

The male wolf is considered one of the most genetically valuable wolves in the wild population. The wolf, his mate and the pups soon will be moved from their temporary home at a wildlife refuge in central New Mexico to the ranch, where they will be kept in a remote chain-link pen for a couple of weeks so they can acclimate to the area.

With the pups being so young, officials said they expect the wolves to establish a home range near the translocation site. They also said the timing will coincide with elk calving, which will provide a food source for the pack.

Aside from introducing more diversity into the wild gene pool, officials said the goal is to find a place where the pack can establish a territory with few to no conflicts with livestock.

For more than two decades, the effort to return Mexican gray wolves to the wild in the U.S. Southwest has been fraught with conflict as ranchers have complained about the challenges of having to scare away the wolves to keep their cattle from being eaten. Many have said their livelihoods and rural way of life are at stake.

Environmentalists argue that wolf reintroduction has stumbled as a result of illegal killings and management decisions they contend are rooted in the Fish and Wildlife Service's attempt to accommodate ranchers and the region's year-round cattle calving season.

Brady McGee, the agency's Mexican wolf recovery coordinator, said his team worked with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to analyze translocation options based on a number of factors — from proximity to homes and grazing allotments to the distance from the wolves' prior territory and the availability of prey.

"The translocation site on the Ladder Ranch is ranked as the best option due to its large, resident elk herd and distance from active grazing allotments on the Gila National Forest," he wrote in a recent email to landowners and others.

The Seco Creek area on the western side of the ranch features grasslands and pine forests in the foothills of the Black Range. It's about 5 miles from the nearest grazing allotment on national forest land.

Spanning more than 243 square miles, the Ladder Ranch has worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service for years, providing a site for captive wolves and other endangered species projects through the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Across Turner's vast land holdings, that work has ranged from breeding endangered Bolson tortoises to providing habitat for aplomado falcons, threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs, endangered black-footed ferrets and gray wolves in the northern Rockies.

North America's rarest subspecies of gray wolf, the Mexican gray wolf was listed as endangered in 1976 after being pushed to the brink of extinction. From the 1960s to the 1980s, seven gray wolves — believed to be the last of their kind — were captured and the captive breeding program began.

Wolves started being released in the late '90s. The wild population has seen its numbers nearly double over the last five years, with the latest annual census finding about 186 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona.

Federal officials had faced a court-ordered deadline next week for rewriting the rules that govern management of the species. Despite the objections of environmentalists, a federal judge has agreed to push that deadline to July 2022.

Man Fleeing Albuquerque Police Fatally Hit By Car On I-40Associated Press

Albuquerque police say a man trying to flee from officers was killed after being hit by a car on a highway.

Police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the encounter began around 10:45 p.m. Sunday when officers working outside a hotel were informed someone was hurling rocks at cars in the parking lot.

Responding officers located a suspect and tried to detain him.

Gallegos says the man left on foot and circumvented several fences before reaching I-40.

According to investigators, he tried to cross the freeway but ended up getting struck.

Gallegos says paramedics tried to treat him but his injuries were too great.

The man's identity has not been released.

The investigation remains ongoing.

Navajo Nation Reports 30 New COVID-19 Cases, 1 More DeathAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported 11 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths.

Tribal health officials also said there were 19 new coronavirus cases and one death Sunday, but the numbers weren't immediately reported due to the Mother's Day holiday.

The latest combined figures pushed the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago to 30,620 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The known death toll now is at 1,285.

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.

The Navajo Department of Health recently 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.

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