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THURS: New Mexico Sees Steep Rise In Overdose Deaths Amid Pandemic, + More

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New Mexico Sees Steep Rise In Overdose Deaths Amid Pandemic - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico is seeing soaring numbers of deadly overdoses from fentanyl and methamphetamine, according to a report presented to state lawmakers during a meeting Thursday. 

Preliminary figures show that fentanyl-related deaths alone increased by 129% between 2019 and 2020, Legislative analysts said. That percentage is expected to climb even higher when final totals for the last year are calculated. 

The trend mirrors what has been happening nationally. Drug overdose deaths in the United States rose nearly 30% in 2020 to a record 93,000, according to statistics released by federal health officials. That marked the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period in the U.S.

The report says the pandemic contributed to the surge of overdose deaths in New Mexico by disrupting outreach to treatment and increased social isolation. It also noted that the lingering pandemic has highlighted the need for behavioral health care given the high levels of grief, isolation, unemployment and anxiety that many people have been experiencing.

The report was presented to members of the Legislative Finance Committee, a key panel that sets the state's spending priorities and crafts the budget each year. 

Provider rates have been increased and other changes have been made in recent years to bolster the state's behavioral health safety net. However, the analysts said more work needs to be done to improve the quality of care, boost access, increase financial incentives, and build a behavioral health care workforce that better represents the state's cultural and racial demographics. 

'Lost Cause': New Mexico Students Have Fewer School Days - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico students have fewer school days than other children in the U.S., and a decade of research and investment by state officials hasn't changed that.

In a legislative hearing Thursday, one expert called extra learning a "lost cause," suggesting that children won't recover academically from the pandemic because school districts have declined to add extra learning days to their calendars.

Most states have a minimum of 180 school days for districts. New Mexico sets goals for the number of days and instructional hours that students get, but even those standards can be waived. Some schools operate only four days per week, and some students have 150 or fewer school days.

The state has allocated millions of dollars to pay for the extra teacher hours. 

The voluntary programs add 25 days of school for children in K-5, and 10 days for higher grades.

But the funding has failed to win over school districts.Many parents and teachers don't want summers shortened. Legislators proposed making the programs mandatory, but the idea died in a Senate subcommittee. 

"I tend to treat it as a lost cause. It didn't happen," economist Stephen Barro told lawmakers. "Some losses, we're not ever going to make up now."

How New Mexico Schools Are Spending $1B In Pandemic Funding - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

An avalanche of federal money is allowing New Mexico school districts to buy items long on their wishlists — particularly in schools with large populations of low-income students. 

Since March 2020, the federal government has provided $190 billion in pandemic aid to the state's schools, or more than four times what the U.S. Education Department provides to the same K-12 schools in a typical year. 

The Associated Press, relying on data published or provided by states and the federal government, tallied how much pandemic relief funding was granted to nearly every school district in the U.S. Nationally, the aid averages nearly $2,800 per student, but it varies widely by district and state.

The $1 billion set aside for New Mexico is a significant sum in a state that allocates about $3 billion to schools annually. Around 90% of the funds go directly to school districts, while state officials get to distribute the rest.

The highest average per student amount in New Mexico was $15,000 in Wagon Mound, a small rural district where all children are eligible for Title I, a federal funding program for low-income schools also used to allocate the pandemic funds. The lowest, in comparatively affluent Los Alamos, was around $100. The average amount granted per student in New Mexico was $3,150.

In Wagon Mound, the school district got over $1 million in additional funding for less than 100 students. The district went from having few or no computers for students to having a tablet or laptop for children of all ages and funding to cover replacement devices. Other rural districts did the same.

"We're able to get things for our students and the school at large that we were never able to get before because we didn't have the funding for it," said Monica Montoya, principal of Wagon Mound Elementary school and a Title I coordinator. 

Statewide, computers, internet hotspots, COVID-19 cleaning supplies and air purification upgrades were the most frequently budgeted items by New Mexico schools during the first waves of pandemic funding released last year. 

They quickly purchased the goods — with officials sometimes unsure about how they would pay for them —as schools struggled to reopen, connect students to remote learning and protect school workers from being infected.

The first two rounds of pandemic relief funding were meant to help districts in the emergency, with flexible spending rules and minimal oversight. About 20% had to be used to help children catch up on lost or incomplete learning, while another 80% was mostly at the district's discretion.

The New Mexico Public Education Department has still required districts to report how they planned to spend the money.

In Albuquerque, public school leaders prioritized issuing $1,000 bonuses to 12,000 employees, according to the district's plan for pandemic spending. The per student pandemic spending amount for Albuquerque Public Schools was about $3,200.

The district's plan also listed as priorities upgrading internet services and buying laptops for kids who did not have them. Other funds were budgeted for mental health support and distance learning materials.

The district had struggled to recruit teachers and bus drivers before the pandemic and feared it would face a staff shortage in the fall.

In northwestern New Mexico, at the doorstep of the Navajo Nation, Gallup-McKinley County Schools also purchased laptops and tablets for the district's students, spending $7,000 per student with the pandemic funding.

"We were able to leverage federal funding to not only get one-to-one devices last year, but we have funding that can carry us out for the next six years," Superintendent Mike Hyatt told school board members this week. 

New Mexico has been increasing school funding over the past few years, bringing per-pupil funding to levels not seen since before the financial collapse that began in 2007.

Gallup-McKinley County Schools serves many Native American students but has been hurt financially because it is surrounded by tribal lands which cannot be taxed to support the district's schools. 

The next and largest round of pandemic relief funding to benefit U.S. schools is aimed at helping schools that are trying to make up for the learning that students lost while they were studying at home. 

About $500 million in non-emergency school pandemic funds must still be budgeted by the state's school districts and federal rules require them to seek community input before they allocate the money. 

Albuquerque is hosting online public forums starting next week titled: "What should we become?" 

Schools in Los Alamos still have about $200,000 to spend and parents indicated that they want individual tutoring and more after-school activities for students.

In Wagon Mound, the process started on Facebook, where parents said they wanted to bring back home economics classes and repair the district's long-neglected baseball field. A public forum was held Wednesday.


Psychiatrist Pleads No Contest In Sexual Assault Case - Associated Press

A Las Cruces psychiatrist could face years in prison after pleading no contest to charges accusing him of sexually assaulting female patients. 

A plea agreement  that recommends seven years in prison said Dr. Mark Beale pleaded no contest to a total of 16 counts of felony criminal sexual penetration, misdemeanor criminal sexual contact and petty misdemeanor battery, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.

After Beale said in state District Court on Tuesday that he didn't want to give up the opportunity to defend himself. Judge Douglas Driggers initially said he'd reject the plea but he then accepted it when Beale's lawyer asked him to reconsider.

When pleading no contest, a person doesn't admit guilt. Instead, they're conceding that jurors would probably convict them if the case went to trial.

Beale, 74, was arrested in 2019 after a half-dozen of patients, all women, alleged rape, harassment or abuse. 

Defense attorney Gary Mitchell said Beale won't begin his serving his sentence until after his scheduled 2022 trial on federal charges of unlawful dispensing and distributing of a schedule II controlled substance.

Many of the same women who alleged Beale sexually assaulted them said Beale provided them medication they didn't need. 

Hearing Wraps Up On Major New Mexico Utility Merger - By Rick Ruggles Santa Fe New Mexican

Lawyers and expert witnesses this month ground through seven days of highly anticipated hearings on the Public Service Co. of New Mexico's proposed merger with two massive utility companies.

The hearings, which concluded late last week, offer little indication of how hearing examiner Ashley Schannauer will advise the Public Regulation Commission or what ruling the five-member commission will make. But at many points, testimony revealed just how high the stakes are for the players involved, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

PNM hopes to merge with Connecticut-based Avangrid and its parent firm, Iberdrola of Spain. If the merger is rejected by the commission, the company would have the chance to come back with a revised proposal.

Regardless of what happens, the commission's decision can be appealed directly to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

New Mexico's future in electricity is at stake, with Avangrid and Iberdrola promising investments and the ability to move the state more deftly into the era of renewable energy. But critics fear a loss of local control of New Mexico's largest utility company.

They also express concern about an Avangrid subsidiary's service record in Maine, plus Iberdrola's link to a wide-reaching Spanish investigation of alleged corporate spying.

The laborious hearings involved technical matters, such as the effectiveness of New Mexico's electricity system, shareholder benefits from a merger and customer costs. The hearings also were sprinkled with moments of conflict and humor.

At one point Avangrid attorney Brian Haverly addressed longtime PNM nemesis Mariel Nanasi as "Mariel."

"I'm Ms. Nanasi to you," responded Nanasi, an attorney and head of New Energy Economy, which has led the fight against the proposal.

"I apologize, Ms. Nanasi," Haverly said.

PNM attorney Richard Alvidrez grilled New Energy Economy expert witness Christopher Sandberg, a retired attorney who now is a professional photographer, on his expertise of the issue. He also jabbed at Sandberg about the background he used in the Zoom meeting.

"You look very scholarly sitting there with your bow tie and the backdrop of the books," Alvidrez said. "I'm assuming that that's a backdrop you've conjured up and that you're not quite sitting in a library with leather-bound books."

"The bow tie is real," Sandberg said. "The background is fake. Otherwise you would have to look at my very messy workroom and that would be very distracting."

Schannauer, who is employed by the Public Regulation Commission and has been a quasi-judge on the merger proposal for much of the year, gave the many attorneys involved a schedule at the end of the hearing.

Schannauer said the participants should submit position statements by Aug. 30, legal briefs by Sept. 21 and responses to those briefs by Sept. 28. He said he would make his recommendation based on where the elements of the proposed deal stood at the end of the hearing and would not factor in any negotiations after the hearing.

He noted another hearing vital to PNM, about its departure from Four Corners Power Plant, will start Aug. 31.

That hearing also is important to Avangrid and Iberdrola because they have said they expect PNM to have a plan to abandon the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant in northwestern New Mexico. PNM expects to turn its 13% share of the plant over to the Navajo Transitional Energy Co.

Because it was handled by Zoom technology, the merger proposal hearing lumbered along. Witnesses and lawyers tried to keep up on their own laptop and desktop computers with the stream of exhibits and previous testimony that was cited.

If speculation can be made about Commissioner Joseph Maestas' lengthy comments and questions to Avangrid executive Robert Kump, the Santa Fe commissioner sounded willing to compromise.

Maestas, of Santa Fe, said he wanted to see the merger applicants promise investments in modernizing the state's electrical grid and weatherization program. 

"The state needs help," Maestas told Kump. "We lack resources to truly, you know, implement the planning effort" for New Mexico's electric system.

Maestas also suggested residents who are behind in their electric bills should be given a continuation of a grace period until federal assistance and other forms of help are sorted out.

Avangrid was eager to help the state modernize its electric grid, Kump responded.

"Well, certainly if we were fortunate enough to have this deal close and we could work with the folks at PNM, we would be more than willing" to assist, Kump said. "Clearly we have the balance sheet, and we'd love to work with PNM on that."

Pedro Azagra Blázquez, an Avangrid board member and Iberdrola executive, said in his testimony a couple of weeks ago he was willing to increase the incentives  his companies have offered the state.

Blázquez said he would increase the customer rate credits to $67 million, up from $65 million and significantly more than the original offer of $25 million.

He also said under questioning by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority that the companies would create a $1 million scholarship fund, a $1 million apprenticeship program and raise assistance from $6 million to $10 million for people who are behind on their electric bills.

A PNM spokesman wrote the applicants "put on a strong case." An Avangrid spokeswoman claimed the hearings revealed enthusiasm for the merger.

"What became clear in the hearing is that the vast majority of the parties support the merger," spokeswoman Joanie Griffin wrote in an email. "We look forward to the … ruling, and moving forward to help New Mexico achieve its energy transition goals."

The proposal is supported by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Attorney General Hector Balderas and numerous community and environmental groups. Some organizations have not signed on, however, such as Bernalillo County and the city of Albuquerque.

Since the merger proposal late last year, thousands of pages of opinions, questions, answers, claims and data have been filed with the commission.

Schannauer expressed eagerness to finish the job, noting: "We need to get a decision done in this case."

New Mexico Races To Spend Federal Grant Money On Time – Associated Press

State agencies in New Mexico have spent $5.8 billion in federal pandemic relief grants as they try to shore up household income, childhood nutrition, public education and internet service.

A briefing from the budget and accountability office of the state Legislature shows that the state has spent more than half of its $10.1 billion share of federal funds through 130 grants.

About $3.8 billion has been spent on mandatory programs such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid. And the federal government is making permanent an increased benefit under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

Agencies could be hard-pressed to spend nearly $4 billion in optional spending before the offers expire, according to the spending report outlined Wednesday by staff with the Legislative Finance Committee.

The pressure to pay out grants before they expire could lead to uncompetitive contracting through emergency exemptions, the evaluation warned.

The legislative analysts pointed to $5.6 million in marketing and advertising contracts awarded by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration for the state's rental assistance program. While previous guidance from the committee has recommended setting price limits for such contracts, emergency exemptions were used in this case.

There has been no progress reported on the administration's proposed program to provide special oversight on federal relief spending.

Some lawmakers said Wednesday they would like to see more details from state agencies on what the money is being used for.

States, cities and counties with populations over 250,000 are required by the federal government to submit interim, quarterly and annual reports on the use of their recovery funds. The first report is due Aug. 31.

New Mexico Governor Joins US Conservation Challenge – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order Wednesday making New Mexico the latest Western state to join an ambitious effort to conserve nearly one-third of America's lands and waters by 2030.

The Biden administration detailed its plans in May for achieving the goal, saying conservation and restoration of lands and waters was an urgent priority. Democratic officials and environmentalists see the effort as a tool to increase green space, protect drinking water sources and reduce wildfire risks.

To make significant progress on the decadelong commitment, experts have said Western states must play a key role in the effort.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said she wants to "bring people together" in New Mexico for the initiative that she hopes will make a difference for decades to come.

Her executive order calls for the creation of a committee made up of key state agencies to draft a plan for reaching the goal. The group will meet four times a year and report back annually to the governor.

"I just want action," Lujan Grisham said before signing the order, "but if you don't have a guide … we're not going to get every opportunity that we deserve."

California was the first to formalize its 2030 conservation goal when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a sweeping executive order last fall. Nevada followed in May with lawmakers in the Democrat-dominated state passing a resolution.

About 12% of the nation's lands and one-quarter of its waters are currently protected, according to research by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. Wilderness areas, game refuges, agricultural lands, ranches and other sites with conservation easements are among the protected parcels.

Nationally, the Biden administration is calling for the expansion of federal grant programs to create more local parks, increase access to outdoor recreation and for Indigenous communities to access funding for conservation priorities.

In New Mexico, members of Lujan Grisham's executive cabinet have been charged with finding ways to leverage state and federal funding and existing programs to help with the effort.

They must also consider the importance of working lands, such as farms and ranches, as well as tribal sovereignty.

The order acknowledges that "agricultural production through farming and ranching represents historic, current and future land use and embodies cultural traditions that are at risk due to drought, development, climate impacts and reduced water availability."

A handful of rural New Mexico counties have passed resolutions in recent months opposing the effort.

Elected leaders in those communities have voiced concerns that designating more wilderness areas and imposing more restrictions would compromise the livelihoods of residents and businesses dependent on the landscape.

Republican state Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte said almost half of all land in New Mexico — the fifth largest state in the U.S. — is already owned and managed by either the state or federal government.

"We all know that our family-owned, private land is better managed, utilized and preserved," she said. "This 30x30 initiative set forth by the governor is a thinly veiled land grab, and the people of New Mexico will not stand for it."

Environmentalists praised Lujan Grisham's move, arguing that it would help protect New Mexico's outdoor heritage and the traditions of agricultural-based communities.

Theresa Pasqual, executive director of Acoma Pueblo's Historic Preservation Office, said it marks the start of a conversation that will allow local communities to figure out what would work best for them.

"We start that conversation by thinking about what's in our own backyard," she said.

Panel Appoints Replacement To Fill New Mexico House Vacancy – Associated Press

An environmental activist has been sworn in to fill a New Mexico House vacancy created by now-former Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton's resignation amid a corruption investigation.

The Bernalillo County Commission on Tuesday appointed Albuquerque Democrat Kay Bounkeua to fill the District 19 seat.

Bounkeua was among 10 applicants considered by the commission and is currently the New Mexico deputy state director for the Wilderness Society. She also recently served as the executive director of the New Mexico Asian Family Center.

Local media outlets reported that Bounkeua is believed to be the first Asian American woman to serve in the New Mexico Legislature. The 36-year-old daughter of immigrants from Laos said in a statement said she was honored "not only to break through the glass ceiling, but the bamboo ceiling attached to it."

Williams Stapleton resigned last month amid criminal investigations into her ties to a private contractor for the Albuquerque school district where she has worked.

Williams Stapleton has denied allegations of possible corruption.