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TUES: APS Wants Fed Aid Money To Offset Losses, State To Pay $50M In Taxes Owed To Cities, + More

Stefan Schweihofer
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Albuquerque Schools Budget For Teacher Loans, Fewer Students – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico's largest school district wants to use federal pandemic funding to prevent staff layoffs.

A proposal from Albuquerque Public Schools released Monday would direct $50 million in pandemic relief to offset a loss of state money tied to enrollment decline.

Superintendent Scott Elder said in a video conference the district lost around 5,000 students and around $50 million in state funding.

“One of the big points of federal money was to allow districts a year to try to stabilize themselves, and without having to do massive layoffs,” Elder said.

If adopted in the final budget, that stabilization would account for 25% of the nearly $200 million the district gets in the next and largest round of federal relief funds for schools.

Around 15% of the proposed budget is aimed at helping chronically absent students.

The district also proposed buying more student laptops, upgrading ventilation, and paying up to $5,250 in student loans for district employees.

New Mexico school funding is based on student enrollment numbers from the previous year. Enrollment has dropped around 1% every year for the past decade due to population change. It dropped an additional 4% last year as some families chose to homeschool instead of participating in remote learning through public school.

New Mexico Resolves Tax Dispute With $50M Payment – Associated Press

Local governments will get a $50 million boost to resolve a 2018 lawsuit that accused the state of botching tax distributions to 44 counties and municipalities across New Mexico.

Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Roswell and Farmington were among the major plaintiffs to the lawsuit that alleged the state has short changed them revenue that pays for law enforcement, fire protection and other services.

The state Taxation and Revenue Department on Tuesday announced terms of the financial settlement on the sharing of gross receipts taxes.

Gross receipts taxes apply to sales and business services at a rate of between 5% and 9% by location. The state distributes more than $1.9 billion in revenues from gross receipts taxes to local governments each year.

Local governments also complained of wild fluctuations in amount of gross receipts shared each month, previously with little explanation by state taxation authorities.

In a statement, Taxation and Revenue Secretary Stephanie Schardin Clarke said that “local governments deserve to have confidence in how their tax revenues are handled, and we've been able to demonstrate to them that the system is working.”

Her agency says it added a liaison to improve communications with local governments, rigorous monthly reviews of local tax distributions, more robust auditing and greater access to state financial reports.

State economists say that gross receipts taxes have surpassed expectations by $330 million during the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2021.

They linked the surge in revenues to deployment of the coronavirus vaccine this year, the reopening of businesses and the release of pent-up consumer demand.

New Mexico Poised To Reconsider Bail Reform Amid Crime Wave – Mike Gallagher, Albuquerque Journal

Prosecutors and police have argued unsuccessfully that New Mexico’s bail reform law needs to be tweaked to make it tougher for defendants charged with violent felonies to be released while awaiting trial.

While their past legislative efforts have fallen short, they have gained an important ally in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who says she wants to see changes in the state’s pretrial detention system.

“I believe a rebuttable presumption for individuals accused of violent crimes can be a wedge in the revolving door of repeat violent offenses that have characterized the worst aspects of the crime our state continues to experience,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement to the Albuquerque Journal.

As the system works now, to have a defendant charged with a violent felony held prior to trial, prosecutors must show the accused represents a danger to the community — and that there are no conditions of release that will protect the community.

Lujan Grisham, who is seeking reelection, said she wants to shift the burden of proof so that people charged with violent offenses are required to show they can safely be released.

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for attorney general who has pushed for similar changes in the past, said he welcomes the governor's support.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said in a statement that fear about rising violent crime has little to do with pretrial release and that this kind of change “is guaranteed to sweep up the innocent along with the guilty.”

Baur said only 3% of people released prior to trial commit a violent crime after their release pending trial.

“I’m extremely concerned about allowing the government to hold people in jail for months just because someone said you did something,” he said.

“We hope the governor will look at the facts and not the emotion of the issue,” Baur added.

New Mexico voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 that largely did away with the system of money bail bonds. The change meant many low-level defendants were no longer held simply because they lacked resources to post a bond. It also authorized judges to order defendants held in custody without bond pending trial if certain conditions on dangerousness and conditions of release were met.

In 2019, Torrez sought to have the Legislature pass a law that would require judges to lock up defendants prior to trial if they were charged in certain violent crimes, like murder and criminal sexual penetration. The law would put the responsibility on the defendant facing those charges to show that there are conditions under which they could be released prior to trial.

Torrez failed to get much traction in 2019. He intends to make another attempt this coming session.

“We’re not asking for low-risk, non-violent offenders to be detained,” he said.

Torrez’s suggested legislation would create a “rebuttable presumption against release” in the crimes of first- and second-degree murder cases, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated battery in the third degree, sexual exploitation of children, criminal sexual penetration, armed robbery and human trafficking of a child.

The law also would include defendants facing new charges while on parole or with a recent felony conviction for any of those crimes.

Charges that included great bodily harm and brandishing a firearm during the commission of the crime would also be subject to a rebuttable presumption against release.

In those cases, defendants would have to show that they could be released from pretrial detention without endangering the community.

Baur said the current process allows for dangerous people to be held prior to trial.

“Innocent people are arrested every day," he said, "but currently there is a process that requires the government to separate the truly dangerous from those who pose little or no threat.”

Torrez points to several cases in which people charged with violent crimes were released and either absconded from court supervision or committed more crimes when they were released.

Last week, Trey Bausby, 19, cut off his ankle monitor and failed to show up at a halfway house after being released on first-degree murder charges in the stabbing death of a woman at an Albuquerque motel in January.

Prosecutors had sought to keep Bausby in custody pending further proceedings in the case, but District Judge Richard Brown ordered him released with ankle monitoring and orders to stay in a halfway house.

“The court is putting too much faith in ankle monitors,” Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said in a statement. “… Our officers and the public are at risk by these decisions.”

Prosecutors also had argued that Bausby, who was arrested in Albuquerque last Friday morning, was a flight risk and was asking people if he could borrow money so he could get out of town.

Torrez also wants legislators to look at how the state deals with felons in possession of a firearm.

“About 42% of the people we seek to detain, the crime involves possession of a firearm,” Torrez said. “We’re losing over 52% of those detention cases.”

In the federal system, a high percentage of defendants accused of gun crimes including being a felon in possession are held in custody.

Torrez says the changes he advocates would make New Mexico’s system operate more like California, Washington, D.C., and the federal system on the issue of pretrial detention. New Mexico, he has said, is an outlier.

In addition to shifting the presumption on pretrial detention, Lujan Grisham said that in next year’s 30-day legislative session she wants lawmakers to approve $100 million to fund an additional 1,000 police officer positions throughout the state.

The governor also said she wants to continue to talk with legislators about other improvements to public safety.

Earlier this month she sent 35 state police officers to Albuquerque because of the record high number of homicides the city has seen since January.

Republicans, meanwhile, have urged her to call a special session to deal with crime, pointing out that Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate have killed 10 GOP-sponsored tough-on-crime bills in the last two years.

New Mexico And Navajo Nation COVID-19 Infections Increase - KUNM News, Associated Press

The New Mexico Department of Health Tuesday announced 827 new COVID-19 cases and six additional deaths.

Bernalillo County led the state with 179 of the new cases.

As New Mexico’s ICU beds continue to fill, the DOH reported 406 people hospitalized with COVID-19.

The DOH asks that every New Mexican wear a mask when in public and around others, and if you are sick, to stay home as much as possible.

The Navajo Nation Tuesday reported 54 new COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the third consecutive day.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe’s total to 32,600 coronavirus cases and 1,403 deaths since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

Series To Be Based On Hillerman Novels Set On Navajo Nation – Associated Press

Production of a six-episode television series based on crime novels by the late author Tony Hillerman is underway in New Mexico, the state Film office announced Tuesday.

A psychological thriller set in the Four Corners region of the US Southwest, “Dark Winds" is a production of AMC Networks and Dark Winds Productions LLC and centers on two Navajo Nation police officers trying to solve a double murder in the Four Corners region.

Hillerman's acclaimed books featuring officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee were characterized by vivid descriptions of Navajo rituals and of the vast reservation.

The series will be shot on the Navajo reservation and in Santa Fe and other locations from late August through November and is expected to premiere in 2022, the Film Office said.

“We are ecstatic that AMC is being so intentional about telling this story in an authentic way by creative talent whose work speaks for itself, with a Native American director from New Mexico, as well as Native American writers, actors, and locations,” Film Office Amber Dodson said.

The pilot’s director is Chris Eyre and the series stars Zahn McClarnon, Noah Emmerich and Kiowa Gordon, the office said.

Hillerman died in 2008.

Flood Watches Issued For Parts Of New Mexico For Wednesday – Associated Press

Flood watches have been issued for Wednesday for parts of western New Mexico along with a mountainous area of north-central New Mexico due to approaching tropical moisture.

Watch areas in western New Mexico range from just north of Gallup and Grants on the north to the U.S.-Mexico border on the south. Other communities in the watch areas include Lordsburg, Deming and Silver City.

The National Weather Service issued a separate flash flood watch for the Tusas Mountains, including the community of Cham in northern Rio Arriba County.

“Abundant subtropical moisture" expected to arrive Wednesday will “increase the potential for locally heavy rainfall and flash flooding," the weather service's Albuquerque office said on Twitter.

New Mexico Panel Considers Future Of Coal-Fired Power Plant - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's largest electric provider wants to transfer its share of a coal-fired power plant to an energy company backed by the Navajo Nation, but environmentalists argue that approving the deal would prolong the life of the plant and run counter to the state's renewable energy goals.

The state Public Regulation Commission will determine whether Public Service Co. of New Mexico's plan for Four Corners Power Plant is in the public interest during a two-week hearing that begins Tuesday. It heard from the public Monday. 

Some of those who spoke at the virtual meeting Monday choked back tears when talking about pollution emitted by the plant over the decades, while others spoke about how their jobs at the power plant and coal mine helped to put their children through college.

Some tribal members told regulators that all levels of Navajo leadership are behind the proposal. They said allowing the Navajo Transitional Energy Co. — or NTEC — to take over the utility's stake in Four Corners would provide more time for the tribe to find ways to deal with significant economic consequences that will come when the plant closes in 2031.

If regulators don't approve PNM's plan, the Navajo Nation could lose up to $60 million annually, said LoRenzo Bates, former speaker of the Navajo Nation Council. The tribe is already struggling to absorb lost jobs and revenues after the closure of a coal-fired power plant in Arizona  in 2019 and is bracing for the closure next year of the San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico.

Four Corners and the mine that feeds it employ about 700 mostly Navajo workers. The plant has an annual payroll of nearly $100 million and pays $100 million in taxes, fees and coal royalties, according to Arizona Public Service Co., one of its owners.

Other tribal members and environmental groups are urging the commission not to approve the proposal, saying the plant should be shut down as soon as possible. They cited pollution and health concerns along with New Mexico's requirement for utilities to cut carbon emissions as a way to combat climate change.

PNM wants out of the coal business and has been adding more wind and solar resources. The state is requiring it and other utilities to provide more electricity from emissions-free sources over the next two decades. 

PNM also wants to use low-cost bonds that would be paid off by utility customers to recover $300 million it has invested in the power plant. The utility is hoping to get regulatory approval for the deal as it prepares for a merger with global energy giant Iberdrola. 

If regulators don't approve the transfer to NTEC, then PNM would have to figure out a new plan to exit the plant. It can't decide alone to shut down the plant, which has four other owners. 

Commission Chairman Stephen Fischmann said regulators' decision will be "a tough one."

FBI: New Mexico Agencies Reported 55 Hate Crimes In 2020 - Associated Press

The FBI says law enforcement agencies in New Mexico reported 55 hate crime incidents last year, an increase from 50 reported in 2019.

The data was included in the Hate Crime Statistics 2020, a report released by the FBI on Monday.

"The FBI wants everyone in New Mexico and across the nation to know that we are going after hate crimes," Special Agent in Charge Raul Bujanda said. "There is no place in our communities for hate. Anyone who was a victim or a witness to a hate-related incident is encouraged to report it to law enforcement and the FBI."

Authorities said there were 35 reported hate crime incidents in New Mexico last year involving a bias against race, ethnicity or ancestry.

The Albuquerque FBI Division is trying to build public awareness of hate crimes and encourage reporting to law enforcement.

36 Navajo Nation Communities Have Uncontrolled COVID Spread - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported 17 new COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the second consecutive day. 

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's total to 32,545 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago. 

The known death total remained at 1,403. 

Based on cases from Aug. 13-16, the Navajo Department of Health has issued an advisory notice for 36 communities due to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez has said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 by the end of September or be required to submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

The Navajo Nation reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

New Mexico Governor Signs Another Declaration For Flooding - Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed an emergency declaration for Rio Arriba County, clearing the way for the local government to access funding to help with recovery efforts.

Recent heavy rainfall overwhelmed drainage systems and caused damage to roads and infrastructure, including traditional irrigation systems known as acequias.

"Failure to restore the operations of our local acequias will have severe adverse effects on our predominately agricultural communities," said Alfredo Montoya, the county's fire marshal and emergency services chief.

Similar emergency declarations were made earlier this year for Lincoln, Chaves, Valencia, Eddy, Doña Ana and Mora counties, as many parts of the state have seen more rain during this monsoon than in the past two summers. Climate experts have said some parts of the southwestern U.S. have seen as much as four times their average precipitation levels for this time of year.

Forecasters with the National Weather Service say the potential for flash flooding will increase sharply Wednesday through Friday as more heavy rain is expected across the western half of New Mexico.

Santa Fe Hotel First To Call For Guests' Vaccine Proof - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A Santa Fe hotel will likely be the first such establishment in the city and New Mexico to mandate proof of vaccination for access.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that Ten Thousand Waves guests who want to book a room, use the spa or eat indoors will have to be vaccinated or submit a recent negative COVID-19 test.

This new policy starts Wednesday.

Owner Duke Klauck says patrons already have to be vaccinated for any beauty and spa treatments.

In July, Klauck decided to mandate all 150 employees and contractors get vaccinated. 

Guests who are only eating outdoors at the hotel's Izanami restaurant, however, don't have to show vaccination status.

Kathy Komoll, CEO of New Mexico Hospitality Association, believes this is the first hotel in the state to enact a vaccination policy.

Klauck said seeing the prevalence of the delta variant was partly behind the decision. He believes for every customer who may go elsewhere, there others who will be supportive. 

Since the pandemic started, New Mexico has seen more than 229,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 4,505 deaths. 

More than 1 million people age 18 and up in the state have been fully vaccinated — or 67.2% of that population.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Partner Wed In New Mexico - Associated Press

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland married her longtime partner Skip Sayre Saturday night in New Mexico.

Haaland wore a dress designed and sewn by her sister, said Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz. The ceremony incorporated elements honoring her Native American ancestry. The former New Mexico congresswoman is a member of the Laguna Pueblo.

According to Schwartz, guests had to be vaccinated to attend and wear masks per CDC and New Mexico guidelines. 

But pictures on social media that show some people, including Haaland, not wearing masks indoors the whole time have drawn criticism. Her office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.