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KUNM News Update

TUES: N.M. recoups $24M in mortgage-crisis settlement, Drivers to get break from I-40 delays, + More

John Minchillo
AP Photo


New Mexico recoups $24 million in mortgage-crisis settlement -Associated Press 

New Mexico's public pension and investment funds will receive $24 million from several major financial institutions to resolve a lawsuit over mortgage-backed securities and the financial crisis more than a decade ago, state prosecutors said. 

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas on Monday announced the settlement with seven financial institutions, including Barclays Capital, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. 

The settlement resolves allegations of inadequate disclosures about mortgage-backed securities that were purchased by the state pension and investment funds. Claims were dismissed with no admission of liability.

The payout goes toward state investment accounts and public pension funds overseen by the Public Employees Retirement Association and Education Retirement Board.

The entire settlement is for $32.5 million. Outside plaintiffs who first brought the lawsuit on behalf of New Mexico taxpayers will receive 25% of the settlement, or just over $8 million, under provisions of the state Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.

The New Mexico Public Employees Retirement Association alone lost more than $4 billion in assets in the Great Recession, which was touched off in late 2007 by losses on subprime mortgages that battered the U.S. housing market.

Jerri Mares, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the state is at the tail end of litigation regarding the mortgage crisis. 

The agency continues to provide advocacy services to mortgage consumers, including informal dispute services.

El Vado Dam to undergo extensive repairs to prevent leaks -Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Major repairs to a northern New Mexico dam will mean irrigation water will have to be stored elsewhere.

Repairs on El Vado Dam are slated to start next spring, leaving it unusable for at least a year to deliver water to the Middle Rio Grande Valley, said Page Pegram of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission. 

Abiquiu Lake most likely will be the backup, Pegram told the Albuquerque Journal.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plans to address cracks in El Vado's steel faceplate and the foundation, and the deteriorating spillway. The dam was built in the 1930s and its current condition isn't safe for the public, the agency said.

El Vado Dam can hold back about 60 billion gallons (273 billion liters) of water, but the capacity will be reduced significantly while the repairs are being done. 

Persistent drought also has meant less water in New Mexico reservoirs, and the region could be in store for a dry winter with a La Niña weather pattern.

"Water supply conditions for the Middle Rio Grande in 2022, are expected to be significantly diminished," Pegram said. "We expect stream flows in the basin to remain below average."

Motorists to get break from traffic delays on westbound I-40 - Associated Press

Travelers on Interstate 40 in northwestern New Mexico will get a break from construction delays this week.

The state Department of Transportation will suspend work on a 5.5-mile project on Interstate 40 near Laguna Pueblo from Wednesday through Sunday, officials said. Transportation Secretary Mike Sandoval said he understands drivers are frustrated with getting stuck in traffic, especially during the holidays.

"We want families to get to their Thanksgiving destinations safely, which is why we planned all along to open all lanes of traffic during the holiday," he said in a statement Monday. "We sincerely appreciate everyone's patience."

The project has led to long delays as westbound I-40 was reduced to one lane, and merging traffic faced an uphill climb.

The transportation department said the work should be finished in mid-December ahead of schedule, barring any weather delays. Other phases of the project will wrap up in the spring, the department said.

Vaccines making Thanksgiving easier, but hot spots remain - By Ed White Associated Press

The U.S. is facing its second Thanksgiving of the pandemic in better shape than the first time around, thanks to the vaccine, though some regions are seeing surges of COVID-19 cases that could get worse as families travel the country for gatherings that were impossible a year ago.

Nearly 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated. That leaves tens of millions who have yet to get a shot in the arm, some of them out of defiance. Hospitals in the cold Upper Midwest, especially Michigan and Minnesota, are filled with COVID-19 patients who are mostly unvaccinated.

Michigan hospitals reported about 3,800 coronavirus patients at the start of the week, with 20% in intensive care units, numbers that approach the bleakest days of the pandemic's 2020 start. The state had a seven-day new-case rate of 616 per 100,000 people Monday, highest in the nation.

In the West, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Montana also ranked high. Some Colorado communities, including Denver, are turning to indoor mask orders to reduce risk, a policy that has also been adopted in the Buffalo, New York, area and Santa Cruz County, California.

The statistics in Michigan are "horrible," said Dr. Matthew Trunsky, a respiratory specialist at Beaumont Health in suburban Detroit.

"We got cold and moved indoors and have huge pockets of unvaccinated people," he said. "You can't have pockets of unvaccinated people who don't want to be masked and not expect to get outbreaks, not expect to lose parents, not expect to lose teachers."

During a recent office visit, he encouraged a patient who uses oxygen to get vaccinated. The patient declined and now is in the hospital with COVID-19, desperately relying on even more oxygen, Trunsky said.

He said he continues to encounter patients and their family members espousing conspiracy theories about the vaccine.

"We've had several people in their 40s die in the last month — 100% unvaccinated," Trunsky said. "It's just so incredibly sad to see a woman die with teenagers. Especially with that age group, it's nearly 100% preventable."

In Detroit, where less than 40% of eligible residents were fully vaccinated, Mayor Mike Duggan said hospitalizations have doubled since early November.

"We have far too many people in this country that we have lost because they believed some nonsense on the internet and decided not to get the vaccine," said Duggan, a former hospital executive. 

Despite hot spots, the outlook in the U.S. overall is significantly better than it was at Thanksgiving 2020.

Without the vaccine, which became available in mid-December 2020, the U.S. a year ago was averaging 169,000 cases and 1,645 deaths per day, and about 81,000 people were in the hospital with COVID-19. The U.S. now is averaging 95,000 cases, 1,115 deaths and 40,000 in the hospital.

Airports have been jammed. More than 2.2 million people passed through security checkpoints on Friday, the busiest day since the pandemic shut down travel early in 2020. On some recent days, the number was twice as high as Thanksgiving a year ago.

Sarene Brown and three children, all vaccinated, were flying to Atlanta from Newark, New Jersey, to see family. People close to them have died from COVID-19.

"I'm thankful that I'm here, and I'm not in heaven, and I'm thankful for my family and that God helped me survive," said Neive Brown, 7, who got her first dose.

More than 500,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the last Thanksgiving, for an overall death toll of over 770,000.

"We would encourage people who gather to do so safely after they've been fully vaccinated, as we've been saying for months now," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I do think that this is very different because we actually have the tools to prevent the vast majority of cases."

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said his optimism is tempered by the delta variant's ability to jump from person to person, especially among the millions who are unvaccinated or are due for a booster. 

"That equals very high vulnerability," Topol said.

Denver's public hospital, Denver Health, is sending people elsewhere because of a lack of beds. Staff members were exhausted from treating COVID-19 patients and others who had postponed other medical needs, chief executive Robin Wittenstein said.

"Our system is on the brink of collapse," she said.

Arizona reported at least 2,551 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, far below the peak of last winter but still reason for concern. Officials said beds were limited.

Interior head: Chaco protections 'millennia in the making' - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A few big rigs carried oilfield equipment on a winding road near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, cutting through desert badlands and sage. Mobile homes and traditional Navajo dwellings dotted the landscape, with a smattering of natural gas wells visible in the distance.

This swath of northwestern New Mexico has been at the center of a decades-long battle over oil and gas development.

On Monday, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined pueblo leaders at the park to reflect on her office's announcement last week that it would seek to withdraw federal land holdings within 10 miles of its boundary, making the area off-limits to oil and gas leasing for 20 years.

The action halts new leases in the area for the next two years while federal officials consider the proposed withdrawal.

"This celebration is decades in the making," Haaland said. "Some would even say millennia in the making."

While the Chaco area holds significance for many Indigenous people in the Southwest, the Navajo Nation oversees much of the land that makes up the jurisdictional checkerboard surrounding the national park. Some belong to individual Navajos who were allotted land by the federal government generations ago. 

Navajo leaders support preserving parts of the area but have said individual allottees stand to lose an important income source if the land is made off-limits to development. They're calling for a smaller buffer of federal land around the park as a compromise to protect Navajo financial interests. 

The rough road to the park was lined with brightly colored signs Monday in support of the allottees, many noting the importance of oil and gas development to their livelihoods.

"Our land, our minerals. We support oil and gas," read one sign.

Another said Haaland hasn't met with allottees. Haaland told reporters later Interior officials have spoken with allottees.

Environmentalists, Democratic politicians and other tribes had been pressuring Haaland — the first Native American to lead a U.S. Cabinet agency — to protect a broad swath of land beyond the park.

A former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, Haaland sponsored legislation during her U.S. House term to curb oil and gas drilling. She has called the area sacred, saying it has deep meaning for those whose ancestors once called the high desert home.

"This is a living landscape," Haaland said Monday. "You can feel it in the sun, the clouds and the wind. It's not difficult to imagine centuries ago children running around the open space, people moving in and out of doorways, singing in their harvest or preparing food for seasons to come — a busy, thriving community."

A World Heritage site, Chaco is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the bottom of the canyon, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert floor. 

More discoveries are waiting to be made outside the park, archaeologists have said.

The fight over drilling beyond the park has spanned multiple presidential administrations. The Trump and Obama administrations also put on hold leases adjacent to the park through agency actions, but activists want the area permanently protected.

The Biden administration and Haaland's agency have vowed to consult with tribes over the next two years as the withdrawal proposal is considered, but top Navajo leaders already have suggested they're being ignored. Noticeably absent Monday were the highest elected leaders of the tribe's legislative and executive branches.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso talked about the significant cultural ties that Navajos have to the area and cited concerns about increasing traffic, dust and other pollution that stems from oil and gas development. He called the recent executive orders a "giant step."

"It creates a process where we have to continue to stand up for the land, stand up for the air, stand up for the water, stand up for the sacred," he said.

Other tribal lawmakers and allottees have called for congressional field hearings to be held before any decisions are made.

"The Interior Department unilaterally made this withdrawal proposal without proper tribal consultation, now directly affecting our families on the Navajo Nation. The (Bureau of Land Management) now wants to initiate formal tribal consultation after the fact," Navajo Council Delegate Mark Freeland said last week following Haaland's announcement.

Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon also has said the Biden administration needs to respect tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship it has with the tribe.

Federal officials said the ban on new petroleum leasing in the area will not affect existing leases or rights and would not apply to minerals owned by private, state or tribal entities. The Navajo allottees have argued it wouldn't be economical for companies to continue development just on their land.

Navajo officials also noted that Congress commissioned a cultural resource investigation of the area to be performed by experts. That work is ongoing, and they suggested the Biden administration wait until those results are compiled before initiating the 20-year withdrawal.

Haaland encouraged people to help inform land management going forward. She said she couldn't help but think of her grandmother's home in Mesita Village, in Laguna Pueblo, when she looked at how carefully the stones were set at Chaco to build the walls that enveloped its residents and visitors with great care and love. 

"The responsibility we all have to our future generations is to take care of our American heritage and to model our care of the earth after the people who once lived among these beautiful structures," she said.

2 New Mexico school districts close down, citing COVID surge - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

At least two schools in New Mexico are sending students home early this week for remote learning, citing concerns over a coronavirus infection surge.

Students at Santa Fe Public Schools will go remote starting Tuesday ahead of the Thanksgiving break, representing the largest voluntary closure of K-12 schools this semester. 

Los Lunas Schools, a smaller school district near Albuquerque, canceled in person classes in favor of remote learning Monday and Tuesday ahead of the break that starts Wednesday.

"This is a strategic move to decrease our active COVID positive numbers," said Los Lunas Schools superintendent Arsenio Romero. "We are aware that this can cause undue hardship for working parents."

New Mexico's Public Education Department last spring ordered schools into remote learning based on their thresholds of positive COVID-19 infection tests. Schools with more than four positive tests had to switch to remote learning.

Now schools have the power to decide whether to shut their doors or stay open.

About 20 of the state's schools have reported sending children home due to virus outbreaks each month this year that included staffing shortages because of quarantines for teachers, according to voluntary notices submitted by schools to state education authorities.

There are schools elsewhere in New Mexico that have reported more COVID-19 infection cases than the school districts in Santa Fe and Los Lunas, according to data updated Friday from the New Mexico Environment Department.

But those other districts decided to maintain in-person learning. In Albuquerque, one school reported five positive tests and in Las Cruces there are schools that have had six positive tests. 

Neither district has canceled in-person learning or extended the Thanksgiving holiday.

When schools go online, parents including school staff have to scramble to find childcare.

That's already a struggle in Santa Fe, where teachers on average pay about $1,000 in child care costs per month, according to a teacher union survey cited by the school district's superintendent in a recent editorial.

Last year, many teachers struggled to teach online classes while trying to care for their own children at home simultaneously. Now in the fourth semester of the pandemic, some districts are starting to think about addressing the problem.

"We're in discussion with the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department on the possibility of the district providing child care for staff," Superintendent Hilario Chavez wrote.

New Mexico foresees robust growth in state government income -Associated Press

Forecasts for state government income have increased slightly as New Mexico legislators prepare to meet in January to craft a general fund budget.

The state's top taxation official and the lead economist for the Legislature told a panel of lawmakers Monday that state income is likely to exceed already robust expectations by at least $28 million for the fiscal year starting July 2022.

That adds slightly to a forecasted $1.4 billion surplus in state general fund income over current annual spending obligations. 

The estimate hold implications for public school finances, health care subsidies, public worker salaries, public safety and more.

"The good news is that we are tracking closer to the upside. ... Employment, wages and salaries, those things are recovering," said Ismael Torres, chief economist for the Legislature's budget and accountability office.

State income is expected to increase by 9% to $8.84 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2022, from $8.1 billion for the current fiscal year.

Taxation and Revenue Secretary Stephanie Schardin Clarke said the economic recovery has been limited for low-income and less-educated workers. She emphasized the continued importance of financial safety-net programs.

"Lower wage workers who probably had the least amount of savings going into the pandemic have still experienced about a 5% loss in wages," she said.

Progressive changes to the state tax code that favor low-income households are taking a bite out of the state general fund budget for the first time.

Early this year, lawmakers expanded the state's working families tax credit and the low-income comprehensive tax rebate. Initial estimates showed the state would forgo about $74 million in annual income as a result.

Pilot in fatal New Mexico plane crash was Texas man -Carlsbad Current-Argus, Associated Press

Authorities say the pilot who died in a small plane crash last week outside Carlsbad, New Mexico was a 27-year-old Texas man.

New Mexico State Police were quoted Monday by the Carlsbad Current-Argus saying that Michael Kozlovsky of Burnet, Texas was the pilot of the Cessna that crashed before noon Friday into a communications tower that caught on fire east of Carlsbad.

First responders found Kozlovsky's body at the scene. 

The Federal Aviation Administration says on its website Kozlovsky was on a personal flight and had filed a flight plan with the Lubbock Flight Standards District Office in Texas. The circumstances of the crash were unknown. 

The plane was registered to Coast Helicopters of Pearland, Texas.