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TUES: Red chile labor program comes to abrupt halt due to fight between governor and Legislature, + More

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Red chile labor program comes to abrupt halt due to fight between governor and Legislature - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico 

New Mexico’s red chile harvest might become a casualty of a recent Supreme Court ruling that halted Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s ability to spend federal money without the Legislature.

Lujan Grisham announced a $5 million program in August that chipped in taxpayer money to help recruit and retain seasonal laborers. At the time, the state estimated there had been a 45% drop in farmworkers who pick chile, which amounted to about 1,350 open jobs.

The governor announced just a couple of weeks ago she would extend the first-come, first-serve program to help farmers find enough workers to handle the red chile season this winter.

The state paid as much as $4.50 an hour to enhance laborer pay up to $19.50 an hour to process chile.

But the governor’s unilateral use of federal American Rescue Plan Act money came under fire by legislators, who argued they should have a say in the allocation of that money. They sued in September.

Lujan Grisham doled out about $700 million before the litigation commenced on things like vaccine incentives, unemployment insurance, encouraging employees to return to work and boosting pay for the chile farmworkers.

The lawsuit made its way to the state’s Supreme Court. Last month, justices ruled in the Legislature’s favor, requiring an immediate halt to governor’s spending.

Jeff Witte, the state’s agriculture secretary, wrote a letter dated Dec. 3 that was published on the website of the Chile Labor Incentive Program, saying the ruling meant the program’s remaining $2.2 million could not be spent.

“Unfortunately, the Legislature wants unspent funds from the program to be returned to them per the state Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding federal funding, effectively ending the program and preventing us from providing further needed assistance to the chile industry,” Witte wrote.

As of mid-November, the state had spent around half the money on about 3,000 workers.

New Mexico farmers produced nearly $52 million in green chile in 2020 from 8,500 acres, according to the United States Department of Agriculture statistics, up from $50 million in 2019.

Charlie Marquez, lobbyist on behalf of the New Mexico Chile Association, informed the House Appropriation Committee of halt to the program at a meeting today. His mention of the potential problems for the red chile harvest elicited obvious concern from Rep. Patti Lundstrom (D-Gallup), the committee chair, and other committee members.

The committee gathered to discuss the proposed allocation of about $470 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, primarily on broadband and infrastructure. The proposal included no money to help farmers pay living wages to chile farmers.

Lundstrom did not immediately say what the solution might be to help resurrect the chile program. But she said she would look at the issue.

“That doesn’t sound right to me. We’re going to keep a note on that one,” Lundstrom said. “Chile is chile.”

Glen Duggins, president of the New Mexico Chile Association, previously told Source New Mexico that the program has been very helpful to farmers like him, but he thinks it could have been streamlined to better retain workers.

For example, he said, the program requires too much paperwork to be worth it for some employees who don’t work for very long or abruptly stop showing up to work. That undermines the point of the program, he said, and might explain why the state hasn’t yet spent all the money.

“The turnover is so high,” he said. “They come and go so fast on the farm that (the program) doesn’t work very well on the farm.”

Instead, Duggins said, it might improve the program if it paid farmers per ton of chile harvested, giving them the flexibility to pay their workers from that sum.

But he said he appreciates the program, especially as farmers harvest red chile this winter. He supplemented one employee’s wages in the fall and intended to enroll at least three more this winter, he said.

“We’re grateful for it, and we’re using it for the red chile (harvest),” he said at the time, before the announcement.

Witte in his letter urged farmers to continue to track their expenses through Jan. 31 in hopes that the program is brought back.

“We are disappointed that the burden of this action may fall on you — but we will continue to be of assistance to you in any way we can, as our mission, as always, is to support the essential work you do to feed New Mexicans the best chile in the world,” he wrote.

HUD awards millions for tribal housing projects in this region – By Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

Three more tribal communities in New Mexico will see millions in federal dollars to assist with housing construction and renovation projects.

Today, Housing Urban Development Deputy Secretary Adrianne Todman announced more than $52 million will be awarded to 49 tribes across the country as part of COVID-19 relief funded through the Indian Community Block Grant from the American Rescue Plan Act passed earlier this year.

Ohkay Owingeh, Isleta and Zia Pueblos are receiving a combined $3.1 million for housing projects.

“HUD understands its responsibility to Indigenous communities,” Todman said. “These awards will provide critical funding to Tribes to help them prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19.”

This follows an additional $3.1 million awarded in November under the same federal housing program to the Pueblo of Jemez Housing Authority ($1.03 million) for the construction of three housing units, the Pueblo of Acoma Housing Authority ($1.03 million) to expand internet broadband access to homes and the Santo Domingo Pueblo ($1.03 million) for improvements such as new ventilation systems in homes.

During the initial round of funding in November, the Navajo Nation was also awarded $3.4 million to construct 69 septic systems, repair water lines and improve sanitation services on the Arizona side.

The funds announced today will go to similar projects. Isleta Pueblo plans to build two housing duplexes. Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority is approved to rehabilitate 13 homes in the community, and Pueblo of Zia plans to use its money to build seven new homes.

Heidi Frechette (Menominee / Brothertown) is HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for Native American Programs. She said the awards can address longstanding housing inequalities further exacerbated by COVID-19. For instance, tribes updating ventilation systems in homes will allow for greater air flow, which can help stop the spread of the disease and also improve air quality during wildfire season.

“This funding really highlights that tribes see the needs in their communities — not only to COVID-19 or the pandemic — but other environmental concerns where air quality is the factor,” Frechette said.

Home renovation and construction can address the health problems of overfull households where people could not safely practice social distancing or adequately quarantine if someone in the house was exposed to the virus.

“The struggle to access measures to keep folks safe during COVID-19, as far as being able to distance, to quarantine when you’re in an overcrowded home to be able to hand wash and things like that without running water and indoor plumbing,” she said. “And so really, these funds are still needed to make these investments in Indian Country to really address some of those systemic needs that have existed but really has been more highlighted during the pandemic.”

While the projects are created and run by the tribes, HUD is offering consultation on best practices to assist with projects to meet pandemic relief goals.

“Tribes really decide the needs in their community,” Frechette said. “Tribes are being innovative or they’re addressing the needs of their community.”

New Mexico Business Recovery Grant applications close tonight - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Today is the last day New Mexico small businesses and nonprofit organizations can apply for a state pandemic relief grant.

The New Mexico Finance Authority announced yesterday that the final round of applications for the $200 million Business Recovery Grant Program will be accepted until 11:59 p.m. tonight.

The individual grants of up to $100,000 can be used as reimbursement for a business’s rent, lease or mortgage payments.

Award amounts are based on revenue lost from 2019 to 2020 due to the pandemic as well as job creation goals.

Applicants are asked to project the number of new full-time employees they’ve hired or plan to hire before next April, and their hourly wage. Grantees must meet these projections in order to continue receiving quarterly payments, according to NMFA’s website. 

NMFA will continue to accept new applications through December 31st, but it cannot guarantee funds will be available for applications submitted after today.

FBI: Man robbed two Albuquerque banks in about 15 minutes - Associated Press

The FBI says the same man is believed to have robbed two Wells Fargo bank branches in Albuquerque in a span of about 15 minutes early Monday afternoon and is suspected of four other Albuquerque bank robberies in September and October.

According to the FBI, the suspected is described as white, in his 30s, approximately 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds), with black hair and a thin build.

The FBI said he wore a blue sweater, a blue hat with a red brim and an image of a mountain on a gold background, a blue surgical mask, gray gloves, blue jeans and dark shoes.

In both robberies, the suspect presented a demand note to tellers, who handed over an undisclosed amount of money, the FBI said.

The man is suspected of robbing branches of U.S. Bank, Bank of the West and Wells Fargo in the early holdups.

Democrat-led New Mexico delves into political redistricting - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Efforts to draw new political maps in New Mexico began in earnest Monday as a Democrat-led Legislature convened a special legislative session on redistricting.

States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years to reflect new population numbers. The New Mexico Legislature met shortly after noon, with no specific deadline to forge an agreement on new voting district boundaries for three congressional seats, 112 legislators and the commission overseeing charter schools.

Map recommendations have been provided to legislators by a citizens' advisory panel under a hybrid redistricting system. Legislators can adopt, modify or discard the suggested maps and start from scratch.

Strong opinions emerged quickly, with Republican state Sen. Mark Moores arguing that public testimony to an advisory redistricting committee was tainted by the progressive-leaning Center for Civil Policy. Moores said the group helped pay for people to travel to public hearings but did not make detailed financial disclosures.

"If they really want to be taken seriously by this body, they should tell us where the money came from ... and how it was spent," Moores said.

The center and allied advocates for ethnic and racial minority populations are promoting a plan that would divvy voters from the conservative southeastern corner of the state into three congressional districts and unite more voting-age Latinos in one southern congressional district.

In a statement, the Center for Civil Policy defended its reimbursements for travel and child care for people who attended the hearing to state their views as expenses that were "common and acceptable."

"For us, the real concern is when suspicions and allegations are raised against efforts that allow everyday New Mexicans — of all backgrounds and income levels — to have a say in their government and democracy," said the statement from the center and allied community groups.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham holds veto authority over the redistricting process. It's the first time in 30 years that the process is being overseen by a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature.

Separately, Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque condemned an unpublished state Senate map from Democratic colleagues that he claims would dilute the influence of Latino voters in Albuquerque's working class West Side.

"You would strip representation from people that I represent, many of whom are Hispanic, simply because it benefits you at the ballot box," Candelaria said.

Candelaria, who previously announced he won't run for reelection in 2024, announced a change in his party affiliation from Democratic to unaffiliated, denouncing the corrosive effects of extreme partisanship. That leaves a 26-seat Democratic majority in the 42-seat Senate, with 15 Republicans.

New Mexico presents unusual challenges in efforts to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act and preserve communities of interest and give minority voters a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice.

Nearly half of New Mexico residents claim Hispanic ancestry — the largest share of any state. Native American communities account for about 12% of residents in New Mexico and are seeking to bolster political influence through a variety of strategies.

Boundaries are likely to change significantly for a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico that flipped to Republican control in 2020, amid population growth in a major oil-production region.

Those changes have national implications. Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take control of the U.S. House and effectively freeze President Joe Biden's agenda on climate change, the economy and other issues.

Democrats currently hold two congressional seats out of three for New Mexico.

The special session also is open to proposals for spending roughly $1.1 billion in federal pandemic relief.

The state Supreme Court ruled in November that those relief funds must be appropriated by the Legislature and not just the governor.

The special session heralded other changes at the legislature. Guns for the first time are not allowed in the roundhouse without special permission, with security screening stations installed at entrances. Proof of vaccination also is being required to enter the state Capitol.

Ex-Navajo Nation controller faces new criminal complaints – Farmington Daily Times, Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has filed new criminal complaints against its former top financial officer, accusing her of misrepresenting information on a company hired to do rapid COVID-19 testing on the reservation.

The complaints filed Friday in tribal court allege that Pearline Kirk, the former Navajo Nation controller, violated tribal law in advising the government to hire Agile Technologies Group LLC based on a recommendation from Kirk's longtime mentor and confidant.

The charges include obtaining a signature by deception, paying or receiving Navajo Nation funds for services not rendered, and falsification, the tribe's Department of Justice said in a news release. The department did not respond to an email requesting a copy of the latest complaints.

Kirk's attorney, David Jordan, said Monday he has not seen the court documents and declined to comment.

The company wasn't qualified but received more than $3 million for pandemic-related services, including testing for about 110 employees in the controller's office, the tribes' Justice Department alleged. The funding came from the Navajo Nation's share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act money.

The Navajo Nation Council voted in May to remove Kirk from the office she held since early 2017. The action came a week after tribal prosecutors filed similar complaints against Kirk but dismissed them in late November ahead of a scheduled jury trial.

Jordan has maintained that Kirk did nothing wrong and was protecting her employees who were deemed essential workers, the Farmington Daily Times reported.

Although testing was available through the federal Indian Health Service, results were delayed, Jordan told reporters during a news conference Friday. He said Kirk suggested that employees look into Agile Technologies, but she didn't sign the request for emergency procurement or the contract herself, Jordan said.

Passenger grabs steering wheel, causes New Mexico bus crash -Associated Press

A passenger is facing charges after grabbing the steering wheel of a Greyhound bus during a dispute with his brother and causing the bus to crash into a light pole in Albuquerque, police said Monday.

They said the bus driver and two passengers were hospitalized along with two other people after the crash late Sunday night near an Interstate 40 exit.

Police said 52-year-old Leroy Maass has been booked into jail on suspicion of three counts of aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm and two misdemeanor counts of aggravated battery.

Maass and his brother were traveling on the bus from Washington to Oklahoma, according to authorities.

At some point, police said the men got into an argument and Maass threw an object at his brother.

Police said Maass jumped over the plexiglass barrier where the bus driver was sitting and grabbed the steering wheel.

The bus was traveling about 60 mph at the time. Police said it slammed into a cement barrier before swerving off the highway and going through a chain-link fence and into an open field.

It was unclear Monday if Maass has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf.

Exxon Mobil rolls out plan to cut emissions in Permian Basin - By Cathy Bussewitz and Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Exxon Mobil says it has a plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from its operations in one of the most prolific oil fields in the United States, saying it hopes to achieve its net-zero goal for operations in the Permian Basin by 2030.

The company made the announcement Monday, saying the effort will target both its own operations as well as indirect emissions associated with the electricity it buys to power well sites and other infrastructure in the basin, which spans parts of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas.

Although limited, Exxon's announcement is significant because it's the first tangible commitment the company has made to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, compared to major European oil and gas companies which set more tangible targets, said Artem Abramov, head of shale research at Rystad Energy.

"In the past, they were somewhat criticized for the lack of any sort of tangible commitment," Abramov said.

The reach of Exxon's commitment is narrow in several ways. For one, the goal is limited to its operations in a basin that represents about 12-13% of its total oil and gas production this year, Abramov said.

Exxon's commitment does not address what are called "Scope 3" emissions, the largest category, which include the emissions produced when customers burn its oil or gas. The only way Exxon could reduce those emissions would be to cut back on how much oil and gas the company produces.

However, rather than reducing, Exxon's production in the Permian Basin has been growing.

Exxon's announcement dovetails with what is required of oil and gas companies operating in New Mexico under rules adopted by state regulators earlier this year. That includes better detection of methane emissions, upgrading equipment and eliminating routine flaring, which is the practice of burning off unwanted natural gas into the atmosphere.

Touted by state officials as some of the strongest gas capture requirements in the nation, New Mexico's rules set a target of capturing 98% of all natural gas waste by the end of 2026.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also is poised to tighten federal methane regulations for the industry, and the New Mexico Environment Department is crafting its own rules aimed at oilfield equipment that emits methane, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

The U.S. House Science Committee also has notified chief executives of Exxon and nine major oil companies that they must disclose more data about their methane emissions in the Permian Basin.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat who chairs the panel, said the companies' current approach to monitoring methane emissions in the basin is inadequate. She said U.S. companies must do more to meet a recent pledge by the U.S. and more than 100 other countries to cut methane emissions by 30% by the end of the decade.

Besides Exxon, companies receiving the letter included Occidental Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Devon Energy and Pioneer Natural Resources.

Johnson said she was concerned that leak-detection and repair programs conducted by the oil industry may not identify intermittent leaks that contribute to climate pollution.

The committee set a Jan. 21 deadline for companies to provide data on methane leaks and detection efforts.

House Democrats have approved a plan to impose a fee on methane leaks from oil and gas wells, but the plan faces strong opposition from the industry and criticism by centrist Democrats as it moves to the Senate.

Exxon has made progress with reducing flaring in the Permian Basin. In 2018, Exxon was flaring 11.3% of its gas in the basin. The company brought that down 0.28% in the third quarter of 2021.

Earlier this month, Exxon said it would boost its spending on greenhouse gas emission-reduction projects to $15 billion over the next six years. The energy giant has been under pressure to reduce climate-harming emissions and investors forced turnover on the company's board in June.

Major European oil and gas companies such as Shell and BP have been diversifying to invest more in solar and wind energy, but "when it comes to Exxon Mobil, they are not necessarily that proactive when it comes to renewable energy," Abramov said. "They are investing in solar and wind to generate power for their oil and gas extraction. It's not something they see as a future contributor to their revenue stream."

Energy companies seek to make case in proposed merger - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Global energy giant Iberdrola, New Mexico's largest electric utility and other groups on Monday asked state regulators to present oral arguments before a vote is taken on a proposed multibillion-dollar merger that would affect more than 500,000 customers and potentially the pace of renewable energy development in the state.

The Public Regulation Commission has the final say on whether Iberdrola subsidiary Avangrid can acquire PNM Resources, and its two utilities — Public Service Co. of New Mexico and Texas New Mexico Power. The all-cash transaction has been valued at more than $4.3 billion and would open the door for Iberdrola and Avangrid in a state where more wind and solar power could be generated and exported to larger markets.

A hearing examiner with the commission has recommended that the deal be rejected, and three of the five elected commissioners said last week they opposed approval.

While critics argue that the merger would not be in the public interest given Avangrid's track record in other states, utility officials as part of an advertising blitz have been touting more than $300 million in rate relief for PNM customers, economic development investments, the creation of 150 jobs and other concessions reached through negotiations with parties in the case.

All but one party either directly support the merger or don't oppose it based on concessions agreed to by Avangrid.

Commissioners during a meeting last week still questioned whether PNM's customer service and reliability would deteriorate if the deal is approved and if state regulators could ensure Avangrid's compliance with all the negotiated agreements.

Pat Vincent-Collawn, PNM Resources' chair, president and CEO, said being able to make oral arguments before the commission would allow the parties to address any remaining issues in a transparent way. She called the decision before the commission critical.

"We feel comfortable that throughout the process various parties in this case have raised the same questions and negotiated commitments to provide the appropriate safeguards and strengthened benefits to ensure our merger is the right move for customers, communities and economic development in New Mexico," she said in a statement to The Associated Press.

As part of the negotiated safeguards, PNM and Avangrid could face penalties for not meeting standards when it comes to reliability.

The case has been a year in the making, with Public Regulation Commission hearing officer Ashley Schannauer spending several months overseeing evidence gathering and two weeks of public hearings during the summer.

Schannauer last week presented his recommendation for the commission to veto the proposal. He also cited certain conditions commissioners should implement if they decide to support the merger. A final decision is expected this month.

PNM is a financial supporter of KUNM.

Drone crashes on runway at Holloman Air Force Base -Associated Press

The U.S. Air Force says an unmanned aircraft has crashed on a runway during takeoff from Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico.

Officials with the 49th Wing say no injuries were reported in the Monday morning crash of an MQ-9 Reaper. Base access was not restricted.

The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Holloman Air Force Base is located west of Alamogordo next to the White Sands Missile Range. The MQ-9 Reaper drone is a remotely piloted aircraft used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well as targeted missile strikes.

Pryor's bucket at OT buzzer lifts NMSU over New Mexico 78-76 - By Glen Rosales Associated Press

Nate Pryor's over-the-back flip rolled in at the overtime buzzer to give New Mexico State a wild 78-76 victory over New Mexico, after which Aggies players stomped repeatedly on the Lobos' half-court logo.

"The ball was kind of slippery and it came off my hand and I just kind of threw it up and got the shot," Pryor said.

Teddy Allen finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds — his first career double-double — for New Mexico State (7-2), while Yuat Akot scored 19.

Jamal Mashburn Jr. had 26 points, including the game-tying bucket with 25.7 seconds left in overtime, for New Mexico (5-4). Jaelen House scored 21 points before leaving with an ankle injury late in regulation.

Jonny McCants, who scored 12 points for the Aggies, hit a bucket from the lane with 3.5 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

"I think at some point everyone that was in the building will say it was somewhat of a classic," Aggies coach Chris Jans said. "Overtime, big shots down the stretch. It was a heck of a ballgame. Pretty high level and the kids were playing very hard.

"As the clock was ticking in regulation and overtime, you could just feel it. Every play was critical. Both teams made some plays and fortunately for us, we made the last one."

BIG PICTURE

For the Aggies, simply getting Jans back on the sidelines after he missed 10 days and two games due to COVID-19 protocols, was a positive step for the program. The win continues to build the team's drive into Western Athletic Conference play.

"I'm fortunate," he said. "Like most coaches will tell you, when you get a do-over, I'm pretty lucky, but it's the world that we live in."

The loss for New Mexico continues a tough stretch in which it has lost three of four and was particularly disappointing since the state's stringent health mandates prevented the teams playing last season. New Mexico beat the Aggies on the road 101-94 on Nov. 30.

WHO'S YOUR DADDY

Former Kentucky coach and NCAA champion Rick Pitino — now at Iona — and the father of Lobos head coach Richard Pitino, was in the Pit for the first time since 2010 when his Wildcats earned a trip to the Final Four with a win over West Virginia.

UP NEXT

New Mexico: The Lobos continue a six-game homestand encompassing the entire month with a meeting Thursday against Denver.

New Mexico State: The Aggies continue the back half of a four-game road swing with a game at Loyola Marymount on Saturday.

Navajo Nation: 26 new COVID cases, no deaths 2nd day in row -Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported 26 more COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the second consecutive day.

The latest daily virus figures brought the tribe's totals to 40,123 cases since the pandemic began.

The known death toll remains at 1,551.

Tribal health officials reported 61 cases and no deaths Sunday after having 100 cases and four deaths the day before.

Based on cases from Nov. 12-25, the Navajo Department of Health last Monday issued an advisory for 65 communities due to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

"The recent holiday led to an increase in cases and we have another holiday approaching," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. "We have to do more and we have to remain diligent. We cannot afford to have another large surge. Our healthcare system is near crisis status right now, due to the increases in new infections."

Nez has again called for everyone on the vast reservation to get a booster shot and wear masks.

The reservation covers 27,000 square miles and extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.