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KUNM News Update

WED: New Mexico regulators reject proposed utility merger, Democrats advance congressional-map overhaul, + More

Iberdrola Avangrid
Andres Kudacki/AP
/
AP
FILE - The exterior of Spanish energy company Iberdrola is seen, in Madrid, Spain, on Dec. 29, 2012. A powerful panel of New Mexico regulators on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, rejected global energy giant Iberdrola's proposed multibillion-dollar acquisition of the state's largest electric provider, saying the deal did not offer adequate protections for customers and the risks outweighed the promised the benefits. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki, File)

New Mexico regulators reject proposed utility merger - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A panel of New Mexico regulators on Wednesday rejected global energy giant Iberdrola's proposed multibillion-dollar acquisition of the state's largest electric provider, saying the deal did not offer adequate protections for customers and the risks outweighed the promised benefits.

The Public Regulation Commission voted unanimously to accept the recommendation of a hearing examiner to deny the merger.

All five elected commissioners agreed the deal would not be in the public's interest. They cited concerns about customer service problems and reliability issues in other states where Iberdrola subsidiary Avangrid operates. They also pointed to the company initially withholding information during the proceeding, a move that resulted in a $10,000 penalty.

Commission Chairman Stephen Fischmann said New Mexico and many other states are going through an incredibly important stage with respect to navigating the shift toward more renewable energy production. He acknowledged that utilities and regulators are facing more demands as the transformation results in changes across the supply chain and how customers are affected.

He said Avangrid is not the right partner to help New Mexico through the transition given its track record elsewhere, a pending investigation of Iberdrola executives in Spain and the potential for reliability issues and higher electric rates.

"This whole deal to me kind of boils down promises versus actual performance," Fischmann said.

Under the proposal, Connecticut-based Avangrid would have acquired PNM Resources and its two utilities — Public Service Co. of New Mexico and Texas New Mexico Power. The all-cash transaction had been valued at more than $4.3 billion and would have opened the door for Iberdrola and Avangrid in a state where more wind and solar power could be generated and exported to larger markets.

The utilities, as part of an advertising blitz, touted more than $300 million in benefits that included rate relief for PNM customers for three years, economic development investments, the creation of 150 jobs and other concessions reached through negotiations with parties in the case.

PNM Resources chairwoman, president and CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn issued a statement after the vote, saying she was saddened by the decision.

"We will continue to evaluate any next steps that could allow us to bring the positive benefits to the people we serve," she said.

The case has been a year in the making, with 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, but it was clear the commission still had concerns after review reams of evidence and hours of testimony.

Schannauer during Wednesday's meeting reiterated concerns about reliability if Avangrid were to take over.

PNM and Avangrid officials had asked the commission to present oral arguments to address some of the commissioners' concerns. The commission decided against it, noting that the companies had ample time over the course of the last year to make their case.

Some environmental groups suggested Wednesday that the decision could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost jobs and renewable energy investments. But commissioners questioned the price tag, saying there were no guarantees that the jobs promised by Avangrid would net the economic returns that were projected.

During negotiations, Avangrid also had promised $12.5 million to support projects in Indigenous communities and to build 200 megawatts of renewable energy generation and storage on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico.

Still, Commissioner Joseph Maestas said the numerous concessions made during negotiations weren't enough to mitigate the concerns surrounding the deal and he suggested regulators don't have the funding or resources necessary to ensure Avangrid would have followed through on its promises.

PNM is a financial supporter of KUNM.

Democrats advance congressional-map overhaul in New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Democratic legislators advanced a plan to redraw New Mexico's three congressional districts and reshape a southern district traditionally dominated by Republicans.

The map proposal from Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces would bolster a Hispanic majority in New Mexico's southern 2nd Congressional District by extending its boundaries into Albuquerque, the state's largest metro area.

The map also would break up a conservative stronghold in the state's southeastern oil production zone — currently part of the 2nd District — into multiple districts, a change condemned emphatically by Republican state senators.

The plan holds implications for New Mexico's slate of three first-term congresswomen, including Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump who ousted a Democratic incumbent in 2020.

Republicans need a net gain of just five seats in 2022 to take control of the U.S. House and effectively freeze President Joe Biden's agenda on climate change, the economy and other issues.

Two of the state's seats have been held by Democrats for more than a decade. Democrats hold the upper hand in New Mexico's redistricting process, controlling the governor's office as well as broad majorities in the state House and Senate.

Cervantes said his proposed congressional map would make the 2nd Congressional District more representative of New Mexico as a whole and break with a longstanding political pact that ceded the south of the state to Republicans.

"Southern New Mexico has elected almost consistently conservative Republicans largely because of where the lines are drawn," Cervantes explained.

Republican Sen. Gay Kernan condemned the proposal as an affront to a conservative region, aimed at imposing political representation that is hostile to the oil and natural gas industry.

"It's an injustice to my community and to the industry that has provided so much to this state," said Kernan, whose hometown of Hobbs would be divided between two districts under the plan.

She warned Democratic colleagues to be careful what they wish for, noting that many Hispanic voters support Republican values and the oil industry and that the redistricting plan is likely to energize conservatives.

"You have certainly gotten the attention of people in my area," Kernan said.

The Democratic proposal hews roughly to a congressional redistricting map brought forward by the progressive leaning Center for Civic Policy and a coalition of advocacy groups that called for a strong Latino majority in the state's southern district, contending the minority populations there feel overlooked.

Hispanics would account for about 56% of the proposed southern congressional district, up from a narrow 51% majority currently.

Albuquerque resident Fernanda Banda, a 24-year-old organizer for an advocacy group for immigrant rights, applauded the plan.

"It's time for my people to have a Hispanic majority district and exercise their power," Banda testified.

About 48% of New Mexico residents claim Hispanic ancestry — the highest share of any state. For many, ties to the region date back to periods of Mexican and Spanish-colonial oversight. And the state has elected three consecutive Hispanic governors — two of them women.

Democratic Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque said the Democrat-backed proposal would create three districts that more closely mirror the state as a whole by each combining urban and rural areas.

Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a dairy farmer from Roswell, denounced the new map as a blatant move by Democrats to capture all three congressional seats in New Mexico.

"We should have at least one Republican congressperson from the state of New Mexico, or at least one conservative congressperson," he said.

House map clears committees on partisan votes - By Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico 

A redistricting map that tribal leaders back passed late Wednesday through its second committee on a 7-4 vote along party lines. Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee favored the proposal for new voting districts for the state’s House of Representatives.

Republicans again rejected the measure. It’s becoming clear state Democrats have the numbers to push HB 8 forward regardless.

HB 8 is sponsored by Rep. Daymon Ely (D-Corrales), and he has seen his party unify around the bill.

The measure now heads to the floor for debate, likely on Friday, according to House Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe).

Earlier in the day, HB 8 passed with a 6-3 vote out of the House’s State Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee.

The bill is also widely supported by tribal nations and groups that participated in the pre-session public input process.

Republicans on the committee voted against the bill, arguing that the proposal for new voting districts for the state’s House of Representatives was brought forward without enough time to analyze the new boundaries. The map was introduced Monday and is partly based on maps generated by the Citizens Redistricting Committee weeks ago.

With these boundaries, lawmakers like Rep. Martin Zamora (R-Clovis) would see his district change under the proposal.

“Everybody gets pretty close to what they want. Not everybody gets exactly what they want. There’s communities that are being split up,” he said. “There’s people that feel like their districts are being targeted.”

Even with substantial support for HB 8, members of the Republican caucus are figuring out plans to create their own proposal or draft amendments to HB 8.

“HB 8 isn’t going to change. But we are going to propose a change on District 63,” Zamora said. That’s his district. “How can those ripple effects from changing District 63 at the last minute not have ripple effects on the rest of the map? How can they give me a precinct in San Miguel County? Which, I’m not afraid of San Miguel County. I’m not afraid of the people in San Miguel County. I think I could do a good job representing San Miguel County.”

This story was edited to reflect the latest information Wednesday night.

Lawmakers to take swing at spending $470 million - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico 

A line of public speakers formed at a legislative hearing where lawmakers are trying to spend nearly half a billion dollars of federal money. About a dozen more waited patiently on Zoom.

The speakers, all lobbyists or members of different public service groups, made pitches Tuesday afternoon to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee about why legislators should allocate more federal funding to their programs. They often cited the toll of the pandemic and the mounting need among the people they serve.

New Mexico food banks will be out of food in February without more aid, speakers told the representatives. The committee also heard how patients are at risk due to the dire nursing shortage, how housing is becoming unaffordable across the state, and how the assisted living facility industry is struggling to recover after hundreds of residents and employees died of the virus.

About $470 million is available for lawmakers to spend from the federal American Rescue Plan Act before the end of the month. It’s the first big bucket of money lawmakers have access to this year, thanks to more than $1 billion in federal aid and projections of record state tax revenues. Lawmakers could have up to $9 billion in state money to spend over the next couple months.

Lawmakers, in consultation with Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham, decided to allocate the rest of the American Rescue Plan money, about $600 million, in January during the regular legislative session. The money being divvied up this month will be diverted primarily to existing programs that don’t require much new legislation to deliver, according to House officials.

That means the bulk of this money is going to broadband and infrastructure projects, as well as various other small programs like tourism marketing, remediating orphan oil and gas wells and cleaning up litter on state roads.

Patty Lundstrom (D-Gallup), the chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, announced Tuesday that the lawmakers would not vote on the measure that’s been introduced until this afternoon, allowing lawmakers to tweak bill and potentially add new spending, including on farmworker wages during the red chile harvest.

If the committee approves the spending bill, it will head to the House floor for a vote, then to the Senate and then the governor’s desk.

Lundstrom also said the public input heard Tuesday shows the benefit of having the Legislature allocate the money. She’s referencing a November Supreme Court ruling in November that wrested the federal money from the governor and gave it to the Legislature to spend.

“I thought this was an excellent hearing,” she said. “We got over 30-some people involved.”

Three groups seeking a greater federal funding allocation:

Food banks

Allison Smith, lobbyist for the New Mexico association of food banks and the state’s restaurant association, was first in line. She said food banks across New Mexico have seen a steep drop in federal aid. Meanwhile, food and shipping prices are rising.

“Most of our food banks will find themselves out of food by February at the rate that this is going,” she said.

The House bill contains $5 million for food banks, but Smith said that is not nearly enough. The federal aid to state food banks dropped by 65% this year, she said.

She asked lawmakers for a minimum of $15 million as quickly as possible. The timing of new aid is “critical,” she said, because it takes three months for food to be delivered after it is purchased.

Housing

Brie Sillery, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, said she was grateful for the $20 million proposed for affordable housing and to tackle homelessness, but she asked lawmakers to attach fewer strings.

Homelessness was already increasing steadily before the pandemic, and the state is now in the midst of a worsening housing affordability crisis.

The bill considered by the House would give the Department of Finance and Administration $20 million to “provide housing assistance for homeless persons and affordable housing assistance.”

However, the money comes with a requirement that a local government that receives the money match it by 100% with its own funds.

Sillery said this might be a big ask in rural parts of the state that are nonetheless suffering the effects of homelessness and lack of affordable housing.

“I would like to request that the 100% match will be reduced — especially in rural communities or communities that may struggle to meet this match — to allow for recipients that may have a highest need for assistance to have better access to these funds,” she said.

Assisted living

Vicente Vargas, executive director of the New Mexico Center for Assisted Living, said 600 residents died during the pandemic, in addition to numerous employees, and the industry lost $140 million due to less revenue and increased expenses.

“I just like to emphasize, as you probably all know, there was no industry harder hit than the nursing home and long-term-care industry,” he said.

The bill as written does not include money for assisted-living facilities. Vargas is asking the state for $50 million.

New Mexico lawmakers want $100M for 'alternative broadband' - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A proposed bill in the New Mexico state House would set aside $100 million for "alternative broadband."

That's the legislators' term for high-speed internet that isn't transmitted by the traditional way with cables buried in the ground.

Lack of internet access during the pandemic hobbled low-income and rural students and made it hard for rural communities to access healthcare services that are increasingly going online.

On Wednesday, legislators debated parts of the spending bill that would allocate $1 billion in federal aid after a state court ruled last month that the governor can't spend the money without their approval.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had already spent around $680 million in federal money, including $650 million to replenish the state's unemployment fund. Lujan Grisham also allocated $5 million to subsidize the pay of chile farmworkers and $10 million in lottery prizes for COVID-19 vaccine recipients.

Now the Legislature is considering how to spend the remaining $1 billion.

The top spending categories in the bill debated Wednesday were $142 million for roads and $150 million for internet infrastructure, including the $100 million for alternative broadband.

Other priorities include funding improvements in state parks, increasing the tourism marketing budget and support for affordable housing and food banks.

Dems hold on to majority after ABQ City Council runoff  - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Democrats will preserve their majority in the Albuquerque City Council after Tuesday night’s runoff election for two districts that will both maintain their party representation.

Democrat Tammy Fiebelkorn handily won the District 7 seat over Republican Lori Robertson with more than 61% of the vote, according to unofficial results. Democrat Diane Gibson previously held the district, which runs from the Big-I east through Uptown, for two terms.

Meanwhile, Republican Reneé Grout narrowly defeated Democrat Rob Grilley with just over 51% of District 9 voters electing to maintain a GOP councilor. Don Harris, who served the district along the southeast Sandia foothills for 16 years, announced earlier this year that he would step aside.

While the City Council and its elections are nonpartisan, the candidates do have party affiliations. Despite Tuesday’s results, Democrats’ majority will slip to a slim 5-4 come January after incumbent Cynthia Borrego lost her northwest District 5 seat to Republican Dan Lewis in November’s regular election.

Runoffs were held for the two district seats because no candidate in either race last month received at least half of the vote. The top two finishers in each went on to run against each other in Tuesday’s election.

New Mexico preps for future shortages on Pecos River - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's top water official has issued an order establishing the framework for dealing with future water shortages on the Pecos River.

Water managers have been augmenting supplies in southeastern New Mexico by pumping groundwater, allowing farmers to continue irrigating cropland throughout the Carlsbad area and for New Mexico to make good on its water delivery obligations to neighboring Texas.

While pumping helped to make up for dwindling surface water supplies this year, officials are warning that it might not be able to meet demands in the coming years if drought persists and summer monsoons deliver less rain.

The latest seasonal outlook shows much of the Southwestern U.S. can expect drought to stick around through February. New Mexico already has experienced more dry years than wet ones over the last two decades, resulting in shrinking reservoirs and record-low river flows.

The order issued last week by State Engineer John D'Antonio said the need for administration of surface and groundwater rights within the Pecos River system "is so urgent" that a plan had to be developed.

While officials are encouraging water-sharing agreements and other options, the order spells out the process for the Office of the State Engineer to dole out water based on priority if supplies to junior water rights holders need to be curtailed. It would be up to the office to determine who holds valid rights and whether public health or safety could be compromised by cutbacks and if it would result in more for senior users.

Water rights holders would have an opportunity to appeal decisions as part of the process.

Under a 2003 settlement, the Interstate Stream Commission pumps groundwater to augment the Carlsbad Irrigation District's supply when the river can't meet farmers' needs. In exchange, the district agrees to not call for priority administration unless its supply is less than 50,000 acre-feet.

An acre-foot is about 325,850 gallons (about 1.23 million liters). An average household uses one-half to one acre-foot of water a year.

The irrigation district in March had passed a resolution calling for priority administration of the Pecos River due to extremely low reservoir levels. State officials said they were able to avoid that due to groundwater pumping that boosted supplies by nearly 20,000 acre-feet.

The Office of the State Engineer said the groundwater pumping also has helped guarantee New Mexico's continued compliance with the Pecos River Compact, which requires a certain amount of water to flow south to Texas.

While New Mexico has a compact credit of over 160,000 acre-feet, officials acknowledged concerns about projections for more dry forecasts.

New Mexico DOT worker killed in highway crash near Artesia - Associated Press

A tanker truck smashed into a highway work site in southeastern New Mexico, hitting one Department of Transportation pickup and pushing it another while fatally injuring a longtime DOT employee, authorities said.

Authorities said the employee killed Monday on U.S. 285 between Artesia and Roswell was 58-year-old Mittie Runyan, an Artesia resident who started working for the state in 2000.

Two other DOT employees were able to jump into the bed of one of the pickups as the crash occurred but they also were injured, the New Mexico State Police said in a statement.

Those two workers' identities and details of their injuries weren't released.

Runyan's truck had its safety lights flashing when it was truck from behind as the crew installed reflectors on a recently resurfaced stretch of highway, a department statement said.

"This painful loss will reverberate statewide," said Transportation Secretary Mike Sandoval. "We are a close-knit group, and we all grieve when we lose one of our own."

The tanker's driver wasn't injured. That person's identity won't be released unless charged in the crash, the State Police statement said.

The crash was under investigation but alcohol did not appear to be a factor, the State Police said.

Sheriff's Office: Domestic violence suspect fatally shot - Associated Press

The Bernalillo County Sheriffs Office says one of its deputies fatally shot a domestic violence suspect in metro Albuquerque.

The shooting occurred Tuesday night after deputies went to an apartment complex in response to a report of a domestic violence incident that occurred earlier at a gas station elsewhere in the metro area, a Sheriff's Office statement said.

According to the statement, deputies were speaking with the victim at the apartment complex when the suspect arrived.

The deputies chased the suspect when he ran away and the shooting occurred during an ensuing altercation, the office said.

No additional details were provided on the circumstances leading up to the shooting and no identities were released.

Sheriff's detectives and a multi-agency shooting team are investigating the incident, the office said.

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.”

Rio Arriba County panel picks a replacement sheriff -Associated Press

The Rio Arriba County Commission has chosen a new sheriff to fill a vacancy created when James Lujan resigned last week after being sentenced to prison on two felony convictions.

County Sheriff's Maj. Billy Merrifield was sworn in as sheriff on Monday after the commission approved the appointment during a special meeting.

Lujan was sentenced to three years in prison on convictions of aiding a felon and intimidating a witness stemming from a 2017 incident in Espanola.

Merrifield was appointed to serve the remainder of Lujan's term. The post will be up for election in 2023.

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 suspect 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.

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 a 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.

Navajo Nation: 35 more COVID cases, no deaths 3rd day in row -Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported 35 more COVID-19 cases, but no deaths for the third consecutive day.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's total cases since the pandemic began to 40,171.

The known death toll remains at 1,551.

"We are hopeful that the new variant will not reach our communities, but we must also be prepared," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Tuesday. "All of us can do our part to help by continuing to take precautions such as wearing a mask in public, practicing social distancing, washing your hands often, limiting travel, and staying home as much as possible."

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.