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KUNM News Update

FRI: Redistricting plans advance toward floor votes, Pandemic relief spending bill clears state House panel, + More

redistricting maps roundhouse
Cedar Attanasio/AP
Disability advocates Ellen Pinnes and Jim Jackson look at proposed redistricting maps posted on a wall inside the state Capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Legislature convened Monday to hammer out the new maps, which will draw new political boundaries. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

New Mexico redistricting plans advance toward floor votes - By Morgan Lee And Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

Bills that would redraw congressional and state House boundaries in New Mexico advanced toward crucial floor votes in the state Legislature.

A Senate committee on Friday endorsed adjustments to an overhaul of the state's three congressional districts proposed by Democratic state Sen. Joseph Cervantes and Rep. Georgene Louis, clearing the way for a possible Senate floor vote. The map would provide Democrats with an advantage in all three districts.

The proposed congressional map now closely resembles a redistricting plan promoted by the progressive-leaning Center for Civil Policy that promotes greater representation for disadvantaged communities.

The center and a coalition of advocacy groups are calling for a stronger Latino majority in the state's southern district, arguing that the region's minority populations feel overlooked by politicians.

Amid adjustments, the congressional redistricting plan still would break up a conservative stronghold in the state's southeastern oil production zone into multiple districts. The change to the state's 2nd Congressional District has been condemned by Republican state senators.

The state's southern 2nd District has been historically dominated by Republicans.

Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, won the district in 2020 by ousting a one-term Democrat.

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 everything from climate change to the economy.

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

The House was poised to vote Friday on new political boundaries for its members. Approval would send the plan to the Senate for consideration.

The House redistricting plan from Rep. Damon Ely of Corrales would shore up Native American voting majorities in six districts across the heavily Indigenous northwestern region of the state.

Pandemic relief spending bill clears New Mexico House panel - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A New Mexico House panel on Friday added more spending items to a massive bill that's focused on funneling federal pandemic relief funding toward broadband projects and road infrastructure.

One amendment included by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee calls for using $50 million to build a rural hospital. While a location for the hospital has yet to be determined, some legislators were leaning toward building it in Valencia County.

Another amendment consolidated $123 million in internet funding to allow state officials flexibility to decide which technology to use. New Mexico has considered everything from traditional fiber optic cable to satellites and blimps.

Republican committee members pointed to $25 million in existing internet projects that have stalled due to a lack of funding.

"They've been vetted. They've been approved, and they're sitting on a shelf lacking funding," said Rep. Randal Crowder of Clovis.

Broadband also was also discussed in the Senate, with one lawmaker announcing that state officials are looking to purchase a new form of satellite internet for rural students — most of whom have lacked access all through the pandemic.

The state Public Education Department is working on a deal to connect rural students through StarLink, a SpaceX satellite network that will be offering service to the public in New Mexico next year. Agency spokeswoman Judy Robinson said the cost would be $1.6 million for the first year of service and for the installation of receivers.

The legislation also includes $142 million for roads and $2 million for a teacher training fund.

Boosting the training fund is aimed at pulling the state out of a growing teacher shortage that has swelled to around 1,000 unfilled vacancies. Supporters say the bill could support as many as 1,500 educators and aspiring educators.

"Our teacher shortage is acute," Democratic Rep. Nathan Small of Las Cruces said, adding that he wanted aspiring teachers to know the Legislature is taking action.

Tribes weigh in as New Mexico redistricting bills advance - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Efforts to shore up Native American political influence in New Mexico through the redistricting process got a boost on Thursday as legislators advanced a state Senate map that incorporates consensus recommendations from an array of Indigenous communities.

A Senate redistricting bill from Democratic state Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque cleared its first hurdle with a 6-3 committee endorsement. A second committee review for the bill is scheduled before a possible Senate floor vote.

The map includes recommendations for the heavily Indigenous northwestern region of the state that are endorsed by the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and New Mexico's 19 Indigenous pueblos. The region ceded population to the rest of the state over the past decade, threatening to dilute Native American influence in key state legislative districts.

Keegan King, an Acoma Pueblo member and co-chairman of a major Indigenous redistricting alliance, urged lawmakers to back the proposal.

"It upholds the principles of the Voting Rights Act," King told the panel of state lawmakers. "These maps have been crafted with true tribal consultation and in collaboration with communities across our state. They have the support and blessing of the sovereign tribal nations."

In three of the districts, Native Americans would account for at least 62% of the voting-age population.

Two additional districts would be roughly 35% Native American each, ensuring significant influence in elections.

One of those proposed "influence" districts has undergone substantial changes to unite Indigenous residents of Zuni, Laguna, Acoma and Isleta pueblos across a sprawling swath of the state. In the process it would pair two Republican incumbents in the same district.

"I hope that wasn't intentional or partisan in nature," said Republican Senate minority leader Greg Baca of Belen, who could be paired against GOP Sen. Joseph Sanchez in future elections in the proposal.

Baca and Republican colleagues lamented that none of the maps recommended by a citizen’s advisory board have been translated directly into proposed legislation.

New Mexico adopted an advisory board to vet map proposals at public meetings. State lawmakers have the final say in a hybrid approach designed to temper political inclinations.

"We empowered a body to produce maps, and we have yet to see any one of those maps," Baca said.

The proposed Senate political map also pairs two incumbent Democrats in a single Albuquerque-based district.

Separately Thursday, two Native American communities voiced opposition to a congressional redistricting plan that would extend the state's traditionally Democratic northern 3rd District into a conservative oil-producing region of the state.

Lobbyist Conroy Chino, representing the Indigenous communities of Taos Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo, said that the Democratic-backed redistricting proposal would have a negative influence on political representation for the two tribes.

Despite the criticism, the congressional redistricting bill from Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes and Rep. Georgene Louis advanced Thursday toward a Senate floor vote, with a 6-3 endorsement by the judiciary committee.

The proposal would alter the political panorama in the 3rd Congressional District for incumbent Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, wrapping more politically conservative voters into the traditionally Democratic district and diluting Native American representation.

Chino also noted a close relationship between Taos and Acoma pueblos and Leger Fernandez, a first term congresswoman and attorney with lengthy experience on Indigenous issues and projects.

"Under this current iteration the number of Native Americans in congressional District 3 gets reduced down from 20% to 16%," Chino said. "And the tribes that I represent feel that will have an impact when it comes to their interests at the congressional level, they will have competing interests from where they sit in the state with, perhaps, the southeastern part of the state."

The redistricting plan would break up a conservative stronghold in the state's southeastern oil production zone into multiple congressional districts, a proposal that has generated protests from Republicans holding the legislative minority and from oil industry representatives.

The plan would also bolster a Hispanic majority in New Mexico's southern 2nd Congressional District by extending its boundaries into Albuquerque.

University of New Mexico requiring COVID-19 booster shots - Associated Press

The University of New Mexico is requiring all employees and students to get a COVID-19 booster shot by Jan. 17.

The university said Wednesday the new requirement, which expands on the previous vaccination requirement, applies to all individuals eligible for booster shots but that some religious and medical-based exemptions may be granted.

Individuals who are eligible for booster shots are those who received their second vaccine dose of Pfizer or Moderna on or before June 15, or their single dose of Johnson & Johnson on or before Oct. 15.

"As a university, our vaccination rates for students, faculty, and staff are well over 90 percent, and I anticipate our booster rate will be similarly successful," UNM President Garnett Stokes said in a statement.

Partnership extends powerlines to Navajo Nation homes -Associated Press

Work crews from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are partnering with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to extend power lines to homes in several tribal communities, including Chilchinbeto, Kayenta, Chinle, Kaibeto and Coppermine.

At a project site in Chilchinbeto, crews are working to extend a nine-mile stretch of power lines.

As of Thursday, the partnership had connected 29 homes since the crews arrived from Los Angeles in late November.

Tribal officials said the goal is to connect as many homes as possible to the electric grid within six weeks.

The partnership allows Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to conduct rural field training for its work crews to help them gain experience with extending power lines in remote communities under adverse weather and rugged terrain conditions while covering the costs of labor, equipment and travel expenses.

The tribal utility authority provides the materials for the projects, labor and meals for the visiting work crews.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the partnership "is providing direct long-term benefits to many of our Navajo people who have lived without electricity for many years and, in some cases, their entire lives."

Al Unser, a four-time winner of Indianapolis 500, dies at 82 - By Jenna Fryer Ap Auto Racing Writer

Al Unser, one of only four drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 a record four times, died Thursday following a long illness. He was 82.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway said early Friday that Unser died at his home in Chama, New Mexico, with his wife, Susan, by his side. He had been battling cancer for 17 years.

Unser is the third member of one of America's most famed racing families to die in 2021. His oldest brother, three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser, died in May, and Bobby Unser Jr. passed six weeks after his father.

Known as "Big Al" once his own son made a name for himself in racing, Unser is part of an elite club of four-time winners of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." Unser won the Indy 500 in 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1987, and is the only driver in history to have both a sibling and a child also win one of the biggest races in the world.

His final victory at age 47 made him the oldest winner in Indy 500 history. He dominated in his first Indy win in 1970 by starting from the pole and leading all but 10 of the 200 laps. Unser beat runner-up Mark Donohue by 32 seconds that year.

"Al was the class of the field," fellow competitor Johnny Rutherford said.

Unser led over half the laps in three of his Indy 500 victories, and his 644 total laps at Indianapolis is the most in race history. He led the final lap of the 1987 race to tie Ralph DePalma's 75-year-old record of 612 laps led, and Unser went on to lead 31 more laps over his final five starts to smash the mark.

He made 27 starts in the Indy 500, third most in history, and qualified once on the pole and five times on the front row.

Unser won three Indy car national championships over his career and 39 victories— sixth on the all-time list.

He and son Al Jr. were the first father-son pairing at Indianapolis, and in 1985 they battled one another for the CART championship.

A pass in the closing laps of the race gave Unser a fourth-place finish in the season finale at Miami's Tamiami Park road course, and it was enough for him to beat Al Jr. for the championship by a single point. He fought back tears while describing the "empty feeling" of defeating his son.

Unser also ran five NASCAR races in his career, finishing fourth in the 1968 Daytona 500. He earned three top-10 finishes in NASCAR. He also won three times in the International Race of Champions, an all-star series that pitted the top drivers from various disciplines against each other.

Unser won the Indy car "Triple Crown" by winning all three of the 500-mile races on the 1978 schedule, which included stops at Pocono Raceway and in Ontario, California. He's the only driver in history to win all three of those races in the same season.

The Unser family combined for a record nine wins in the Indy 500; Al Jr. won the Indy 500 twice — in 1992 and 1994. Coincidentally, Al Unser, Al Unser Jr. and Bobby Unser all won their final Indy 500s driving for Roger Penske.

Unser earlier this year was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to welcome Helio Castroneves as the newest member of the four-time winners club. Unser achieved the feat after A.J. Foyt, and Rick Mears won his fourth in 1991. Castroneves won in May to become the first new member in 30 years.

"Some days the race track smiles on you and some days, you got it the other way," Unser said during the July celebration. "It's not always that you're going to think you're going to win because your chances are very slim. There's 32 other guys who want it as bad as you do."

Unser received his Baby Borg — the 18-inch replica of the Indy 500 winner's Borg-Warner Trophy that lives onsite in the speedway's museum — during a celebration in May with family and friends. He was set to be honored in 2020 on the the 50th anniversary of his 1970 victory at Indianapolis, but the celebration was postponed because of the pandemic.

Both Castroneves and two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato lauded Unser, with Sato calling Unser's speech at the May winner's ceremony "very funny and so charming."

"I will always remember Big Al welcoming me to the speedway," Castroneves told The Associated Press on Friday. "He and Johnny Rutherford were the two helping me with my rookie orientation. He will be missed."

The youngest of four racing brothers, Unser was born in in Albuquerque in 1939 to a family of hardcore racers. His father Jerry Unser and two uncles, Louis and Joe, were also drivers. Beginning in 1926 the family began competing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, an annual road race held in Colorado.

Al's oldest brother, Jerry, became the first Unser to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1958; he was killed in a crash during practice the following year.

Unser began racing himself in 1957 when he was 18, but competed mostly in sprint cars. He made it to Indy in 1965 driving in a car owned by Foyt and was part of the rookie class with future Indy 500 winners Mario Andretti (1969) and Gordon Johncock (1973, 1982).

"Al was one of the smartest drivers I ever raced against," Andretti said. "I often said that I wished I could have had some of his patience."

The Unser family combined for 73 career starts in the Indy 500 — a number bettered only by the 76 starts by the Andretti family. The Unser participation spans Al (27 races), Bobby (19), and Al Jr. (19), as well as Johnny (five), Robby (two) and Jerry (one).

Unser was inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1986 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1998. His collection of trophies and cars is housed at the Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque.

Unser is survived by wife, Susan, and son, Al Jr. He was preceded in death by daughters Mary and Deborah.

'Like losing a family member': Unser's death hits hard - By Michael Marot AP Sports Writer

Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser embraced their fierce competition on the racetrack.

Andretti and Foyt, the two biggest rivals in IndyCar history, each respected Unser for another reason — his ability to race hard, fair and smart.

Unser, one of only four drivers to win the Indianapolis 500 four times and one of the most successful drivers in IndyCar history, died early Friday at his home in New Mexico. He was 82.

To giants of the sport, such as Andretti and Foyt, Unser's trademark style was what set him apart during the series' greatest generation.

"Parnelli (Jones) always used to say Al knew how to be aggressive and patient at the same time, which was really important in those days because of the reliability of the equipment," Andretti told The Associated Press, referring to the team owner who paired Unser and himself as teammates in the 1970s. "He knew when to be patient, when he had to be patient and everyone was falling by the wayside. He was very astute about what he needed to do in racing and everybody admired for him it."

While fans revered the sometimes heated IndyCar rivalries of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Unser found a way to carve out his own niche amid Foyt's flamboyance and Andretti's popularity. Even his more outspoken older brother, Bobby, a three-time 500 winner, developed his own fan following before going into broadcasting. Bobby Unser died in May.

Al Unser's quiet, affable personality led to lifelong friendships in the racing community — even with those he beat en route to 39 career victories.

"So sad to hear about the passing of Al Unser SR," Michael Andretti wrote on Twitter. "He was a class act and really nice guy. I learned a lot racing against him in my early years. His racing craft was as smart as it gets."

Foyt and Mario Andretti, Michael's father, concurred.

It was one reason the feisty Foyt and Unser competed together in the 1987 24 Hours of Daytona, finishing fourth, and why Foyt, the first four-time Indy winner, helped Unser make the first of his 27 career 500 starts by providing him with a Ford-Lola in 1965. Unser finished 32nd.

"His brother was working on a Maserati, I think, and it wasn't running fast enough so I said 'I've got an extra car if you want to run it. It's not handling real well,'" Foyt told AP. "He said, 'Well, fine.' He made the race. I thought a lot of Al. We're pretty good friends. He was a smart racer."

And like Foyt and Andretti, racing coarsed through the Unser family's veins.

His father, Jerry, and two uncles, Louis and Joe, also competed. So did his three older brothers. Al Unser Jr. won the 500 twice and they were the first father-son tandem to reach victory lane at Indianapolis. When Little Al was absent from Indy during the IRL-CART split, his two cousins — Johnny and Robby — kept the family tradition intact by making seven Indy starts before Unser Jr. returned in 2000.

Like Al Unser, Andretti competed against his son, and like Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti also competed against other family members including his own son, Marco.

Those similarities kept the two families close.

"I remember we were in Springfield, Illinois, and Michael, Jeff (Andretti) and Al Jr. were playing in the mud as kids. Their mothers had to hose them off so we could go back to a restaurant later on," Mario Andretti recalled.

"The two families still have a great bond, it's not like losing a competitor. For me, it's like losing a family member," Andretti said.

At times, the friendly competition spilled over into other forms of racing.

Andretti remembers traveling to Unser's home in New Mexico where they raced snowmobiles, how Unser talked him into competing in the Pikes Peak race tat he later won and how the two drivers competed on the water in Pennsylvania.

The night before the race, Andretti swapped pumps, unaware Unser had ordered special aftermarket equipment. Andretti wound up winning easily; rather than getting mad, Unser simply wanted to get even.

"He thought he had the upper hand on me and asked me about it, and I told him 'I have a special wax that not many people could get,'" Andretti said. "He spent hours and hours trying to get the wax. I worked all night to prove a point and he's trying to order this special wax."

Those who knew Unser best understood the combination of humility and success is what made him a fan favorite, an admired adviser and a respected competitor.

"You help someone make their first race and see him being one of the first four-time winners, it made me happy because he deserved it. He worked hard," said Foyt, who turns 87 next month. "He was just a super guy. He was a good race car driver, he just wouldn't brag about it."

New Mexico lawmaker tests positive for COVID-19, quarantines - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A New Mexico state senator said Thursday that he has tested positive for COVID-19 and will quarantine at home, with a special legislative session underway on political redistricting.

Democratic Sen. Bobby Gonzales of Taos told The Associated Press that he tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday through a rapid test. He informed Senate leadership out of concern for anyone who might also have been exposed through close contact.

Gonzales said he was scheduled on Thursday to undergo another coronavirus test at a hospital in Taos. He is fully vaccinated, including a recent booster shot, and was experiencing some mild nasal discomfort.

Gonzales said he also was tested on Saturday with a negative result before meeting that day with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. He underwent another test Wednesday as required by the governor's office in anticipation of another meeting with Lujan Grisham that did not occur.

In response to Gonzales' situation, contact tracing was underway at the state Capitol. A Senate floor session was canceled for unspecified reasons.

A member of the governor's staff is quarantining "out of an abundance of caution" after interacting with Gonzales on Wednesday, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Sackett Meyers said in an email. She said a coronavirus PCR test of the governor came back negative on Thursday.

"The governor is tested regularly and has never returned a positive test," Meyers said. "After the senator's positive rapid test, the governor's scheduled meeting with legislative leadership this morning was conducted remotely ... out of an abundance of caution."

Meyers said the legislative session presents a heightened COVID-19 risk and that those meeting in-person with the governor are being asked to take a rapid test before. She did not address whether there are health concerns related to Saturday's meeting between Gonzales and the governor.

Gonzales said a prolonged quarantine would likely exclude him from participation in Senate decisions, under rules that restrict online participation.

Gonzales said he was open to sharing his medical information to help others make informed decisions.

"I have nothing to hide," Gonzales said. "The more people are aware of it, fine. That's the world we are in today."

Legislative leaders are requiring proof of vaccination for the public to gain entrance to the Capitol during the current legislative session. Masks are required indoors with few exceptions.

News about the positive test prompted a Navajo Nation delegation to cut short its stay in Santa Fe.

"We're very concerned," said Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Civil Rights Commission. "We prefer to protect our families and not be in this situation. ... I think, for the Navajo Nation, we will be returning home this evening."

New Mexico legislators are not required to be vaccinated for COVID-19, while immunizations are required under a state public health order for employees of the governor's office — located on the top floor of the state Capitol.

Lujan Grisham has been vaccinated for COVID-19, including a booster shot.

New Mexico regulators weigh transfer of power plant shares - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

It will be up to New Mexico regulators to clear the way for the state's largest electric provider to transfer its shares in one of the Southwest's remaining coal-fired power plants to a Navajo energy company.

A hearing examiner with the Public Regulation Commission presented his recommendations to commissioners during a meeting Thursday, saying it would result in savings for Public Service Co. of New Mexico customers, reduce emissions from the utility's portfolio and strengthen the Navajo Nation's position when it comes to determining the future of the plant.

Environmentalists have been pushing for Four Corners to be shuttered and have criticized the proposed transfer, suggesting it would prevent an early closure.

Hearing examiner Anthony Medeiros told commissioners that adoption of the recommendation wouldn't prevent an early closure but that there doesn't seem to be any willingness by the plant's majority owner — Arizona Public Service Co. — to end operations before 2031 since doing so would undermine the reliability of its network.

He said evidence gathered in the case shows the plant likely will continue operating at least for another decade whether PNM transfers its shares or not.

Under the proposal, Navajo Transitional Energy Co. would take over PNM's interest in Four Corners, becoming the second largest owner of shares in the plant. PNM shareholders would pay NTEC $75 million to assume its obligations under a coal supply agreement.

Located on tribal land, the Four Corners Power Plant has been a huge economic driver for the Navajo Nation for decades. The plant and the neighboring mine that feeds it provide hundreds of jobs for tribal members and the operations account for nearly a quarter of the Navajo Nation's annual general fund revenues.

The tribe already is feeling the economic sting from the closure of the Navajo Generating Station in northeastern Arizona and more will come next year with the closure of the San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico, which is just miles away from the Four Corners plant.

With a larger ownership share in Four Corners, supporters of the proposed transfer have said it would help the Navajo Nation as it makes the switch to more renewable energy generation over the coming years.

"The Navajo Nation has asked for a just transition," Medeiros told commissioners, saying any economic development funds for the tribe and local communities required under New Mexico's Energy Transition Act would be delayed by several years and other benefits squandered without the early transfer of shares.

PNM's abandonment request seeks to recover $300 million it has invested in Four Corners using bonds that would be paid off by utility customers. Commissioners on Thursday raised questions about what costs the utility should be allowed to recover and how much authority regulators have to determine whether those costs are prudent.

The commission is expected to make a final decision later this month.

Child killed in shooting at home of police officer's family - Associated Press

Authorities say a 2-year-old child is dead following a shooting at the Rio Rancho home of the family of a Santa Fe police officer.

Police said responding Rancho Rio Police Department officers on Wednesday found the child with a gunshot wound and that live-saving efforts by officers and paramedics were unsuccessful, local news outlets reported.

No identities were released and no additional information was immediately available on circumstances of the incident.

The Santa Fe Police Department said it was aware of the "tragic death of a young child" involving a department employee and said the incident was being investigated by the Rio Rancho Police Department.