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MON: Redistricting stalls over tribal concerns, omicron variant detected in New Mexico, + More

People gather outside the state capitol building on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M.
Cedar Attanasio/AP
People gather outside the state capitol building on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M.

New Mexico redistricting stalls amid discord on tribal planMorgan Lee, Associated Press

A state Senate redistricting plan is in limbo amid a standoff over Native American priorities for achieving fair representation and efforts by lawmakers to avoid competitive pairing of incumbents in the next election.

The Senate canceled a floor session Monday amid discussions between legislators and Indigenous tribal leaders.

States must redraw their congressional and legislative districts every 10 years to reflect new population numbers, and New Mexico lawmakers are in the midst of a special legislative session on redistricting.

A broad coalition of Native American communities is backing a plan to shore up voting-age, Native American majorities in three state Senate districts in northwestern New Mexico and reinforce robust minority-Indigenous voting blocs in two additional districts.

Left intact, the proposal from Indigenous groups would leave Republican state Sen. Joseph Sanchez of Bosque outside the boundaries of his current district, potentially to compete in a neighboring district against GOP Senate minority leader Greg Baca of Belen.

Leading state legislators including Democratic Senate President Mimi Stewart are backing amendments that diverge from the consensus Native American proposal in an effort to avoid several incumbent pairings.

"We tried very had to maintain the majority of the Native consensus map but deal with issues of pairing and deal with issues of drastic changes to our seats," Stewart told a Senate panel.

Native American leaders emerged Monday from an hourslong meeting with several senators to say the tribes remain steadfast in their recommendations.

"The easiest solution is to support the tribal consensus plan," said Casey Douma, a Laguna Pueblo tribal member and co-leader of a redistricting alliance of 19 Indigenous pueblos and the Jicarilla Apache Tribe. "To undo that in a very short time, negates months of work."

Indigenous leaders say their recommendations emerged from several months of painstaking conversations aimed at preserve communities of common interest and ensuring minority voters have a fair shot at electing candidates of their choice.

Those conversations did not give weight to incumbent politicians and whether they are paired in future elections, noted Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo.

State Sen. Harold Pope of Albuquerque urged colleagues Sunday not to tamper with the Native American blueprint for redistricting.

"This was a herculean task for our Native American communities to develop this consensus," he said. "They worked with us, let's honor it."

The amendments that stray from the Native American recommendations were endorsed on a 7-2 committee vote Sunday with bipartisan support, over emphatic objections by representatives of tribal governments.

New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized Native American communities. Tribal leaders are seeking to bolster Native American influence in the political process amid dissatisfaction with public education, access to basic household infrastructure and economic opportunities.

Regis Pecos, a former governor at Cochiti Pueblo and advocate for Indigenous educational initiatives, urged legislators to honor tribal recommendations on redistricting, noting New Mexico's leading example in enshrining requirements for tribal consultation into state statute — as well as past laws and policies that harmed Native Americans.

"I just simply want to reflect on the long history of intentional enactment of laws that have prohibited the speaking of our languages in our schools, the prohibition of the free exercise of religion, the laws and policy disconnecting us from our homelands," Pecos said. "You have provided consultation as part of the statutory framework."

Tribal leaders object to 11th-hour NM Senate redistricting map -Patrick Lohmann,Source NM

Lawmakers on Sunday replaced a map that a tribal coalition spent months working on to find consensus. A Senate committee voted instead to approve an amended plan re-drawing the New Mexico Senate’s voting districts that was introduced just before the meeting.

As Source New Mexico’s Patrick Lohmann reports, Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), the Senate’s president pro tem, introduced an amended map that would alter the layout of districts in Northwestern New Mexico, where the Navajo Nation and other tribal nations are located.

Members of the coalition and elected tribal leaders showed up in force at the meeting Sunday. About 20 people spoke in opposition to Stewart’s amended map, saying the changes disrespected tribal autonomy and their hard work. Just one person, a lobbyist for the city of Gallup, spoke in favor of Stewart’s map.

Co-chairs of the All Pueblo Council of Governors Redistricting Committee said that they were able to see Stewart’s proposed map just one hour before the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting began at 11 a.m. on Sunday in Santa Fe.

Despite the opposition, senators voted 7-2 in favor of Stewart’s map and against the map that the tribes preferred. The senators stressed that the map they endorsed still needs to be approved by the full Senate, and much debate and alterations could occur before then.

Tribal coalition members spent eight months meeting among the state’s 23 pueblos and tribes, each of which is autonomous, to achieve what they called a “historic” agreement on the maps. They sought to preserve Native American majorities of at least 65% in the legislative districts where they are already the majority, while honoring tribal boundaries and distinct communities within each district.

It’s crucial to have state Senate districts that reflect the size and sovereignty of the Native American population, members said, and allow them to select their own representatives in the Legislature. Today, Native Americans have large majorities in Senate districts 3, 4 and 22.

Stewart’s map would mean that Native Americans would comprise 72% of district 3, 62% of district 4 and 62.2% of district 22, all in Northwestern New Mexico. The map the tribes prefer would keep at least 63% in each of those three districts.

Nineteen of the 23 tribes and pueblos in the state are in Northwestern New Mexico.

Nearly 12% of the state’s population identifies as Native American, according to the latest census figures, up from 9.4% in 2011. That increase happened despite widely acknowledged undercounting on pueblos and the Navajo Nation, where pandemic lockdowns contributed to what was already a difficult environment for counting residents.

Stewart, in introducing the map, said it maintained Native American majorities and that most of the tribal coalition’s district boundaries stayed intact. Three Native American majority districts are 100% the same as the tribal coalition’s districts, she said, and three others are between 79% and 87.7%.

“If we had more time, we could take another few months, I think we would come up with the same amended suggestions today, and we would all be happier about it,” she said. “But because of COVID, because of the delay of the Census Bureau, we don’t have any.”

She did not elaborate on why certain changes were made, except to note that her proposed map would prevent two sitting senators – Republican Sens. Joshua Sanchez and Greg Baca – from being drawn into the same district.

Keegan King, a co-chair of the tribal redistricting committee, said after the hearing that his group hadn’t had enough time to fully analyze the ways in which Stewart’s map affected tribal communities and their political representation. But he did note that the map puts nearly half of Catron County into Senate District 30, including a small section of Acoma Pueblo, against the Acoma leadership’s wishes.

“Acoma knows what they’re doing when they build this map. They did that with intention,” King said in an interview. “Tribes are able to determine what is best for them. What they don’t want to see is others speaking or recommending on their behalf. They’ve already done the legwork.”

One coalition member, Austin Weahkee, criticized Senate leadership before the special legislative session on redistricting began, telling Source New Mexico that tribal members were left in the dark about when the session would start and how much weight the tribal maps would carry. He feared that a last-minute map would be introduced that undermined all the tribes’ hard work.

New Mexico reports its first case of the omicron variantAssociated Press

The New Mexico Department of Health on Monday announced the state's first identified case of the COVID-19 omicron variant.

Health officials said the case was identified Sunday and involves a Bernalillo County woman.

The unidentified woman reported recent domestic travel to a state with reported cases of omicron, according to authorities.

They said the woman was seen in a local emergency room and then discharged.

The state health department is currently conducting a thorough case investigation.

The omicron variant has been confirmed in at least 30 states and the District of Columbia as well as more than 60 countries.

Arizona reported its first confirmed case of the omicron variant on Dec. 8 in Yavapai County.

New Mexico residents are being told by health officials to get vaccinated and use proven public safety practices including wear masks, avoiding crowds and washing hands frequently.

Boy killed in hit-and-run after leaving ABQ BioPark—Associated Press

Albuquerque police are searching for the driver who struck and killed a 7-year-old boy as he was crossing the street with his family.

Authorities say the hit-and-run occurred Sunday around 8:30 p.m. at Central Ave and Tingley Drive. A family of four had just left the River of Lights, a series of holiday light displays at ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden.

According to traffic camera footage, a car ran a red light. The family was in the crosswalk and the traffic signal gave them the right of way.

The boy was pronounced dead at the scene. His father was also injured. He was taken to a hospital in stable condition.

The car did not stop. Police describe it as an off-highway vehicle.

The investigation remains ongoing.

Feds: Fentanyl is the No. 1 drug driving Albuquerque crime -Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Authorities say fentanyl is the No. 1 drug driving crime and violence in Albuquerque.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said agents seized 242 pounds of fentanyl in the past fiscal year in New Mexico.

That's a 900% increase over the prior fiscal year and well over the amount captured around the state in the previous five fiscal years combined, according to DEA officials.

Authorities said fentanyl seizure amounts have surpassed heroin, which dropped to some of its lowest levels since 2016.

TheAlbuquerque Journal reports that despite the seizures, the amount of fentanyl that has slipped through the fingers of law enforcement has furthered an epidemic of overdoses in New Mexico.

Local authorities tell the newspaper that fentanyl has overtaken local drug markets in places like Albuquerque, contributing to violent and property crimes committed by those who use it, deal it and steal it.

Albuquerque police said fentanyl is everywhere and — unlike other hard drugs — often peddled at the street-level by users.

Federal authorities reported seizing 22 pounds in the city in October. Last month, DEA agents seized 26 pounds of fentanyl powder from two passengers on separate Greyhound buses as they stopped in Albuquerque.

Outdoor recreation showing signs of recovery in New Mexico By Adrian Hedden, Carlsbad Current-Argus

New Mexico's multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation industry struggled in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic but was already recovering, officials said, as businesses reopened and visitation surged.

A study from the Bureau of Economic Analysis ranked New Mexico as 27th in the nation for outdoor recreation's contribution to the state's gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020, with about 2% of the state's GDP coming from the industry.

Montana was ranked first with outdoor recreation accounting for about 4% of its GDP, also supporting 26,000 jobs, the study read, and $1.12 billion in wages.

In total New Mexico's outdoor recreation activities contributed about $2.07 billion to the state's GDP of about $95 billion, records show, supporting 26,000 jobs and $1.04 billion in wages.

In 2019, the industry provided about 33,000 jobs, and 31 in 2018, the report read.

Last year was the first since 2012 that New Mexico's outdoor recreation jobs fell below 30,000, read the study.

Tourism including hotels and food service made up the most jobs last year at 10,000, followed by 8,000 in retail trade.

But the numbers don't take into account the state's progress in connecting local communities with their recreational resources, said Axie Navas, director of New Mexico's Outdoor Recreation Division within the state Economic Development Department.

She told the Carlsbad Current-Argus that despite the pandemic disrupting travel, shipping and supply chains throughout New Mexico's economy, the division worked closely with local communities to expand access and promotion of outdoor recreation in communities throughout the state.

"2020 was an anomalous year because of the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. We saw some economic dips in the outdoor recreation industry," Navas said. "Because of those main disruptions we saw some declines in the outdoor recreation industry. I think it was an anomalous year because we were already seeing some bright spots."

That included a 30% growth in boating, fishing and RVing activities, along with a 10% increase in biking, and similar upticks in other outdoor activities in the state, she said.

Navas said trailheads used by hikers were more crowded this year than previously, as retail related to outdoor recreation and restaurants saw regrowth following the pandemic in New Mexico – a year when vaccines became widely accessible and many public health restrictions were lifted.

"That really speaks to this industry's ability to rebound. It already is rebounding and has great potential moving forward," Navas said. "I think we're going to see that borne out by the next tranche of data. I am very much bullish on the fact that there has been forward progress."

This increase in recreational participation would lead to future economic growth, she said, and could see the state rise in the rankings.

"That increase in participation translates to more economic gains. That's not totally reflected yet in the BEA data," Navas said. "In terms of the percentage, I think New Mexico can be No. 1. Of course, it's always more complicated. Growth has to look like whatever is best for New Mexico."

That means working with local communities and business owners as the division works to establish a resilient outdoor recreation economy in the long-term, Navas said, based on the specific needs of areas throughout the state.

The division this year awarded through its Outdoor Equity fund $898,000 in grant funding to 57 recipients statewide used to develop programs Navas said could get up to 20,000 children outside and participating in outdoor recreation.

Twenty-five projects received funding from the division's Trails+ program that provides funding to local projects like hiking trails, rivers and wildlife viewing areas, totaling in about $560,000 in state funds.

"Our main goal is not just GDP, it's making sure this economy grows sustainably. That's economic development but also community development," Navas said. "How do we make sure there is access to these opportunities? It's that community quality of life. We're striving for growth. We can be number one, but we have to do it in our way."

Another $2 million was granted to New Mexico from the federal Economic Development administration to aid in the industry's recovery, and the division was seeking a $10 million special appropriation from the state Legislature during next year's session, Navas said, for further support.

"While we see some bright spots, we have to acknowledge that a lot of our outdoor rec business were hit hard by the pandemic," Navas said. "We have to continue to invest in them.

"I think the BEA data shows us the outdoor recreation industry is hugely impactful in New Mexico. We should think about all the ways it benefits us in New Mexico and continue to invest in it. The economic gains will follow."

More federal support could also be on the way as U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, introduced the Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation (SOAR) Act in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

If passed, the bill would reform the process for issuing outdoor recreation permits, lower costs and shorten processing times, and allow permittees to engage in activities "substantially similar" to what they were permitted.

It was intended to improve outdoor access, Heinrich said, and make it easier for more Americans to take advantage of recreational opportunities.

"This is really about permit reform," Heinrich said during the hearing where the bill was introduced. "This legislation really seeks to streamline that process to make it more user-friendly to make it more flexible."

Meanwhile, fellow U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico sponsored the Biking On Long-Distance Trails (BOLT) Act late last month intending to make biking trails on federal land more accessible.

It would direct the U.S. Interior Department to identify at least 10 long-distance bike trails and areas to develop additional trails, while allowing the agency to publish trail maps, install needed signage and promote the trails along with publishing a report on the trails developed in compliance.

"In New Mexico and across America, there are millions of acres of federal lands that have gone untapped for responsible outdoor recreation use," Lujan said. "This bipartisan legislation will make bike trails more accessible and safer across America and will provide a much-needed boost to the growing outdoor recreation economy."

2 people found dead after structure fire in Rio Rancho area -Associated Press

Two people have been found dead after a structure fire in the Rio Rancho area, authorities said Sunday.

Several fire crews from Sandoval County were called out around 3 a.m.

Rio Rancho police and Sandoval County Sheriff's officials also went to the scene.

Authorities said one person was found dead as firefighters tried to stop the flames from spreading.

They said a second person was found dead at the scene shortly afterward.

The names, ages and genders of the two dead persons weren't immediately known.

Authorities said the cause of the fire was under investigation and it's not yet known how the two people died.

The New Mexico State Fire Marshal's Office and Sandoval County Sheriff's Office are in charge of the fire investigation.

Judge OKs regulators' subpoena for 'Rust' assistant director -KOB-TV, Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

The assistant director who handed Alec Baldwin a prop gun that killed a cinematographer on a New Mexico film set must make himself available for an interview with state workplace safety regulators, a judge has decided.

District Judge Bryan Biedscheid on Friday granted a request by the Occupational Health and Safety Bureau of the state Environment Department to issue a subpoena to Dave Halls, assistant director for the movie "Rust," local news outlets reported.

Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed and director Joel Souza was wounded in the Oct. 21 shooting on the Bonanza Creek Ranch film set near Santa Fe.

Safety officials tried twice since Nov. 2 to interview Halls for their investigation but he declined both times through his attorney and said he wouldn't agree to an interview until a criminal investigation into the shooting is complete, a compliance officer wrote Wednesday in an affidavit in support of the subpoena request.

The interview with Halls is needed because he had responsibilities for set safety, knew who was present during the shooting and had handled the gun, the application said.

Rebecca Roose, deputy cabinet secretary of the Environment Department,told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the department proposed a Tuesday interview but that the judge could set another date or Halls' attorney could fight the subpoena.

Halls' attorney, Lisa Torracco, on Saturday did not immediately respond to a voicemail left by The Associated Press seeking comment.

However,KOB-TV reported that Torraco told the station that Halls will cooperate with state investigators.

Baldwin has said he didn't know the gun contained a live round and that investigators must find out who put it in the weapon.

NC's Roy Cooper elected to lead Democratic governors' group -Associated Press

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has been formally chosen to lead the Democratic Governors Association next year, spearheading efforts to help the party's nominees win more in a big gubernatorial year ahead.

Cooper, the current vice chair and chair-elect in 2021, was elected chair on Saturday, according to social media posts by the association, which met in New Orleans. He'll succeed the 2021 chair, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.

Cooper, who was reelected to a second four-year term governor in 2020, arrives on the job as 36 governorships are on the ballot in 2022. Republicans currently hold the governor's office in 27 states, with the other 23 held by Democrats.

Republicans are hopeful that sagging poll numbers for President Joe Biden and positive election results last month — particularly Republican Glenn Youngkin's victory in the Virginia governor's race — bode well for them next year.

"We know we have tough races ahead in 2022, but our record of success is clear," a statement attributed to Cooper and tweeted by the association reads. "We've proven we can win anywhere — whether it's presidential battlegrounds or states (Donald Trump) won by 30 points — and we're going to prove it again in 2022."

The association also elected New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy as vice chair and chair-elect for 2022.