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FRI: Governor hears from mayors about spending needs, State lawmakers seek greater spending, + More

Governor Lujan Grisham Mural
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
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AP
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during a news conference in Albuquerque, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022.

New Mexico governor hears from mayors about spending needs - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

With billions of federal dollars heading to New Mexico for infrastructure projects, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday that rural areas can't be left behind.

The governor made the comment during a virtual summit attended by more than 200 municipal officials from around the state. She said the goal is to ensure that administrative requirements and other bureaucratic hoops don't keep small communities from accessing the money.

"We have to make sure it is easy to access and navigate because if you don't, we're going to leave behind communities that deserve the same level of investment and support as everybody else," Lujan Grisham said. "We have a tendency to think in terms of big cities and it's completely unfair and won't work."

Local officials talked about needs that ranged from water system upgrades, road work, improved broadband connectivity and health care services.

Officials in the southern New Mexico community of Ruidoso offered to help other municipalities through the process, and the governor suggested a group be formed by cities and towns that could lead the charge.

The undertaking of dispersing the federal funding and ensuring that it gets put to good use will be huge, as New Mexico expects to receive more than $3.7 billion. That includes more than more than $2.5 billion for roads, at least $100 million for boosting broadband coverage and over $350 million over five years for water infrastructure projects.

"We have more water infrastructure money than you could imagine, and what we want to do faster than anything else is get it out the door," New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney said during the summit, in a nod to concerns about inflation pushing the cost of projects higher.

The Democratic members of New Mexico's congressional delegation also touted money that is aimed at expanding the state's electric vehicle charging network and improving local airports.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, the state's senior senator, said there might be a temptation to use the money to cement the status quo. He told the mayors on the call that it will be up to them to "build us a bridge to our future and not a statue to our past."

Economists, engineers and others have said that $1 trillion in infrastructure spending won't be nearly enough to overcome the federal government's failure for decades to maintain and upgrade the country's infrastructure, and New Mexico officials acknowledged Friday that the needs of cities and towns won't be met overnight.

Lujan Grisham pointed to as much as $400 million worth of dam repairs that need to happen in New Mexico. Columbus Mayor Esequiel Salas said his border community needs money for a health and wellness center; Eagle Nest Mayor Jeff Carr talked about the lack of permanent funding for emergency medical services in his northeastern New Mexico village; and Bloomfield Mayor Cynthia Atencio said her city needs an additional drinking water reservoir.

Still, the governor and others were optimistic that this wave of funding presented "a real opportunity" to hit major milestones when it comes to infrastructure improvements around the state.

New Mexico lawmakers seek greater spending, voter access - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Critical decisions on government spending, voting access, public education and criminal justice await New Mexico legislators for their upcoming 30-day legislative session that starts on Tuesday.

New Mexico's state government has a multibillion-dollar general fund surplus thanks to pandemic relief funds from the U.S. government and a surge in oil production and natural gas prices.

The state is simultaneously contending with shortages of teachers, police and nurses along with a spike in urban violence and concerns about the fragile status of American democracy and the environment.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democrat-led legislature are promising to increase spending, cut tax rates and improve public health and safety. Fall elections and a fresh surge in coronavirus infections loom over deliberations.

NEW SPENDING

Proposals from the governor and legislative leaders would increase annual state general fund spending by about $1 billion to nearly $8.5 billion. The 14% spending boost is aimed at shoring up public school budgets and access to health care as the federal government winds down pandemic-related subsidies to Medicaid, the program that gives free health care to the needy.

Public education spending would increase by more than $420 million amid new investments in child wellbeing. The budget would pay for more home counseling for couples as they become parents. Public schools would be required to extend classroom learning time.

Pay raises of at least 7% are proposed across public education and most of state government, with higher minimum salaries for teachers and hefty pay and retention increases for state police officers.

Budget proposals would expand scholarship funds for in-state public college education, making tuition free for high schools students who graduate with a 2.5 grade point average and head to college less than two years after they graduate.

Additional scholarships are directed a teacher career preparation, and paying off past student loans for active teachers. Together the student-aid initiatives cost nearly $100 million for the coming fiscal year.

Republicans in the legislative minority want the state to move toward a voucher-like system for education spending that ties public funding to students to spend at their school of choice. They're also emphasizing efforts to stem violent crime, rein in vaccine mandates and return public employees to in-person work.

TAXATION

The governor and legislature are proposing a modest reduction in gross receipts tax on retail sales and business transactions, the single largest source of state government income. Current rates range from roughly 5% to 9% amid variable local tax options.

Republicans in the legislative minority are renewing efforts to end taxation by the state on Social Security benefits. Democrats may be warming to the idea under a bill that also increases taxes on tobacco.

Amid hardships of the pandemic, Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe says he hopes legislators will consider a new one-time tax rebate for essential workers and low-income families.

VOTING RIGHTS

Democratic lawmakers plan a push to expand access to voting in New Mexico, just as Republican-led states implement greater restrictions. In Congress, Democrats' major elections and voting rights legislation has stalled.

New Mexico's Democratic secretary of state is seeking legislation to turn Election Day into a state holiday to encourage voting and create a permanent absentee voter list so qualified residents can automatically receive mail-in ballots before each election, among other election changes.

Currently, New Mexico voters must request absentee ballot applications before each election to vote by mail or ballot drop-off.

The state Republican Party has said that the changes would invite fraud and confusion and put new pressures on county clerks.

Wirth, the Senate majority leader, said that "voting, and access to voting, is under attack."

"I certainly support national efforts. But boy, until that happens, I think it's critical at the state level that we make access to voting as easy as possible."

PUBLIC SAFTEY

A long list of legislative proposals take aim at violence and urban crime, stoked by outrage over a record-breaking year for homicides in Albuquerque in 2021.

Budget recommendations from the governor include the creation of a $100 million fund to help recruit, hire and retain law enforcement officers and staff across the state. A variety of enhanced sentences for gun-related crimes are under consideration.

A separate proposal would deny pretrial release to more people charged with murder or major gun- or sex-related crimes, revising the state's no-money bail system.

Lujan Grisham said the burden would be placed on defendants, rather than prosecutors, to prove they would not be a danger to the community if granted pretrial release.

Public defenders have said that pretrial release is not linked to increases in violent crime rates and that incarcerating more people before trial or conviction will ruin lives and harm communities.

HEALTH, CLIMATE

In matters of environmental protection, Lujan Grisham has proposed a new state "climate change bureau," with a 15-member staff and $2.5 million initial budget, to implement pollution standards for cars and work toward a net-zero emissions state economy in coming decades. New Mexico is the No. 2 producer of oil in the U.S., behind Texas.

The Legislature will debate a low-carbon fuel standard to help ratchet down pollution and financial incentives to introduce large-scale hydrogen production in New Mexico, using natural gas to produce hydrogen.

Subsidies for hydrogen production from natural gas are opposed by environmental advocacy groups that say it would prolong dependence on fossil fuels through a process that produces climate-warning carbon dioxide that may be difficult or impossible to fully capture and store underground.

In the health care field, leading lawmakers want to expand post-partem Medicaid coverage to guarantee enrollment for up to a year after births, up from 60 days.

In economic development matters, Lujan Grisham is asking for money to found a training academy for the film industry that would be run by a consortium of existing state colleges and universities, and to spend heavily on tourism advertising.

MLK march in Albuquerque postponed because of COVID-19 cases - Associated Press

Albuquerque and New Mexico's MLK State Commission announced Friday that they have decided to postponed Saturday's planned Martin Luther King Jr. march because of the increasing number of COVID-19 cases.

Commission Executive Director Leonard Waites said though the in-person event is being postponed "out of an abundance of caution," a Federal Emergency Management Agency bus will still be at Civic Plaza to administer vaccines and on-site COVID-19 testing.

No new date for the march was announced.

In another development, the University of New Mexico is stiffening its masking mandate to require that face coverings worn by students and employees be of more protective medical or health grade.

The stiffened mandate  taking effect next Tuesday requires three-ply or better medical and health procedure masks and means that cloth masks may be worn on top of the more protective masks but not alone.

The university said it will provide masks in multiple locations.

The omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or previously infected by prior variants of the virus.

Cyberattack in Albuquerque latest to target public schools - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

When the superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools announced earlier this week a cyberattack would lead to the cancellation of classes for around 75,000 students, he noted that the district's technology department had been fending off attacks "for the last few weeks."

Albuquerque is not alone, as five school districts in the state have suffered major cyberattacks in the past two years, including one district that's still wrestling with a cyberattack that hit just after Christmas.

But it's the first reporting a cyberattack that required cancellation of classes, all the more disruptive as schools try to keep in-person learning going during the pandemic.

"If it seems I've come into your homes a lot in the past couple of years to share difficult news, you're right. And here I am again," Superintendent Scott Elder said in a video address Thursday. "We find ourselves facing yet another challenge."

The closures, on Thursday and Friday, affect approximately one in five New Mexico schoolchildren, in what is the country's 35th largest school district by enrollment, according to 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The district was one of the last in the state to reopen last year as vaccines became available.

The small town of Truth or Consequences discovered a cyber attack on Dec. 28, and still hasn't gained control of its computer systems.

"We're not out of the woods yet," said Mark Torres, the information technology director of the school system in Truth or Consequences, a small town in central New Mexico.

The attack has not been previously reported. It came when students were on vacation, allowing time to make contingency plans before students returned. Torres says that while the attack "made computer systems unavailable," disruption has been minimal.

That wasn't the case in Albuquerque, where teachers discovered Wednesday morning that they were locked out of the student information database that tracks attendance, records emergency contacts for students, and tracks which adults are allowed to pick up which students at the end of the school day.

In 2019, Las Cruces Public Schools also suffered an attack on their student information database, after a phishing attack lured one or more employees to click a malicious link in an email months before, recalls Matt Dawkins, that district's information technology director.

After lurking and scoping out the district's system, a hacker or hackers carried out ransomware attacks. Data on many school computers, starting with the student database, was locked up in an encryption. A ransom was demanded in exchange for the key.

"It's kind of like when your house gets robbed you know? That feeling of being violated," said Dawkins, in an interview Thursday, as his school went under lockdown due to an unrelated police call a mile away.

The school didn't pay the ransom, and eventually found a way to reset its data systems to the state they were in the day before the attack. But it required months of hands-on work, and extra expenses for temporary Wi-Fi hotspots, and some new computers. Insurance covered much of the cost of the attack.

In the past two years, at least four other New Mexico schools have been hit by costly cyberattacks, according to Patrick Sandoval, interim director of the New Mexico Public School Insurance Authority, which insures all districts in New Mexico except for Albuquerque.

Targets across the U.S. in 2021 included universities, hospitals, and a major fuel pipeline. Data on the number of attacks and their cost are difficult to track, but the FBI's 2020 annual report on cyberattacks said around $4.1 billion in damages was reported by institutions across the country that year.

Dawkins added if Albuquerque faces a ransomware situation, which hasn't been confirmed, it might face a more complex attack. Instead of holding information hostage, ransomware attacks now threaten to sell data to the highest bidder online. So, the student data in Albuquerque might not just be locked up, Dawkins said, but at risk of being shared with identity thieves and other bad actors.

Albuquerque Public Schools hasn't said if the cyberattack they face is a ransomware attack, only that their student information database was "compromised," and that it's working with law enforcement and contractors to limit the damage.

Whatever the cause, they face a similar problem as Las Cruces faced in the days following the attack.

The database used to track attendance and other students was out of commission. It also realized that laptops needed to be quarantined and taken out of service, forcing teachers to work offline.

"Immediately our instructional department pivoted with pen and paper, you know, kind of old-fashioned sort of teaching so our print shop was printing materials. Teachers were able to adapt very quickly," Dawkins said.

Albuquerque Public School officials have not elaborated on the decision to close schools, and didn't respond to requests Thursday about why a paper system was not possible.

The decision to continue classes in Las Cruces came at a cost. Dawkins said that it probably took longer to get the school's thousands of computers wiped and reset while teachers and administrators were working normal hours, and they had to live without technology for weeks and weeks.

In January 2020, the district's computers were running again and in good time, too — the pandemic forced teachers and students into remote learning just a few months later.

Colorado escapee sought in New Mexico case caught in Arizona - Associated Press 

A man who escaped from a Colorado jail in late December and who was sought in the subsequent non-fatal shooting of a New Mexico police officer a week ago was arrested Friday in Arizona, police said.

Phoenix police got a tip and arrested Elias Buck, 22, of Durango early Friday morning at a convenience store, Farmington police said in a statement.

Buck scaled a fence and escaped Dec. 27 from the La Plata County jail in Durango after being arrested Dec. 7 on suspicion of motor vehicle theft, the Durango Herald reported.

Buck was sought in Farmington in the Jan. 7 wounding of Officer Joseph Barreto during a possible DWI investigation.

According to Farmington police, the shooting occurred when Barreto tried to detain Buck after seeing Buck and a female companion walking after a car in the area had been reported as possibly being involved in drunken driving.

Michigan AG asks feds to investigate fake GOP electors - By David Eggert Associated Press

Michigan's attorney general is asking federal prosecutors to open a criminal investigation into 16 Republicans who submitted false certificates stating they were the state's presidential electors despite Joe Biden's 154,000-vote victory in 2020.

Dana Nessel, a Democrat, disclosed Thursday that her office had been evaluating charges for nearly a year but decided to refer the matter to the U.S. attorney in western Michigan.

"Under state law, I think clearly you have forgery of a public record, which is a 14-year offense, and election law forgery, which is a five-year offense," she told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. But the Justice Department, she said, is best suited to probe and potentially prosecute.

The spokesperson for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment Friday.

Nessel alleged a "coordinated effort" among Republican parties in several battleground states including Michigan to push so-called alternate slates of electors with fake documents. She said she wants federal authorities to make an evaluation for possible charges.

"Obviously this is part of a much bigger conspiracy," Nessel said.

American Oversight, a watchdog group, last March obtained certificates submitted by Republicans in seven states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. New Mexico and Pennsylvania Republicans added a caveat saying it was done in case they were later recognized as duly elected, qualified electors.

On Jan. 8, 2021, the Office of the Federal Register — which coordinates certain functions of the Electoral College between states and Congress — notified Michigan's elections director and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's chief lawyer in an email that it received unofficial, signed certificates from GOP electors who had not been appointed by the Democratic governor. The group includes Republican National Committeewoman Kathy Berden and Meshawn Maddock, co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party.

The Michigan GOP had no immediate comment. The Associated Press left messages seeking comment from Berden and Maddock on Friday.

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office last month gave the email to a U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

When Michigan's electors cast 16 votes for Biden in December 2020 following the certification of his 2.8 percentage point win, a separate group that included some Republican state House members tried to enter the state Capitol with Donald Trump's Electoral College candidates. They were turned away by state police but claimed in the certificates that they met "in the State Capitol."

The invalid certificates also were mailed to the U.S. Senate, Benson, and the federal court for western Michigan. Two Republicans did not sign the documents and were replaced.

There are complaints pending in Wisconsin alleging that GOP electors in that swing state committed fraud by submitting the false paperwork. Biden won Wisconsin by just under 21,000 votes, a result that has withstood recounts, lawsuits and investigations into fraud.

Complaints have been filed with the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office. Neither has announced publicly about any action taken in response. Another complaint against Andrew Hitt, an attorney who was chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party at the time, has been filed with the agency that handles complaints against lawyers.

In Pennsylvania, Trump electors signed the documents in an office of a Republican marketing consultant two blocks from the state Capitol. The state Republican Party said then that the Trump electors met at the request of the campaign and described it as a "conditional vote."

Bernie Comfort, Trump's Pennsylvania chairperson, said it was "procedural" in case the election was overturned. She claimed it was "in no way an effort to usurp or contest the will of the Pennsylvania voters," even though Trump and his allies were pressuring lawmakers and courts at the time to do just that.

Guard may help staffing shortages at New Mexico schools - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's governor said Thursday she's considering seeking help from the National Guard to address COVID-19 staffing shortages at public schools, a move that could mark a first in the nation.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the additional help would ensure that students can remain in the classroom.

She said the state has been in discussions with the Santa Fe school district, which was forced to plan for remote learning next week.

Lujan Grisham promised to release more details soon.

The National Guard has been used in other ways during the pandemic, including driving school buses.

President Joe Biden announced Thursday that starting next week, 1,000 military medical personnel will begin deploying across the country to help overwhelmed medical facilities ease staff shortages due to the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Lujan Grisham confirmed that one of the teams will be stationed at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.

She said the additional resources will "absolutely help" given that the hospital is the state's only top level trauma facility and often takes in many of the most complicated cases.

"With a Level I trauma, you've got to stabilize personnel resources there," Lujan Grisham said, noting that the hospital already has brought in hundreds of traveling nurses to help address the shortage.

New Mexico hospital officials have acknowledged over recent weeks that the majority of patients being seen are treated for illnesses and medical emergencies unrelated to COVID-19 but that a lack of staffing continues to put undue pressure on the state's health care system, like elsewhere.

The omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains, and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Albuquerque police respond to 3 killings in 10-hour span -Associated Press

Amid growing concern about violent crime in New Mexico's most populous city, Albuquerque police say detectives responded to three different shooting scenes in a 10-hour span to launch homicide investigations.

Police said the first homicide victim was a man whose daughter called 911 to report the shooting at a home early Wednesday evening. According to police, the shooter left the scene before officers arrived.

Police said the second involved a man found dead at a motel after officers responded to a report of gunfire shortly before midnight.

The third involved a person found dead in an alley behind a business early Thursday morning.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and fellow elected Democrats were scheduled to gather in Albuquerque on Thursday to talk about public safety proposals ahead of next week's legislative session.

Officeholders, particularly those who represent constituents in Albuquerque, have been facing growing pressure to address record homicides and other violent crime.

New Mexico leaders aim to put wedge in revolving crime door - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is aiming to put a wedge in the revolving door that many have blamed for persistent violent crime and record homicides in the state's largest city.

The Democratic governor joined other elected leaders in Albuquerque on Thursday to highlight a few of the public safety proposals that will be pushed during the legislative session that begins Tuesday. The officials stood in front of a mural dedicated to victims of gun violence as they acknowledged that residents around the state are fed up.

"This is not just an Albuquerque issue. This is a state issue. This is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, community-by-community issue. New Mexico can and will do better," the governor said.

The measures include enhanced penalties for some crimes and a shift in New Mexico's pretrial detention system that supporters claim would ensure the most dangerous defendants accused of murder, rape or other violent crimes remain behind bars pending trial.

Lujan Grisham said the burden would be placed on defendants, rather than prosecutors, to prove they would not be a danger to the community if granted pretrial release.

Critics, including defense attorneys and public defenders, have raised concerns that the change would erode the checks and balances of the current system and would give prosecutors more power to detain people. They have pointed to efforts to narrow the presumptions used to hold defendants at the federal level as well as data from criminal cases in the Albuquerque area that showed a smaller share of those charged with rebuttable presumption offenses were arrested for a new crime while released.

Bennett Baur, the state's chief public defender, said in a statement that evidence shows people on pretrial release are not a significant cause of the increase in violent crime and that incarcerating more people before trial will further harm New Mexico communities.

"I'm concerned that the focus is all on police, prosecutors and punishment, and seems to ignore the effects that the proposals would have on the courts, public defenders, jails and prisons, and on what happens when anyone accused of a crime is eventually released," he said.

Republican Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque, a retired police officer who has been working on the issue for more than a decade and supports the proposed legislation, described it as narrow and surgical to address the most violent offenders.

In 2017, New Mexico joined a growing number of states in adopting risk-based approaches to releasing defendants that put less emphasis on financial assurances, after voters approved a constitutional amendment the previous year to allow judges to deny bail to defendants considered extremely dangerous. The constitutional amendment also granted pretrial release to those who are not considered a threat but remain in jail because they can't afford bail.

The public has been frustrated with the outcome, and politicians have acknowledged that changes need to be made in the pretrial justice system.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez, who oversees prosecutors in New Mexico's busiest judicial district in Albuquerque, called the upcoming legislative session an opportunity to "fix what is broken."

Torrez said the presumption standards that are being proposed would have no effect on non-violent, low-level offenders or the types of people who authorities believe can be safely monitored and provided resources to get them out of the criminal justice system.

The revolving nature of the system has left Torrez prosecuting one person for multiple events, rather than just one. He said that strains resources and that having deterrents throughout the process could help address that on the front end.

"We have to send a signal right away," he said.

When asked whether New Mexico could legislate its way out of the crime problem, Lujan Grisham said that changing human behavior and how people treat one another is a difficult effort.

"But if you don't have guardrails, you're also signaling that it's everyone for themselves and we aren't going to do anything collectively that we know can have an impact. You have to lead by example and set the standards that this is intolerable what is occurring," she said.

Lujan Grisham said working across branches of government and jurisdictions can produce results. She pointed to a partnership between Albuquerque police and State Police that netted hundreds of arrests and resulted in a significant drop in auto thefts.

"You have to have the resources, the tools and a strategy," she said. "We're going to keep doing that."