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FRI: New Mexico may limit or scrap tax on Social Security income, + More

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham Santa Fe High School
Morgan Lee/AP
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham

New Mexico may limit or scrap tax on Social Security income - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Legislators are introducing competing proposals to do away with New Mexico's tax on income from Social Security benefits as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham throws her political weight behind the idea in an election year.

About a dozen states tax Social Security benefits in some fashion. In New Mexico, personal income taxes apply to Social Security benefits while following federal rules for exempting lower-income residents. A full exemption applies to individuals earning up to $25,000 and joint tax filers earning up to $32,000.

Lujan Grisham on Thursday signaled her support for an immediate and full tax exemption for Social Security income, under a bill from Democratic Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque, in a news release.

That fiscal relief would be concentrated among higher earning individuals. Last year, the state Taxation and Revenue Department calculated that 82% of taxable social security benefits are received by residents with income over $50,000 a year.

The state would forego roughly $90 million in tax revenue from a full repeal, according to a 2021 analysis. That estimate came prior to notification that Americans will receive a 5.9% increase in benefits in 2022 to counter inflation.

Proposals for tax cuts coincide with a major surplus in the state general fund — estimated at $1.6 billion in excess of annual spending obligations. But leading lawmakers are wary of eroding dependable sources of state income under a volatile state economy tied closely oil and natural gas prices and production.

"I'm going to take a hard look" at the proposals to exempt Social Security from taxation, said Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup, chairman of the lead Senate budget writing committee. "I want to see who truly benefits and what the true costs are to the state."

He said low-income people who use Social Security as a lifeline won't benefit. Meanwhile, the elderly in New Mexico can count on other financial relief from Medicare benefits, along with tax-free groceries and medical supplies.

A bill from Democratic Sens. Bill Tallman and Martin Hickey of Albuquerque would do away with some taxes on Social Security income — though not for individuals earning over $72,000 or joint filers earning over $124,000. State government income would be bolstered by changes to taxation of tobacco under the proposal.

One bill from conservative-leaning legislators including gubernatorial candidate and Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth of Consequences would phase out state taxes on Social Security income gradually between 2022 and 2026. They also offer an immediate repeal in a separate bill.

In a state of 2.1 million residents, about 450,000 people in New Mexico receive Social Security benefits. A worker's lifetime earnings largely determine the amount of Social Security benefits received.

New Mexico began taxing Social Security income in 1990. Lujan Grisham is seeking election to a second term at the polls in November.

U.S. military team to assist Navajo Nation hospital in NM - Associated Press

More than 200 U.S. military medical personnel are being deployed to eight states and the Navajo Nation, including a hospital in New Mexico, to support civilian healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients.

A 20-person team from the U.S. Army will provide support for the Navajo Nation at Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock.

Lt. Gen. John R. Evans Jr., U.S. Army north commander in San Antonio, Texas, announced the deployments Friday to New Mexico, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and Texas.

The Defense Department approved the activation at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Resources.

All of the 220 personnel will be available by the end of January, Evans said. The 43 medical teams join 20 teams of about 400 military medical personnel who have been providing assistance to civilian hospitals since last August.

"We are committed to working alongside our civilian medical partners to assist hard-hit states and communities in need," Evans said.

Anticipating barrage of lawsuits, state’s top water officials ask for more employees - Patrick Lohmann, Source NM

Officials in charge of New Mexico’s water said they need more staff to fend off lawsuits clawing at the state’s water supply, which is limited and shrinking. They expect more court battles to come as human-caused climate change increases average temperatures and aridity in the Southwest.

“Controversies arise about waters that are crossing state boundaries, particularly when you’re in drought,” Rolf Schmidt-Petersen, director of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, told lawmakers yesterday. “And the drought that we’re in today is as deep as any we have been in, in the last 100 years, if not more.”

The Office of the State Engineer and the Interstate Stream Commission — companion agencies that manage water rights here and represent the state in water disputes — testified in front of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee late Wednesday. Officials described how the challenges of both drought and litigation will further burden understaffed departments that protect New Mexicans’ access to water.

Water officials asked the committee to fund 17 more positions than the LFC’s budget calls for. They’re also seeking $3.5 million more in recurring spending to address the many challenges the agencies face. The governor’s budget adds the new jobs and funds, though at levels lower than the former state engineer requested.

The governor’s office would fund the agencies at $41.2 million — a $1.7 million increase (and 4.3% boost) over the last fiscal year. The Legislative Finance Committee would increase the budget to $40.2 million — about $700,000 more, a 1.9% increase.

While those might seem like similar amounts, the LFC’s budget for the agencies would rely more on volatile trust funds than the governor’s. The governor’s budget would include $29.9 million from the recurring general fund, and the LFC’s would include just $24.4 million from a more irregular funding source, making it harder for the agencies to plan and prepare.

Despite the agencies’ ask, lawmakers voted in favor of the smaller LFC budget without debate, which Schmidt-Petersen said is typical. But he hopes he’ll have time over the rest of the session to make the argument for more funding, he said.

“We’ll just have a number of opportunities to kind of press our case a little bit more,” he told Source New Mexico. “And we will continue to advocate for the (governor’s) recommendation, particularly the staffing piece of this.”

In mid-November, former State Engineer John D’Antonio announced his resignation, citing the lack of funding and staff for the office, telling the Albuquerque Journal he’d “taken the agency as far as we can” with the given resources.

In interviews at the time, D’Antonio said he’d been instructed to prepare a flat budget despite anticipating huge cost increases. For example, a lawsuit before the United States Supreme Court with Texas over Rio Grande water is expected to ramp up early this year. Not only that, the agency is also beginning to implement a 50-year water plan.

D’Antonio previously testified before the Legislature that he needed more than 30 new employees, Schmidt-Petersen said.

D’Antonio is now a deputy district engineer with the United States Army Corps of Engineers. He could not be reached for comment.

Schmidt-Petersen told Source New Mexico that he didn’t know if D’Antonio’s public statements at the time of his resignation spurred the governor’s office to propose funding the agencies at higher levels than before.

“I think with the executive recommendation that we have, if we were able to get that recommendation, that would help us, and we’d be able to move forward,” he said.

A budget report from the Legislative Finance Committee shows the agency lost almost 100 employees in the last 14 years; 346 employees dwindled in July 2008 to 252 as of July last year. The agency was budgeted to have up to 316 employees, though it has about a 20% vacancy rate, according to the report. Schmidt-Petersen said the agencies often lose staff to higher-paying consulting firms.

Water disputes between states get expensive as rivers and aquifers run low or dry up. The Office of the State Engineer and the Attorney General’s Office are requesting a combined $10 million to handle such litigation, but the LFC’s proposal comes up short about $2 million, Jeff Primm, the water agencies’ program support director, told lawmakers.

Lawyers representing Texas filed the Rio Grande lawsuit in the Supreme Court against New Mexico and Colorado in 2013, alleging that New Mexico was not delivering the quantity of water agreed on through a compact signed in 1939, well before global warming impacted the water supply.

New Mexico farmers pump groundwater using wells connected to the river south of Elephant Butte, cutting into the water that’s supposed to reach Texas, attorneys representing Texas claimed in the lawsuit.

Texas called on the Supreme Court to order New Mexico to pay back the debt in cash for water owed over decades — a judgment that could top $1 billion. If New Mexico loses, that might also curtail groundwater pumping and jeopardize some southern New Mexicans’ water rights.

That’s not the only lawsuit the agencies will have to deal with, especially if the drought intensifies, Schmidt-Petersen told the House committee. Drought effects on the Colorado River, for example, he said, could spark another lawsuit. He predicted the state might be spared this year and next year, however.

“All because of two weeks of snow in the Colorado River Basin,” he told legislators. “It went from nothing to 10 feet of snow in some areas.”

But he warned that drought is severe enough along the Colorado River Basin in some places to have affected hydropower generation. Hydropower production at the Glen Canyon Dam, for example, has dropped about 16% since 2000, according to a report by KUNC.

The staff is preparing to work out agreements to avoid litigation there, should it be necessary, but that type of work requires additional staffing, Schmidt-Petersen said.

“We believe the (governor’s) request will help us get prepared,” he said. “But if litigation does start in that basin, significantly more would be expected.”

US, Colorado reach proposed settlement in 2015 mine spill - By James Anderson Associated Press

Colorado, the U.S. government and a gold mining company have agreed to resolve a longstanding dispute over who's responsible for continuing cleanup at a Superfund site that was established after a massive 2015 spill of hazardous mine waste that fouled rivers with a sickly yellow sheen in three states and the Navajo Nation.

The proposed settlement announced Friday would direct $90 million to cleanup at the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site in southwest Colorado, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Denver-based Sunnyside Gold Corp.

The agreement must be approved by a federal judge after a 30-day public comment period.

Sunnyside, which owns property in the district, and the EPA have been in a long-running battle over the cleanup. The EPA has targeted Sunnyside to help pay for the cleanup, and the company has resisted, launching multiple challenges to the size and management of the project.

An EPA-led contractor crew was doing excavation work at the entrance to the Gold King Mine, another site in the district not owned by Sunnyside, in August 2015 when it inadvertently breached a debris pile that was holding back wastewater inside the mine.

An estimated 3 million gallons of wastewater poured out, carrying nearly 540 U.S. tons of metals, mostly iron and aluminum. Rivers in Colorado, New Mexico, the Navajo Nation and Utah were polluted. Downstream water utilities shut down intake valves and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers.

The spill resulted in lawsuits against the EPA and prompted the agency to create the Bonita Peak Superfund district.

Sunnyside operated a mine next to Gold King that closed in 1991. A federal investigation found that bulkheads to plug that closed mine led to a buildup of water inside Gold King containing heavy metals. The EPA contractor triggered the spill while attempting to mitigate the buildup.

Under the agreement, Sunnyside and its parent, Canada-based Kinross Gold Corp., will pay $45 million to the U.S. government and Colorado for future cleanup. The U.S. will contribute another $45 million to cleanup in the district, which includes the Gold King Mine and abandoned mines near Silverton.

Monies will be used for water and soil sampling and to build more waste repositories. The EPA said in a statement Friday it has spent more than $75 million on cleanup work "and expects to continue significant work at the site in the coming years."

Sunnyside admitted no fault in the new agreement. The company said it has spent more than $40 million over 30 years cleaning up its property in the Superfund district.

The proposed consent decree follows Sunnyside settlements with New Mexico and the Navajo Nation last year. In December, Sunnyside said it had agreed to pay Colorado $1.6 million to resolve its liability for natural resource damage related to the Gold King Mine spill.

"The Gold King spill is a vivid reminder of the dangers associated with the thousands of abandoned and unclaimed hard rock mines across the United States, particularly in the West," Tommy Beaudreau, deputy secretary of the Interior Department, said in a prepared statement.

The statement added: "Mining companies should be held accountable for these sites that put communities and tribal lands at risk of disastrous pollution."

Sunnyside said Friday's agreement "recognizes the federal government's responsibility for its role in causing environmental contamination" within the Superfund site, according to a statement from Gina Myers, the company's director of reclamation operations.

Santa Fe students to return to the classroom next week - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

Public school students in the state’s capital will return to classrooms next week.

Santa Fe Public Schools is amid a 4-day week of remote learning due to a COVID surge. When it was announced last week, the district said students would return next Monday “if conditions improve.”

Superintendent Larry Chavez said in a statement Thursday that the district has seen a decline in cases – from up to 90 per day prior to closing schools to an average of 30 per day this week.

Chavez says Desert Sage Academy, the district’s online school, is available for families who want their students to continue learning remotely.

The superintendent also said last week the state was unable to supply the district with a sufficient number of COVID tests to meet demand. Now, Chavez says the district has been assured there are enough.

New Mexico health officials Thursday reported 6,010 new COVID-19 cases and 24 additional virus-related deaths.

712 people are hospitalized with the virus in the state.

Native American tribe, New Mexico ink water leasing deal - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A Native American tribe has agreed to lease more of its water to help address dwindling supplies in the Colorado River Basin, officials announced Thursday.

The agreement involves the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy.

The tribe has agreed to lease up to 6.5 billion gallons (25 billion liters) of water per year to the state to bolster flows for endangered species and increase water security for New Mexico.

The water would be released from the Navajo Reservoir in northwestern New Mexico to feed the San Juan River, which flows into the Colorado River.

New Mexico is among the seven Western states that rely on the Colorado River. Water managers elsewhere already have had to come up with contingency plans as less snow, warmer temperatures and water lost to evaporation have affected the river's ability to meet demands.

Daryl Vigil, the Jicarilla Apache Nation's water administrator, highlighted the need for creative solutions as pressure grows across the drought-stricken basin. He pointed to the benefits of meaningful cooperation with Native American communities, saying this novel project could serve as a model for other tribes and opens the door to broader conversations as officials try to chart out guidelines for future operations of the Colorado River.

The goal is to create flexibility across sovereign jurisdictions to get water to where it needs to be, Vigil said.

"It's about building a future together," he said. "This sets the stage for that."

Not all tribes in the basin have legal authority to lease water. Some tribes in Arizona already have played a significant role in shoring up water supplies as that state deals with mandatory cuts to its Colorado River allocation.

The Jicarilla Apache Nation's water rights support the tribe's cultural practices and economy while ensuring residents have water to drink.

The tribe subleases most of its water to other users. For several decades, that has included coal-fired power plants in the region through long-term contracts that provided a steady source of revenue. With the plants facing closure, officials said that presented an opportunity for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico and the environmental group to strike a new deal that ensured the water would be put to use and that the tribe would be compensated.

"The Colorado River Basin's tribal nations are among the most important leaders and partners in efforts to find lasting solutions to the pressing water scarcity and ecological challenges that face the millions of people who rely on this incredible river," said Celene Hawkins, a tribal engagement program director for The Nature Conservancy.

Vigil said the San Juan River was among the hardest hit tributaries last year. While snowpack this winter has been promising, he said officials still need to prepare.

"We've been living adaptively for thousands of years. Let us show you how it's done," he said.

Arizona utility, Navajo partner on another solar plant -Associated Press

An Arizona utility has signed an agreement with the Navajo Nation to get solar power from a new facility on the reservation.

The Salt River Project and the Navajo Nation already had partnered on two other solar facilities in Kayenta that serve 28,500 homes and businesses on the reservation.

SRP and the tribe extended the agreement Thursday on the initial Kayenta project that was set to expire this week. The entities also signed a power purchase agreement for a new facility in Cameron, a tribal community on the route to the east entrance of Grand Canyon National Park.

Tribal lawmakers approved the lease for the Cameron Solar project last March. The solar plant is expected to produce 200 megawatts of energy for the Salt River Project. About 400 people will be employed during construction, and Navajos will be given preference for the jobs.

Another solar plant is in the works near the Arizona-Utah border in Red Mesa. That one will be owned by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and provide energy largely to the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.

The tribal utility held a job fair for that project last fall, said tribal utility spokeswoman Deenise Becenti. Construction is expected to start next month.

The two solar plants in Kayenta together produce 55 megawatts of energy and employ six people, the tribal utility said. The tribe and SRP extended the agreement Thursday for the initial project to 2038, more closely resembling the length of the agreement for the second Kayenta plant.

The solar plant in Cameron is expected to generate $11 million in land lease payments and $15 million in tax revenue for the tribe over 25 years. The Salt River Project also will purchase capacity on transmission lines that's valued at $32 million over the project's lifetime. The solar plant should be complete by the end of 2023.

Some revenue from the project will go toward connecting more Navajo homes to the power grid and keeping rates down for tribal customers, the tribal utility has said.

SRP said the Cameron plant will help it reach its goal of adding 2,025 megawatts of new utility-scale solar to its portfolio by 2025.

Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022 - Associated Press 

Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season.

Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.

MLB's website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball and Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. It also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.

There were no minor leagues in 2020 due to the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if Commissioner Rob Manfred decides to utilize the system at the major league level.

"It's hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today," Chris Marinak, MLB's chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.

MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.