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MON: New Mexico considers clampdown on violent criminal cases, Some legislators tire of amateur status, + More

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New Mexico considers clampdown on violent criminal cases - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Mothers who lost their sons to violence in New Mexico testified Monday that something has to be done to keep suspects accused of brutal crimes behind bars ahead of their trials — marking the official start of a legislative debate over a proposed change to the state's troubled pretrial detention system.

Joined by district attorneys, the mothers told House committee members that legislation to keep the most dangerous defendants accused of murder, rape and other violent crimes jailed pending trial would help close a revolving door that many blame for record homicides in Albuquerque and other crime elsewhere in the state.

Demands have reached a feverish pitch for New Mexico lawmakers to reconsider bail reforms that were initially intended at preventing low-risk defendants from languishing in jail for months before their trials while still giving judges the ability to mandate detention for defendants considered dangerous.

Angel Alire said her 22-year-old son was fatally shot by a teenager who was out on bail while awaiting trial for other crimes. The defendant was wearing an ankle monitor at the time of the shooting and Alire said she later learned there was no monitoring of the suspect after hours, on weekends or holidays.

Johnnie Trujillo, the former police chief of the small city of Socorro, told lawmakers about a defendant who cut off his ankle monitor on the courthouse steps, saying such conditions of release haven't been effective in his community.

District Attorney Dianna Luce, who represents three counties in southeastern New Mexico, said she has handled cases in which defendants accused of criminal sexual contact of a minor have reoffended while released released pending trial.

Alire said critics of the legislation have suggested that the current system is working.

"Well apparently it's not working because my son is dead and there are plenty of other examples of the flawed system," she said. "Can anyone tell me or look me in the eye and say one life isn't worth trying something new? I can't tell you with 100% confidence that these bills will work but enough talk — we need action. It's worth a shot."

Policy experts with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, public defenders and criminal defense attorneys told lawmakers that the proposal raises serious constitutional questions and that more legal challenges would emerge if the state shifts the burden to defendants to prove they are not a danger to the community.

They also argued that detaining more people would put more pressure on overburdened county jails and the court system.

Supporters disputed the claim, saying the legislation would be narrowly tailored to only certain crimes.

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 suspects who are not considered a threat but remain jailed because they cannot afford to post bail.

The public has been frustrated with the outcome and politicians have acknowledged that changes need to be made in the pretrial justice system. That includes Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is running for reelection this year.

Rep. Damon Ely, D-Corrales, said there is wide recognition of the violence problem in New Mexico, but called the legislation a "hot mess."

He described it as contradictory and pointed to a recent legislative analysis that showed arrests and convictions have either been flat or declining despite the increase in crime in recent years.

The legislative analysis described the phenomenon as an accountability gap, which they said indicated the system has failed to deliver swift and certain justice and as a result is not an effective crime deterrent.

Ely said the proposed legislation would not address that problem.

With the Legislature set to wrap up its session in three weeks, it's unclear if the proposal can win legislative approval before adjournment.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and others have suggested that Lujan Grisham should call a special legislative session to focus on crime if lawmakers can't get the bill passed before Feb. 17.

Analysts: Bail reform is not driving violent crime in Albuquerque – Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

N.M. politicians are pushing to jail more people before their trials, but legislative analysts say that’s not likely to put much of a dent in violent crime rates. Little evidence exists to suggest that bail reform is driving violent crime trends in Albuquerque, state legislative staff reported last week.

As lawmakers weigh a change to state law that would make it a defendant’s burden to prove they are not a threat to the community and so don’t have to be jailed while waiting for a hearing, two program evaluators sent a memo Jan. 17 to the head of the Legislative Finance Committee.

People who are arrested while on pretrial release represent a small fraction of overall crime reported in Albuquerque, according to the memo.

The LFC analyzed crime and arrest data over a three-year period and found that arrests for violent crimes among pretrial defendants made up just 5% of total arrests for violent crimes by the Albuquerque Police Department, meaning people who’ve been released ahead of their day in court are relatively small contributors to the city’s overall violent crime problem.

The report looked at the potential effect of a previous bill that was similar, if not identical, to the one Republican Rep. Bill Rehm proposed this session: House Bill 5. It states that the bill “may lead to prolonged detention of defendants who are never convicted of the crimes they are accused of.”

The findings raise questions about how the measure’s sponsors balance the constitutional rights of people accused of crimes with their stated goal of reducing crime in the state.

Asked to comment on the report’s findings, Rep. Meredith Dixon, a co-sponsor of HB 5, said lawmakers have a responsibility to make sure the people they represent can be safe in their own homes and communities.

“This bill is one tool that we can apply in a targeted and narrow way to prevent the most violent and dangerous criminals from being prematurely released, so they cannot cause more harm while awaiting trial,” Dixon said in a written statement. “I also think it is important to note that this bill is part of a larger, holistic approach to public safety that includes long term investments in our communities and behavioral health to address the root causes of crime.”

Rep. Marian Matthews, arguably the bill’s most prominent sponsor in either chamber, has not yet commented. We will update this story if she does.

The bill’s three other co-sponsors did not respond to requests for comment on the report.

THOUSANDS WOULD BE NEEDLESSLY HELD

The measure the analysts were reviewing would have led to the unnecessary detention of about 2,400 people during the period of study, LFC staff wrote.

By comparison, they would have prevented 253 arrests of people accused of violent crimes and 300 accused of non-violent crimes over four years, the memo states.

Aggravated assault was the most common violent crime that would have been prevented. None of the homicides committed by people on pretrial release during the four-year study would have been prevented by the reforms, because none were committed by the population targeted by the bill, the LFC staff wrote.

The findings are consistent with national research on pretrial detention that has found little evidence supporting charge-based detention policies, according to the analysts.

Under state law, defendants are only eligible for detention if they are accused of a felony and if a prosecutor files a motion that they be held, the memo states.

“Using a defendant’s current criminal charge as the primary determinant for detention is a values-based approach, not an evidence-based one,” they wrote.

From the latter half of 2019 through the first half of 2021, 40% of defendants whom prosecutors sought to detain before trial were not ultimately convicted, a chart in the report shows.

By contrast, nationwide, 74% of felony cases end with guilty pleas and only 18% are dismissed, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said Jan. 20 that as lawmakers consider criminal justice bills, they should know about the fiscal consequences of their decisions.

At a meeting of the Bernalillo County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Baur encouraged officials, the Metropolitan Detention Center and the courts to speak with lawmakers about the crime bills going through the Roundhouse this year — especially the preventative detention proposal.

Baur said the Law Offices of the Public Defender will give lawmakers data on how they think the bill will impact their staff and contract attorneys.

“So whether or not you’re in favor of it or not, I don’t know that this is a place to discuss it. I think there’s a serious financial impact which we should be discussing with the Legislature.”

According to the LFC memo, the cost to taxpayers of more detention exceeds the savings resulting from the any crime prevention achieved by reforms like House Bill 5.

The LFC found that keeping these defendants in jail while they awaited trial would have cost state and local government $23 million while providing savings of $15 million due to crime prevention over the four-year period, amounting to about $2 million in addition costs every year.

Those figures do not account for costs borne by victims of the alleged crimes nor the value of life lost, the memo states.

For context, New Mexico public defenders are already dealing with huge workloads and do not have enough staff to handle cases, according to a study by the American Bar Association published three days before the LFC memo.

The state’s public defenders need more than 600 new attorneys to meet the national standards for indigent defense, the association found.

“Additional costs to defendants, their families, and the economy from unnecessary detention are difficult to quantify but include loss of employment, loss of housing, and increased recidivism,” the LFC memo states.

Some legislators in New Mexico tire of amateur status - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The nation's only unsalaried legislature is considering whether to abandon its amateur status that has endured for 110 years since New Mexico became a state.

A Senate panel, including top ranked Democrats, endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment to provide a salary to legislators, who collect a daily stipend of roughly $165 during legislative sessions and reimbursements for travel.

Approval by the New Mexico Legislature would send the measure to a statewide vote on whether to amend the state constitution. Similar proposals have stalled repeatedly in recent years.

Democratic state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque — cosponsor of the initiative — said legislative salaries would be set by the State Ethics Commission, ensuring lawmakers won't set their own pay or approve raises directly. A similar House-sponsored initiative would set salaries for legislators through a specialized public salary commission.

"By having salaries set by an independent body, that would address the voters' concerns," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said. "They don't want us setting our own salaries."

New Mexico's "citizen legislature" of volunteer politicians has long been a source of civic pride in the state. Members receive a roughly $165 daily stipend during sessions and some money for gas. Longstanding legislators qualify for an optional pension plan.

Critics of the system say legislative salaries would help younger candidates from working households serve as lawmakers and alleviate conflicts between legislative duties and private careers.

The proposal drew favorable comments from advocacy groups ranging from the League of Woman Voters, which promotes civil participation in government, and progressive-leaning advocacy groups including Retake Our Democracy.

"We're going to really expand the universe of people who are able to serve if we do have a salaried legislature. Right now it's largely the rich and retired," said Democratic Sen. Katie Duhigg of Albuquerque, noting the challenges of juggling legislative duties with the separate demands of full-time work and family as a single parent.

Duhigg last year championed successful legislation to legalize, tax and regulate nonmedical marijuana, later cofounding a law practice that caters to the cannabis industry.

New Mexico's Legislature meets for as few as 30 days a year, with 60-day sessions in odd-numbered years. There are more extensive duties and travel for members of year-round budget and policy committees.

The salary initiative advanced on a 7-1 committee vote on party lines with Democrats in support. Senate minority leader Gregory Baca of Belen cast the lone "no" vote without comment. No other Republicans participated.

The State Ethics Commission was authorized by voters in 2018 in the wake of a string of public corruption scandals as an arbiter of complaints against public officials, lobbyists and contractors. Its members are appointed by leading legislators from both parties and the governor.

The initiative from Ivey-Soto and Sen. Bobby Gonzales of Taos also would authorize the ethics commission to set salaries for all elected officials in state government.

Governor puts ‘second chance’ bill on the agenda – Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

The New Mexico Legislature will consider a bill prohibiting the sentencing of young people to life without parole after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham authorized the topic for the 30-day budget session this morning.

Lujan Grisham wrote to the Senate approving Senate Bill 43, sponsored by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque.

People who are under 18 but tried and convicted as adults and sentenced to life have to serve 30 years before being eligible for parole. Sedillo Lopez’s proposal would cut that time in half.

For Jessica Brown, a change in state law would mean her husband would become eligible for parole this year. She is a founding member of the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which has led public pressure on the governor’s office to consider the proposal, often referred to as the second chance bill.

Michael Brown was sentenced to life plus 41-and-a-half years at 16-years-old. In February, he will have been in prison for 28 years.

Jessica Brown said when she heard the news today she cried.

“We’re just really, really hopeful that this goes through,” she said. “The bill getting messaged gives a lot of people a lot of hope, and I know that my husband is going to be so excited about it.”

Brown’s husband has served 28 years in prison for a crime he committed when he was 16. She called him Monday to share the good news.

In a letter to the governor in August 2021, Sedillo Lopez and two other lawmakers in the House of Representatives argued their bill is a “measured” solution to a longstanding problem in the state.

New Mexico has failed “to hold its children accountable in age-appropriate, trauma-informed ways” that focus on young people’s capacity for change and rehabilitation, they wrote.

But the lawmakers are quick to point out this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. People sentenced to life before they’re 18 would not be guaranteed release under their proposal. Instead, there’s an opportunity after 15 years for them to demonstrate that they’ve gone through rehabilitation and deserve a shot at life outside prison walls.

“The parole board — with law enforcement and community safety expertise — will make the ultimate decision as to who has been sufficiently rehabilitated to return home safely to the community,” they wrote.

The legislators pointed to research showing that among 174 young people who’d been convicted and later released based on this kind of change in law, there was a recidivism rate of only about 1%.

2 unapproved New Mexico COVID-19 testing sites shut down - Associated Press

Two New Mexico COVID-19 testing sites that were not on the list of facilities approved by state public health officials have closed indefinitely.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the New Mexico Attorney General's Office said in a statement it will investigate the Illinois-based operator, Center for COVID Control.

The operator ran roughly 300 testing sites nationwide including one in Santa Fe and one in Albuquerque. According to its website, sites are closed so that all staff can undergo more training.

Center for COVID Control has been plagued with allegations including falsely billing the federal government for tests for people who actually had health insurance, falsifying test results and being unhygienic.

The Rolling Meadows, Illinois company is facing state investigations elsewhere.

New data shows massive leaks by oil and gas operatorsKUNM, Capital & Main

Last year producers in New Mexico vented or flared enough natural gas to power nearly 39,000 homes annually, or roughly the number of households in Las Cruces.

Jerry Redfern with Capital & Main reports the spike in such reported incidents is due to new state rules that took effect in May last year and are part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s push to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

A new online filing system and more detailed report forms increased the number of incident submissions from 1,465 in 2019 to more than 13,000 from May 25, when to rules took effect, to the end of last year.

Those numbers will likely increase as late reports come in. Operators fill out the reports themselves and inspectors from the Oil Conservation Division check them.

However, there are only 10 of these inspectors with OCD, according to Capital & Main. The department is seeking a 27% boost in its annual budget during the current legislative session.

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham wants to promote northwest New Mexico as a hydrogen hub, which would increase the production of natural gas.

Renewable energy tax breaks pull big public support in NM – Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

Three pieces of legislation offering tax incentives for renewable energy use saw broad support this weekend even as they were passed through committee on a partisan vote.

One bill benefits New Mexicans with solar panel systems, another for those with geothermal systems and the third offers tax incentives to kickstart renewable energy storage systems at homes or businesses. People from conservation groups, local governments, tribes and energy business leaders voiced support for the measures.

Opposition focused on the small impacts these efforts have on climate change. For instance, the tax credit under House Bill 11 is capped at $1 million over the next two years, which supporters say would subsidize the install of 200 storage systems for solar energy.

Rep. Larry Scott (R-Hobbs) voted against all three pieces of legislation and in his argument fighting HB 11, he questioned advocates about the measurable adjustment to climate change the legislation would bring.

Abbas Akhil, who testified in support of the bills, said while there is not a significant impact on climate expected from HB 11 alone, the effort is necessary to get the ball rolling on renewable energy in New Mexico.

Akhil served a term in the state House before choosing not to run for reelection last year. In his brief experience, he has already seen the makeup of the legislative body change how renewable energy is prioritized.

He said passing HB 11 would mean homes or businesses would have a store of unused solar to use in a power outage or that could be shared with energy companies that fold it into their services.

“So it is not really addressing climate change just by deploying 200 systems,” Akhil said. Instead, the legislation’s supporters are hoping that after renewable storage is introduced and costs come down, “this will take off on its own.”

HB 11 was passed by the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee on a 7-4 vote split along party lines.

All Republicans on the committee also voted against a tax credit—$6,000 max— for anyone who installs solar panels and tax credits for people who install geothermal ground heat pumps.

Republican arguments focused on the concern that tax breaks for renewables would create dependence on state subsidies.

“These products that require state subsidies to be economically competitive eventually have to get weaned off,” Scott said. “And right now, I just don’t see that happening.”

Scott didn’t mention the billions in state and federal subsidies that oil and gas industries receive in New Mexico. While oil and gas is responsible for the record budget surplus in the state, renewable energy advocates argue the industry is unstable — especially after anxious pandemic estimates pointed toward less production and a possible recession.

Of course, that didn’t happen, but the reliance on an unstable market is prominent in the argument for supporting measures like the tax incentives offered by HB 11, HB 34 and HB 35. Every small step is necessary, says Jim DesJardins, executive director of the Renewable Energy Industry Association New Mexico, because oil and gas money won’t last forever.

“It’s going to dry up in 10 years,” he said. “This is outside of the concerns about climate change, but just from a business standpoint, from a revenue standpoint, from the state we need to prepare to transition.”

Money seems to be the common ground for support across the aisle. Even Republicans who voted against the tax incentive bills acknowledged the potential for economic growth. While that may not follow the pressing need to address climate change, it can provide an entryway to get opponents on board, said Sammi Kao with Conservation Voters New Mexico.

“It’s not about the politics of climate change or anything,” she said. “It’s just about passing good policy that’s going to help New Mexicans integrate this kind of renewable technology into their lives in a way that helps the climate, that is good for the economy.”

Tom Solomon with the renewable energy advocacy group, 350.org said the urgency to boost this sector is key in the plan to get New Mexico’s power grid to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Right now, it’s about 7%, he said.

“Fifty percent cut by 2030 is kind of the benchmark that science has put out there for how much we have to cut carbon emissions. And getting 50% renewable by 2030 is basically the way you get there,” he said. “Renewable energy is still a bit more expensive than we’d like it to be. And if you can provide tax credits for lower income communities, then it allows people at that end of the economic scale to take advantage of it.”

New Mexico educators rally amid growing teacher shortage -Associated Press

Educators on Sunday called on state lawmakers to do something about the shortage of teachers in New Mexico, saying schools are at a critical juncture due to the historic level of vacancies across all positions within the public education system.

"Unless lawmakers in New Mexico enact bold remedies to address this looming crisis, we risk jeopardizing the education of generations of New Mexico's students," organizers said in an online petition that is part of what they have dubbed the "3 Rs" campaign — respect, recruit and retain.

"We are demanding a commitment that will ensure we do more than survive as public-school employees — we want to thrive, and we want our students to thrive," the petition added.

As part of the movement, teachers gathered outside the state Capitol for a march. Among those attending the rally was Becky Pringle, national president of the National Education Association.

"It's time that every educator in New Mexico has the resources needed to provide a quality public education to each and every student," Pringle said. "New Mexico educators deserve better. And better means higher wages, affordable health care and dignity."

There are more than 1,000 vacant licensed positions in New Mexico, with those vacancies represent over 20,000 students who are without a well-trained, permanent classroom teacher, according to union officials.

The shortage has been years in the making, and state officials have acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic only helped to exacerbate the problem. Veteran educators also are retiring at such a high rate that they cannot be easily or quickly replaced.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham rolled out a plan last week aimed at tapping volunteers from the National Guard and state agencies to serve as substitute teachers to address the recent rash of absences in Santa Fe and other school districts due to the pandemic.

The governor also has proposed a pay increase, hoping to attract more educators to the state.

The unions contend that the New Mexico Public Education Department has failed to meet its oversight functions to ensure that all students are receiving the programs and services they need. They pointed to an ongoing court fight over the state's failure to provide an adequate education for low income, Native American, English language learners, and disabled students. That includes around 70% of all K-12 students.

In violation of the state constitution, the unions said New Mexico has failed to provide students with the programs and services that it acknowledges prepare them for college and career.

Navajo officials distribute masks and sanitizers in Shiprock -Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials have distributed masks and hand sanitizers in the community of Shiprock, New Mexico to help keep local residents safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile Saturday, tribal health officials reported 330 new cases and four more deaths on the vast reservation that covers 27,000 square miles and extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

On Friday, the tribe had reported 500 new cases and one death.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals since the pandemic began to 47,959 cases with 1,607 known deaths.

"Our elders, our grandparents, always tell us that the safest place to be is at home and that remains true during this pandemic," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Saturday in a statement. "Our elders also have the highest vaccination rate among any age group on the Navajo Nation.

"With over 87% of elders vaccinated for COVID-19, they are leading the way and setting a great example. Take precautions, wear two masks in public, get your booster shot, and limit travel as much as possible as this surge continues," Nez added.

Nez recently issued an executive order mandating all employees to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination booster shot by Monday.

New Mexico tax law unintentionally cuts into city revenues -Associated Press

The city of Hobbs is pushing to amend a state law that city officials say is resulting in an unintended loss of gross receipts tax revenue for the community.

The measure passed by the New Mexico Legislature and enthusiastically signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2019 included complex changes to state tax laws. Among other things, it was billed as a way to help communities by requiring a company to pay gross receipt tax where services are provided rather than where the company is located.

Hobbs City Commissioner Dwayne Penick told the Hobbs News-Sun that Hobbs could possibly be looking at losing $20,000 to $25,000 a month because of the destination tax.

"The oilfield companies that work outside of the city limits of Hobbs, out in the county, or whatever, the state gets the majority of that tax base," Penick said.

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said state legislators, with the exception of Republican Rep. Larry Scott of Hobbs — the only legislator who owns and operates an oil and gas service company — voted for the legislation because they were chasing gross receipts taxes from internet businesses.

Cobb said the loss of gross receipts taxes for municipalities amounted to a gain for the state.

"The intent of the legislation was to be sure that the Amazons of the world were remitting taxes to the local communities in which they were delivering goods," Cobb said during a recent commission meeting. "They didn't realize that a community like ours, that is so service driven, it had a negative impact."

Hobbs has hired lobbyists to help push for an amendment during the legislative session.

Hobbs Commissioner Chris Mills said the initial legislation should have gone through a more thorough vetting process by residents and communities around the state.

"But that isn't the way that we do things here in New Mexico. We ram it through in the middle of the night, we do everything that we can to get the little wording in there with no care or concern of what it does to the people," Mills said.

In 2019, the legislation started as a proposal by Democrats for raising more than $300 million in revenue through higher personal income taxes, raising tax rates on things like new vehicles and e-cigarettes and collecting gross receipts tax on internet sales according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. It was whittled down, but Republicans still voiced concerns about raising taxes given that the state was enjoying a budget surplus.

This year, New Mexico again is awash in money. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has proposed some tax breaks as she seeks reelection. Among the proposals is one to trim the statewide gross receipts tax rate.

Utility asks court to overturn rejection of power plant plan -Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

New Mexico's largest electric provider is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a decision by regulators and let the utility proceed with a plan to transfer its shares in a coal-fired power plant to a Navajo energy company.

A filing Friday by Public Service Co. of New Mexico suggested that the Public Regulation Commission acted "arbitrarily, capriciously and contrary to law" and misinterpreted a 2019 law that encourages PNM to replace coal-fired plants with renewable forms of energy, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

The commission in December rejected PNM's proposal, saying the company didn't explain how it would replace the lost power now provided by the Four Corners Power Plant. Commissioners also voiced concerns about investments that the utility sought to recover through bonds that would be paid back by customers.

The 40-page filing Friday was part of PNM's appeal to the state high court.

The utility has argued that the plan would protect customers, trim emissions from its portfolio and strengthen the Navajo Nation's position in determining the future of the plant, which is located on tribal land between Shiprock and Farmington in northwestern New Mexico.

Arizona Public Service Co. is the plant's majority owner.

2 homicides within hours of each other in Albuquerque -Associated Press

Police continue to investigate two homicides that occurred within hours of each other in Albuquerque.

The first was reported around 8:30 a.m. Saturday in the southeast portion of the city where a woman was found dead in an apartment, according to police.

Hours later, police said a man was found dead inside a home after reports of a shooting.

Police have not said if the two cases are related and there was no immediate word about any possible suspects.

The names of the man and woman killed haven't been released yet by police.

Democrats make surprising inroads in redistricting fight - By Nicholas Riccardi And Bobby Caina Calvan Associated Press

Democrats braced for disaster when state legislatures began redrawing congressional maps, fearing that Republican dominance of statehouses would tilt power away from them for the next decade.

But as the redistricting process reaches its final stages, that anxiety is beginning to ease.

For Democrats, the worst-case scenario of losing well over a dozen seats in the U.S. House appears unlikely to happen. After some aggressive map drawing of their own in states with Democratic legislatures, some Democrats predict the typical congressional district will shift from leaning to the right of the national vote to matching it, ending a distortion that gave the GOP a built-in advantage over the past five House elections.

"We have stymied their intent to gerrymander their way to a House majority," Kelly Ward Burton, head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said of the GOP.

The nation's congressional maps won't be settled for several more months. Republicans in some large states like Florida have yet to finalize proposed changes, giving the GOP a last-minute opportunity to seek an advantage.

But the picture could come into greater clarity this week when New York's redistricting commission submits to the state legislature a second attempt to draw a map. If the Democratic-controlled Legislature rejects the map, it can take over drawing new lines in Democrats' favor. That would almost certainly blunt the GOP advantage that has been in place since the last redistricting process in 2010.

The jockeying in state capitals has implications not just for Democrats' uphill effort to maintain a majority in the U.S. House in this year's midterm elections. It will affect the broader balance of power in Washington and state legislatures for the remainder of the decade.

While Republicans say they've achieved their goals so far, they're surprised at how much Democrats have tried to expand the number of seats their party can win. The GOP has taken a markedly different approach by aiming to shore up its vulnerable members' districts, transforming competitive seats into safe ones.

That's in part because Republicans already expanded the map with aggressive redistricting after the 2010 census, when they controlled more states. Now, as the lines are adjusted to meet last year's census figures, they are locking in their gains while Democrats are taking risks to fight back.

In a wave election, Democrats could lose even more seats in the maps they have drawn because they spread their voters so thin, analysts say. And, if political coalitions shift in upcoming years, seats Democrats thought were within reach could suddenly disappear.

"Republicans have given themselves pretty good tsunami protection," said Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks redistricting. "But for Democrats, if it rains a little, their house is flooded."

The Democratic push comes as the party has unsuccessfully fought to ban partisan gerrymandering nationwide — their elections bill barring the practice died in the Senate last week during a Republican filibuster. Li said Democrats, however, are still gerrymandering in states they control, sometimes aggressively as in Illinois, other times relatively lightly, as in New Mexico and Oregon.

In contrast, experts say Republicans, who control more states, have gerrymandered heavily in places like Texas, North Carolina and Ohio. But the GOP's Ohio maps were tossed out by the state Supreme Court this month, and Democrats are hopeful North Carolina's high court follows suit with the districts there, part of the reason for the party's increased optimism.

The next and biggest opportunity for Democrats is in New York, which will test how much power Democrats are willing to give up to fight gerrymandering. Saying they wanted to take partisanship out of redistricting, Democrats there in 2014 backed a ballot measure to put the process in the hands of a bipartisan commission. But the state legislature can overrule the commission. In 2014 it was divided between Democratic and Republican control. Now Democrats have a supermajority in both houses.

The New York Legislature already rejected the commission's first attempt at maps, and can seize control if it rejects the second one, due by Tuesday.

"The Democratic leadership and those on the far left that run the show in Albany, they're hellbent to take this process over to derail the commission, and to have the party bosses in Albany draw the maps," said Nick Langworthy, chairman of the New York GOP. "I think that they looked at a handful of states to give them a shot to hold on to the majority."

Republicans need only to net five seats in November's election to gain control of the U.S. House. They started the redistricting cycle controlling line-drawing in states representing 187 House seats while Democrats controlled only 75.

That means the final outcome will inevitably favor the GOP, no matter how hard Democrats fight back, said Kimbrall Brace, a veteran redistricting consultant. "They're ending up still putting a Republican flavor on the overall plan," Brace said.

So far, the GOP has gained a handful of seats in the maps that have been finalized, but it's hard to put a precise number on how many because half of the states have yet to formally adopt maps. If Democrats are aggressive, for example, they could net four seats in New York and largely wipe out the GOP's national gains. But then Republicans in Florida could counter with a gerrymander.

Still, Republicans have passed up multiple opportunities to pad their margins even more.

In Missouri, some GOP state lawmakers are fuming that the legislature is advancing a plan that locks in the status quo rather than trying to turn Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver's Kansas City-area seat to the GOP. In Indiana, Republicans did not split up the Gary-based district represented by Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan.

Even in Georgia, where Republicans flooded a seat in the Atlanta suburbs held by Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath with GOP voters, they balked at doing the same to her Democratic neighbor, Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux. Instead, they packed Democratic voters into Bourdeaux's district, making it safer so no other Republicans' seats would be at risk.

Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said shoring up Republican incumbents is the party's top priority. He cites Texas, where the GOP-drawn maps make the few Democratic seats even more Democratic. That stacks up more Republican voters in the 23 GOP-held congressional districts and transforms them into safe seats. Republicans and their backers spent $20 million on races in the state during the 2020 cycle. Now, Kincaid said, they can direct the money elsewhere.

"This cycle has unfolded just about exactly as we expected it to — with the exception that Democrats have placed a bigger bet than I expected," Kincaid said.

In contrast to the GOP, Democrats have been eager to spread their voters around, even at the possible expense of their own incumbents.

The starkest example is in Nevada, where the party's mapmakers moved liberal voters from Rep. Dina Titus' once-overwhelmingly Democratic Las Vegas district to shore up two neighboring swing seats represented by Democratic Reps. Steven Horsford and Susie Lee. That may keep all three seats safely Democratic in a good year, but puts them all at risk in a tough election cycle for Democrats like the current one.

Burton contended that tactical decisions like those made by Nevada Democrats and others elsewhere are not gerrymandering, but simply drawing lines to make seats competitive.

"We are not scared of the voters," Burton said. "We are not scared of districts where voters decide the outcome."

Joel Wertheimer, a Democratic civil rights lawyer and analyst for the liberal group Data for Progress, has predicted for months that redistricting will shift the typical congressional district from about two percentage points to the right of the national vote to the five-point margin of Biden's 2020 popular vote victory.

He credits it to a change in the mindset of Democrats willing to risk bigger losses for an eventual better shot at the 218 seats needed to control the House.

"I think the calculation that Democrats are making is, do we care if we have 180 or 190 seats?" Wertheimer said. "I just want to have the majority."

New initiative aims to boost bilingual teachers in Santa Fe - By Jessica Pollard Santa Fe New Mexican

Dozens of teachers at Santa Fe Public Schools are planning to take part in a new initiative aimed at boosting the number of educators trained to teach English as a second language or lead bilingual classrooms.

The district allocated $90,000 in federal pandemic relief last month for the three-year pilot program, which will provide tuition and fee reimbursement for certified teachers who take post-graduate classes to earn an endorsement in teaching English as a second language.

Lisa Vigil, the district's language and culture department director, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that about a dozen teachers already have enrolled in the college classes this school year and at least 40 have expressed an interest.

Teachers in the new program can take classes at Northern New Mexico College in Española, Santa Fe Community College or New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas.

"I was surprised," Vigil said of those who have shown an interest in the program. "I didn't think that a lot of teachers would be as interested as they are."

Data shows 30% of Santa Fe Public Schools' K-12 students are English-language learners, who Vigil said likely struggled to heighten their English skills during remote learning last year.

"I can't even express in words how much it impacted our English learners," she said. "When you're in a remote setting, you pretty much eliminated a lot of that opportunity to observe because you don't want to show your face; you don't want to be interrupting the class to ask questions."

Vigil added face masks obscure the visual cues that help language learners gain fluency.

Under state rules, students learning English must receive 45 minutes of language instruction each day from a qualified teacher. That goal has been harder to reach in secondary schools for several years, particularly as teacher vacancies remain high across New Mexico, Vigil said.

Only 49 higher education students statewide completed an endorsement program in bilingual education or teaching English as a second language at a state college or university in the 2020-21 school year, according to research from New Mexico State University, while 9% of the 1,048 teacher vacancies reported in 2021 — more than 90 positions — had "bilingual" specified in the job title.

At Santa Fe Public Schools, the graduation rate for students identified as English-language learners was 82.5%, lower than the district's overall graduation rate of 86.3% for 2019-20. Statewide, 75.8% of English learners, who made up nearly one third of the state's high school seniors in 2020, made it to the finish line.

"We see shortages in both (bilingual and English as a second language teachers), and we rely heavily on international exchange teachers or visiting teachers to provide bilingual education," Vigil said.

Through the new program, the reimbursement will apply to tuition for 14 credit hours and will include costs for textbooks and application fees.

Vigil said the district had a similar reimbursement program several years ago.

"It's very difficult to find teachers with a specialized endorsement, which is why we're trying to build capacity within our current teacher population," Vigil said. "We're not really able to seek outside of our current teacher population right now."