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KUNM News Update

WED: New Mexico Democrats seek sweeping voting access changes, + More

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New Mexico Democrats seek sweeping voting access changes - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A statewide holiday on Election Day to encourage voting. Automated restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts. More time to distribute and count absentee ballots.

Democratic lawmakers have a lengthy wish list in New Mexico as they seek to expand access to voting.

New Mexico's first and only Black state senator, Harold Pope of Albuquerque, is cosponsoring the legislation with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, during the fast-paced legislative session that started Jan. 18 and ends on Feb. 17.

Here are the key changes sought by Democrats and counterpoints from opponents.

NEW HOLIDAY

More ballots were cast than ever before across New Mexico in the 2020 general election as voters backed President Joe Biden and a Republican challenger flipped a congressional seat in southern New Mexico.

State Democrats including Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver want to increasing voter access by turning Election Day into a state holiday, closing public schools and nonessential government offices for the day.

A monthlong period for early, in-person voting would be extended to the Sunday before elections, when many people are free of work and chores. Early voting currently begins at county clerks' offices four weeks ahead of elections, and is expanded three Saturdays before those elections to large-scale voting centers.

And proposed changes would allow 16-year-olds to cast ballots in local elections for mayor and local boards, councils and commissions.

If the measures are approved, high school juniors and seniors would help elect public school board members amid debates about gun safety, vaccination requirements, transgender rights and budgeting.

MAIL-IN VOTING

The state Supreme Court in early 2020 rejected a petition by county clerks to send absentee, mail-in ballots that have not been requested by residents to nearly all registered voters.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Republican Party lawyers convinced justices that absentee ballots should only be available to people who request them.

But the law could change this year as Democratic legislators advocate for the creation of a permanent absentee voter list, allowing voters to receive absentee ballots for each election without repeatedly requesting them.

The Republican Party questions the effort, raising doubts about how the state will properly maintain the absentee voter list and know when people die or move.

SPECIAL POPULATIONS

Proposed legislation would give Native American communities more time to request additional voting sites to ensure access in remote rural areas.

Native Americans experienced new obstacles to reaching voting sites in 2020 amid aggressive pandemic lockdowns by tribal communities that included curfews and police roadblocks aimed at saving lives.

Separately, proposed election changes would simplify the voter registration process for people convicted of felonies who are not incarcerated.

The bill would drop prohibitions on voting by felons while they are on probation or paroled and provide an automated opportunity for felons to register to vote from prison as they prepare for being released.

COUNTING BALLOTS

The voting rights bill seeks to extend the deadline for accepting marked ballots to 7 p.m. on the Friday after an election, adding three days to allow for postal delays for mailed-in ballots.

State election officials also want to provide more time for county clerks to distribute absentee ballots to voters ahead of elections, giving them 35 days instead of the current 28.

Voter registration opportunities would be expanded for people without driver's licenses or state ID cards through online registration where voters must list their social security numbers. Republicans Party leaders say that would increase opportunities for deceitful voting.

DISRUPTION

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said that voting rights are under attack across the country, making it important to safeguard access to ballot boxes. The state Republican Party has said the proposed changes open the door to confusion and potential fraud.

At least 19 states — including Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas — have enacted new voting restrictions since the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a group that promotes wider ballot access.

The national GOP campaign to tighten voting laws has been partly driven by former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

In Washington, Republican opposition has left a bill that aims to set federal standards for state elections stalled in the 50-50 Senate. Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, a longstanding delaying tactic that can stop a bill in its tracks.

New Mexico officials expect to omicron surge will peak soon - Associated Press

New Mexico health officials said Wednesday that modeling suggests the surge in COVID-19 infections is expected to peak within the coming week.

State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during a virtual meeting with health care organizations that the omicron variant was running out of people in New Mexico to infect.

Still, he told the group that New Mexico is not at a point where public health orders or the statewide mask mandate can be lifted.

So when will that be?

"When case counts are down and when we feel the pandemic is under control," he answered. "We really want to transition New Mexico into learning to live with COVID."

Confirmed infections have been reported in more than 21% of New Mexicans since the pandemic began, while just over 5% of cases have resulted in hospitalizations and 1.4% of cases in death.

State data also shows that more than 46% of the COVID-19 infections reported over the last four weeks were among those who are vaccinated.

Democratic Congresswoman Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque announced that she tested positive despite being vaccinated and receiving her booster.

She said in a statement late Tuesday that she sought medical guidance "after experiencing respiratory symptoms" and was quarantining at home.

She reiterated that people should get vaccinated.

"I am deeply grateful to all of our health care workers who are working on the front lines every day to save lives and care for our communities, and to the scientists and researchers who have developed safe, effective vaccines to meet this unprecedented challenge," she said.

More than 60% of eligible New Mexicans have received boosters, according to the state Health Department.

New Mexico county seeking help with jail staffing shortage - Associated Press

New Mexico's most populous county is looking for help with staffing shortages at the Metropolitan Detention Center.

Bernalillo County commissioners on Tuesday approved an emergency resolution outlining several potential ways to boost ranks at the jail, from improving recruitment efforts to requesting outside manpower. That might include seeking assistance from the New Mexico National Guard and exploring the use of medical school interns.

Hiring enough correctional officers to fully staff the jail has been a long-term problem for the county that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

County officials said the staffing shortage has "impacted some operations" at the jail but they did not provide details. They also did not say how many positions are currently vacant.

Under the resolution, the jail will not hold out-of-county inmates unless they are being detained related to a Bernalillo County case. The jail also will require other jurisdictions to retrieve inmates, which officials said will help reduce the number of virtual hearings the staff has to coordinate for outside counties.

Democratic lawmakers seek incentives for hydrogen production - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators are proposing an array of financial incentives aimed at fostering hydrogen fuel production and distribution in New Mexico, in a bill published Tuesday.

Incentives in the lengthy proposal include tax credits and deductions for private enterprises and loans underwritten by local taxpayers.

Environmentalists are wary of the impacts of hydrogen production that uses natural gas as an energy source and feedstock, arguing that it can prolong dependence on fossil fuels and relies on relatively unproven technologies to capture and dispose of carbon pollution.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is backing the initiative and says that hydrogen producers who use cleaner methods can qualify for larger tax incentives under the proposed legislation.

At the same time, the U.S. government is devoting $8 billion to hydrogen projects under an infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in November 2021, with an eye toward developing cleaner sources of fuel for industrial sectors and the deployment of fuel-cell vehicles in heavy, long-haul trucking.

The incentives in New Mexico are proposed by legislators including Democratic Reps. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Nathan Small of Las Cruces.

"This bill ensures the growing hydrogen economy aligns with New Mexico's ambitious climate goals while creating clean energy jobs for New Mexicans," the governor's office said in an email.

In providing financial incentives to "clean" hydrogen facilities, the bill sets limits and guidelines for climate warming byproducts from hydrogen production.

New Mexico's regular annual legislative session ends on Feb. 17.

Legislators shun bill to halt tax on Social Security income - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A bill to do away with New Mexico's tax on Social Security income for middle- and upper-income residents faltered Tuesday at an initial public hearing, highlighting reluctance among many Democratic legislators.

A state House panel declined to endorse legislation that would gradually eliminate the tax by 2026, stalling further consideration on a tie 4-4 vote with Democrats in opposition. Democratic state Rep. Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque joined with three Republicans in support.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham endorsed a Social Security tax cut earlier this month in her State of the State speech, and related bills from Democrats are awaiting their first public vetting in the Legislature. The state already exempts low-income beneficiaries from the tax.

Eliminating income tax on Social Security benefits would reduce annual general fund revenues by as much as $160 million by 2026, state taxation officials estimate.

Republican sponsors of the tax-cut bill said the time is ripe amid inflationary pressures on household finances and surging state government income. They also say the bill would help the state retain and attract retirees.

"It know there's a cost to it and I realize that, but I think that in a time of pandemic and issues that we're facing with inflation, now is the time — and the year when we have a plethora of money," Republican state Rep. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena said.

Anti-poverty groups and advocates for childhood wellbeing said the tax cut proposal ultimately threatens funding to essential services that help the poor. Several Democratic legislators raised similar concerns.

"This for me is a question around equity and who needs the resources the most," said Democratic State Rep. Kay Bounkeua of Albuquerque. "I would love to see the money put into those who are younger, and really have more resources for our families who are currently working."

She said recent state population increases are concentrated among the elderly as New Mexico struggles to attract and retain younger residents.

The governor and leading legislators are recommending a $1 billion increase in general fund spending for the coming fiscal year that starts on July 1, 2022, amid a windfall in state government income linked primarily to oil production and federal government spending.

The Legislature's budget and accountability office cautioned that the proposed tax cut could make it more difficult to meet future state spending obligations.

A dozen other 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. Broad state tax exemptions apply to elderly residents with income up to $38,600 for individuals and $52,200 for couples.

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.

Man gets 10 years in prison for 11th, 12th DWI convictions - Associated Press

A 44-year-old Gallup man has been sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to DWI and other charges in two cases that resulted in his 11th and 12th DWI convictions.

Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, Maynard Miller pleaded guilty to DWI in each of the two latest cases and to one count each of driving while revoked (DWI related) and possession of a firearm by a felon.

As part of the pleas, Miller on Monday admitted in state District Court to having 10 prior DWI convictions in McKinley County dating back 24 years, the Gallup Independent reported.

Judge Robert Aragon said he felt both sympathy for Miller and relief that Miller would be off the street. "You're lucky to be alive" Aragon told Miller. "Please try to deal with your disease."

Due to his intoxication, Miller said he could not remember what happened during his two most recent drunken driving instances, both of which involved one-vehicle crashes, but he acknowledged that a jury could have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt based on the evidence in both cases.

More fields could go unplanted under New Mexico water plan - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's top water adviser on Tuesday warned New Mexico lawmakers that snowpack runoff is expected to be grim this spring and that the arid state needs readily available tools so it can accommodate years with particularly slim supplies.

Mike Hamman told members of a legislative committee that short-term voluntary programs like leaving some agricultural fields unplanted for a season or two would help New Mexico meet its water delivery obligations to neighboring states.

Other southwestern U.S. water users already are taking action such as leaving water in Lake Mead and sending more water to Lake Powell to ensure obligations along the Colorado River will be met.

In New Mexico, officials are seeking a $48 million appropriation to expand a fallowing program along the Rio Grande in which farmers would be paid to not plant their fields.

Warmer temperatures, more evaporation and less snowpack have resulted in record low flows of the Rio Grande in recent years. One of the longest rivers in North America, the Rio Grande provides drinking water and irrigation for millions of people from Colorado south to Texas and Mexico.

"The unfortunate thing is many of our senior water users rely on the surface supply and that's the most variable supply that we have," Hamman said. "So we've got to figure out ways to help deal with that fluctuation in the surface water supplies in a fair and reasonable way."

New Mexico already is running a deficit in its water deliveries to Texas and that has caused summer shortages for farmers and for the Rio Grande itself. Hamman said the emergency drought appropriation is aimed at getting ahead of what appears to be a very difficult water year and putting a dent in the deficit.

Officials estimate that the program could result in as much as 9.7 billion gallons in additional water being delivered to Elephant Butte Reservoir, which stores water for Texas.

The irrigation district that manages water for farmers along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico started its fallowing program last year with federal dollars and is looking to triple the number of acres taken out of production to 3,000 to meet endangered species requirements.

Hamman explained that the state wants to encourage another 15,000 acres to voluntarily be fallowed to address water delivery obligations to Texas. He said fair payment would be offered to farmers to avoid competition with the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District's program.

If the March stream flow forecast is low, Hamman said he believes there will be a lot of interest in the program from farmers since severe drought over the summer would surely lead to high agricultural losses in the four counties that make up the district.

He said the program also would help farmers on the lower Rio Grande because water owed to Elephant Butte Reservoir would be available the year following the two-year program.

With the goal of taking the program statewide, Hamman said there could be benefits for the Gallup and Clovis areas, the lower Pecos River, the Rio Chama, and other rural water users.

Hamman said state officials are working on a 50-year water plan and that recommendations from a water and infrastructure task force are expected in July.

"It's looking bleak," he said of the forecasts. "But we have possible solutions and opportunities."

APS amends ‘enhanced’ COVID rules - By Nash Jones, KUNM News 

Student athletes with Albuquerque Public Schools will no longer play in front of empty stands as the district amends the stricter COVID rules it temporarily put in place.

APS implemented “enhanced COVID-safe practices” district-wide last week, which included a two-week ban on non-essential visitors and event spectators.

The district announced revisions to the rules on Monday.

Beginning Wednesday, each student will be able to have two people attend their game or other indoor event.

Students must give school staff the names of their guests beforehand and the district says attendees could be asked to present ID.

APS also clarified its temporary outdoor masking rule, saying in a statement it’s only required when a space is crowded or if close contact is necessary.

The stronger COVID rules are scheduled to last district-wide through next Wednesday.

APS says individual schools that continue to have a 14-day positivity rate above 5%, like Eldorado and Volcano Vista high schools, will keep the stricter practices until spread is brought more under control.

New Mexico lawmakers propose $1 million for 'baby boxes'

Two lawmakers are proposing funding "baby boxes" in each of New Mexico's 33 counties in an effort to increase options for parents who want to abandon their babies under the state's existing safe haven law.

A bill to fund the initiative introduced by Sens. David Gallegos, a Republican, and Leo Jaramillo, a Democrat, would allocate around $30,000 for each of the boxes, which would be equipped with heat regulation and silent alarms.

The legislation would change New Mexico's safe haven law, which allows parents to abandon newborns without liability by presenting them to a health care worker, law enforcement officer or first responder within 90 days of birth.

The proposal responds to a recent case in Hobbs, where police say an 18-year-old abandoned her baby in a dumpster. Police said the woman told them she hadn't known she was pregnant until the day before she gave birth.

The case brought renewed attention to the safe haven law, and Hobbs police officials promised to increase awareness of the program.

Over 100 of the boxes have been installed nationwide, mostly in Indiana, according to manufacturer Safe Haven Baby Boxes. The company says 14 babies have been placed in the boxes since the first one was installed in 2016.

"Baby boxes offer another option to allow for infants to be surrendered safely without the guilt of a personal contact with a law enforcement officer or medical provider. If this bill can save just one life, it will be worth every dollar invested in this project," said Republican Sen. David Gallegos, who represents Hobbs and surrounding areas.

Bureau of Land Management: Petroglyphs damaged near Santa Fe -Associated Press

Federal officials are investigating spray-painted graffiti and other damage to petroglyphs dating back thousands of years at a site west of Santa Fe.

The damage to La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs likely occurred Jan. 18, U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Jillian Aragon told the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The agency's field office in Taos has ordered supplies to try and remove the paint, but the long-term effects are unknown, Aragon said.

"What we do know is that the more these types of occurrences take place, the more likely it will be for these resources to be damaged beyond repair," she said. "It's taking away from critical scientific, historical and social resources that cannot be recreated."

According to a news release, those convicted of damaging cultural sites face penalties of up to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine per charge under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

US plans more wild horse roundups this year than ever before - By Scott Sonner Associated Press

The U.S. government plans to capture more wild horses on federal lands this year than ever before, drawing sharp criticism from mustang advocates who hoped the Biden administration would curtail widespread gathers of thousands of horses annually across the American West.

Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning, known as an ally of conservationists on several public land fronts when she was appointed in the fall, says the agency plans to permanently remove at least 19,000 horses and burros this year.

That's 70% more than the previous high a year ago.

Critics say it's a continuation of a decades-old policy that kowtows to ranchers who don't want horses competing with their cattle and sheep for limited forage on agency rangeland in 10 states.

"It didn't take long for Tracy Stone-Manning to sell out America's wild horses," Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral said.

In Nevada, home to about half the 86,000 horses roaming federal lands, three groups have filed a lawsuit challenging what they say is the illegal, inhumane roundup of more than 2,000 horses that's already underway near the Utah line.

Of the hundreds gathered so far, 11 have died, according to the agency's website.

At least one death was a colt that continued to be pursued by a low-flying helicopter driving the herd toward a holding pen even though it had a "clearly broken" leg, according to the lawsuit. It says the colt suffered for at least 29 minutes before it was euthanized.

"It is more than disappointing that BLM will continue the charade that they care about wild horses," said Laura Leigh, president of the Reno-based Wild Horse Education, one of the plaintiffs.

Bureau spokesman Jason Lutterman declined to comment in an email to The Associated Press.

Stone-Manning said in announcing the 2022 roundup plans earlier this month the animals' population has declined since 2020 but is still triple what the government claims the land can sustain ecologically — something horse advocates dispute. The agency permanently removed 13,666 animals from the range in 2021.

The lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Reno says the agency is exaggerating drought conditions and exploiting legal loopholes with 10-year plans that combine multiple horse management areas without the necessary site-specific assessments.

Meanwhile, it says taxpayers continue to finance subsidies for the livestock industry through below-market grazing fees for millions of cattle and sheep causing more ecological harm than horses.

"Using drought as a fig leaf for its illegal actions, the bureau ... is depopulating the West of its wild horses and burros herd by herd and burning through taxpayer dollars with their endless roundups and holding facilities," said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, lead co-plaintiff with the New York-based CANA Foundation.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association says the horse activists are threatening the future of rangeland ecosystems and the well-being of the horses themselves.

"Groups who file lawsuits like this continue to prove that they'd rather draft emotional press releases than contribute to meaningful solutions," said Kaitlynn Glover, the association's director of natural resources.

Roundups are an important part of the process of bringing the horse herds into balance with the range, she said.

The agency's 2022 strategy includes treating at least 2,300 animals with fertility control and releasing them back to public lands — an approach supported by some but not all horse advocates — to stem the growth of herds that otherwise double about every five years. That's nearly double the previous high of 1,160 in 2021, the bureau said.

The agency acknowledges that, due partly to a sharp decline in demand for captured horses offered for public adoption over the past 10 years, it has been left in "the unsustainable position of gathering excess horses while its holding costs spiral upward."

The lawsuit says the environmental assessment the bureau approved in May for the Nevada roundup described plans for a series of "phased gathers to remove excess animals" over a 10-year period, not "at once."