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TUES: Lawmakers rewriting bill to toughen sentences for gun crimes, House approves bill aimed at predatory lending, Radiation leak at LANL, + More

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Lawmakers rewriting bill to toughen sentences for gun crimes -Austin Fisher, Source NM 

Two members of the state’s House of Representatives, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, will be working together to revise a bill that would raise the penalties for gun-related crimes.

The House Judiciary Committee on Monday delayed voting on House Bill 68 until sponsor, Rep. Meredith Dixon (D-Albuquerque), brings it back with changes.

Dixon told the committee she will be working with Rep. William Rehm (R-Albuquerque) on amendments to the bill. Rehm is drafting his own substitute bill that he intends to bring to the committee.

“I think we need to do some more work on it before we take a vote on it,” Rehm said. “I don’t want to see it go down, and I think a little more tweaking, and we’ll have it.”

Dixon’s bill would add one year onto a sentence if someone is found to have been in possession of a gun during a drug deal, an aggravated burglary or another serious violent offense. Rehm said that should be three years.

The original measure would add three years onto the sentence if that person threatened someone with a gun. Rehm said that should be five years.

Dixon’s legislation would add five years to someone’s sentence if they fired the gun. Rehm did not oppose this particular part of the bill.

“What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Look, if you’re going to go in and use guns, the penalties are going to be stiff,’” Rehm said.

Dixon had already amended the bill to make it so the penalty enhancements are not mandatory. She also wrote in an exception for people who participate in a “lawful shooting activity.”

Despite those changes, opponents of the bill still spoke against it in committee, including Bold Futures, the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the ACLU of New Mexico and the Law Offices of the Public Defender.

No one testified in support of the bill during public comment on Monday.

Kim Chavez Cook, an attorney with the Law Offices of the Public Defender, said the amended version of the bill still lengthens sentences when someone merely possesses a gun, even if they don’t use it.

Possession doesn’t even mean possession on your person, Chavez Cook said. It can mean possession in your car near you or under your bed or in your closet if it’s near you. The original bill required “use” of the gun to trigger the enhancement.

“So that is a serious concern for us to be tacking all this time onto people’s sentences when the firearm isn’t actually even used to commit the crime,” she said.

Diane Sewell McCash, an activist and substitute teacher, said the bill would not make anyone measurably safer.

“There’s no evidence, really, to suggest that increasing the penalties we have in place will make a difference,” Sewell McCash said.

Almost everyone will get out of prison, she said, and lawmakers should do what they can to ensure the best outcomes for them when they return to the community.

“Longer periods of incarceration actually increase recidivism and worsen outcomes, so that’s not helpful,” Sewell McCash said.

New Mexico House approves bill aimed at predatory lending — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico House legislators have approved legislation aimed at discouraging predatory lending by lowering the state cap on annual interest rates for storefront loans.

Democratic state Rep. Susan Herrera of Embudo is sponsoring the bill that would lower the maximum interest rate on storefront loans to 36%. The bill would also double the maximum size of small installment loans to $10,000, with repayment periods of up to two years.

The bill won House approval on a 51-18 vote Monday night and moved to the Senate for consideration.

Supporters have said restrictions are needed to ensure borrowers don't fall into vicious cycles of debt that contribute to poverty in New Mexico.

"This is an important step to improve financial stability for our neighbors who are struggling to make ends meet," Herrera said in a statement.

The bill also prohibits the garnishing of wages for nonpayment of loans and halts the accrual of interest within 90 days after nonpayment.

It bolsters disclosure requirements such as amortization schedules for loan repayment that are aimed at protecting consumers.

Similar legislative initiatives have failed repeatedly in recent years.

Opponents of the bill warned that it could undermine access to small, emergency loans for people without access to traditional lines of credit from banks or credit unions.

"I think there's a danger for us … whenever we are here as lawmakers and we try to set the rates for the consumer instead of allowing the consumer and the lender to set those rates themselves," said Rep. T. Ryan Lane, a Republican from Aztec.

New Mexico lawmakers in 2017 eliminated payday loans against future earnings and capped interest rates on small loans by storefront lenders at 175%.

The state's small loan industry provided about 224,000 loans worth $420 million in 2020, the most recent year with statistics on record, according to the state financial institutions division.

Investigation board to look into reported leak at Los Alamos — Associated Press

The National Nuclear Security Agency has formed an accident investigation board to look into last month's reported leak that contaminated several workers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Tuesday that a breached plutonium glove box at Los Alamos on Jan. 7 released airborne radioactive material that was more than double the yearly limit for a work area.

The leak occurred in a sealed compartment which has attached gloves so workers can handle radioactive material, the newspaper said.

According to a report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a Los Alamos employee noticed the breach after working with a container of legacy waste in the glove box.

Alarms then sounded, prompting the six-person crew to evacuate.

A lab spokesman said the radiation was contained, the workers' health is being monitored and there was no risk to public health and safety or the environment.

The New Mexican said it was the lab's third reported glove box breach in the past two years.

Man gets life in prison for fatal shooting of a UNM athlete — Associated Press

A judge on Tuesday sentenced an Albuquerque man to life in prison in the 2019 shooting death of a University of New Mexico baseball player outside a bar.

Darian Bashir was sentenced in Bernalillo County District Court three months after a jury convicted him on charges of first-degree murder and evidence tampering.

Prosecutors told Albuquerque TV station KRQE that the sentence will ensure Bashir stays in prison for at least 33 years.

Bashir, who turns 26 in April, will be eligible for parole in 2055.

On the night of the shooting in May 2019, prosecutors said 23-year-old Jackson Weller was out with friends and fellow teammates at a nightclub when say the group got into a fight with some men who Bashir knew.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that surveillance video showed Weller was walking away from Bashir when the suspect called the victim toward him.

Prosecutors also said Bashir was concealing a gun he used to shoot Weller.

Bashir acknowledged his role in the shooting and offered an apology and condolences to Weller's family at the sentencing hearing.

Judge to consider secrecy of insurance records in abuse case — Associated Press

A federal judge will hold a hearing on whether the Archdiocese of Santa Fe must disclose records on insurance coverage expected to pay much of a settlement in a case involving over 400 hundreds of victims of clergy sexual abuse.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David T. Thuma scheduled a hearing Monday on the archdiocese's request last month to seal the documents because agreements between the archdiocese and insurers indicated they'd be confidential, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

Diocese attorney Thomas Walker said breaching those agreements' confidentiality provisions could cause them to be voided and lead to expensive and extended litigation of coverage disputes.

Merit Benefit, a lawyer for several victims, objected to confidentiality and sealing of records and told the New Mexican in an interview that secrecy is what led to the tragedy of widespread priest abuse of children in the first place.

New Mexico Senate seeks new protections for election workers — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A bill that seeks greater protections for election officials and volunteers amid growing concerns for their safety in New Mexico won unanimous state Senate approval Monday.

New Mexico is among a handful of states are seeking greater protections for election workers after officials were targeted by threats of violence following the 2020 presidential election. Vermont, Illinois, Maine and Washington — all with Democrat-led legislatures — have introduced related bills.

The New Mexico Senate voted 38-0 in favor of the bill from state Sen. Katy Duhigg, a former Albuquerque city clerk, to expand the felony crime of intimidation to include acts against employees and agents of the secretary of state, county clerks and municipal clerks. The proposal now advances to the House for consideration.

A New Mexico statute enacted in 1953 already offers protection from intimidation to voters and election board members who administer polling places, as well as poll watchers and challengers that visit polling sites and flag concerns for further review.

Widespread threats against those who oversee elections, from secretaries of state to county clerks and even poll workers, soared after former President Donald Trump and his allies spread false claims about the outcome of the presidential election.

Duhigg noted that the U.S. Justice Department launched a task force last year to combat a rise in the intimidation of election workers.

"That's not enough — it's important that states take action to protect our elections professionals and volunteers at all levels so that we can sustain our democracy," Duhigg said Monday on the Senate floor.

She noted that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver was forced into hiding in late 2020 amid threats traced to Iran.

New Mexico's initiative provides no new spending for law enforcement, though state spending increases are slated for public safety agencies in a proposed state general fund budget for the coming fiscal year that starts on July 1.

Voter-access bill advances in New Mexico Legislature — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A Democrat-backed bill to expand voting access in New Mexico received a crucial endorsement Monday from a Senate panel, reviving prospects for legislative approval.

The committee voted 7-4 along party lines on a bill that would make Election Day a holiday to encourage voting, streamline mail-in voting and further automate voter registration procedures at state government offices.

The bill also would provide convicted felons with the opportunity to register to vote as they exit prison. New Mexico already allows felons to vote, with obstacles to register. They have to complete their sentence, parole or probation.

A least one more committee vetting lies ahead before the bill can reach a Senate vote to possibly pass to the House for consideration. Lawmakers have until Feb. 17 to approve legislation during a rapid-fire 30-day legislative session.

The initiative from legislators including Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe has the support of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who both are running for reelection this year.

Wirth says New Mexico has an obligation to bolster access to voting as Republican-led states including neighboring Texas impose new restrictions on ballot access, with federal voting rights legislation stalled in Congress.

Republicans say the bill would undermine precautions against election cheating and undermine public confidence in election results, urging further vetting and amendments.

At least 19 states have enacted voting restrictions since the 2020 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The national GOP campaign to tighten voting laws has been partly driven by former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

The proposed voting reforms in New Mexico would expand the availability of monitored ballot drop boxes and create a permanent absentee voter list, allowing voters to receive absentee ballots for each election without repeatedly requesting them.

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

About 35% of 2020 voters voted by mail in 2020, up from less than 10% in 2016, according to a state-sponsored study from the University of New Mexico. About 45% of Democratic voters cast ballots by mail — at roughly twice the rate of Republicans.

The voting bill also would allow registration with the use of student identification documents from an accredited college or university. In-person voter registration would be extended to Election Day rather than the Saturday before.

New Mexico lawmakers propose $45M school cybersecurity fund - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Lawmakers in New Mexico are considering major investments in cybersecurity, following two serious cyberattacks against school districts in the state just last month, and increased vulnerability of information technology in K-12 schools nationally.

On Monday, the House Education Committee unanimously advanced a bill that would allocate $45 million to hire cybersecurity experts for the state and a grant program for school districts to bolster their cyber defenses. It will be considered by another House committee.

New Mexico lags behind other states in establishing cybersecurity protocols and training in state agencies as well as in schools, according to Legislative analysts.

Last month, ransomware attacks shut down access to student attendance and grade databases in Albuquerque and Truth or Consequences. A similar cyberattack in Las Cruces in 2019 shut down all access to computers in the district for months.

The proposed bill would mandate the creation of a cybersecurity office for schools inside the state Public Education Department, while also adding positions at the Department of Information Technology.

The education department is reluctant to absorb responsibility for school cybersecurity, according to comments cited by Legislative analysts. The agency is already struggling to fill dozens of open positions, including around seven information technology jobs.

Environmental group supports plan to deal with feral cattle -Associated Press

An environmental group is supporting a U.S. Forest Service plan to put a dent in the feral cattle population on national forest land near the New Mexico-Arizona border.

The Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement Monday that it "commends" the federal agency for trying to remove unowned, feral cows that can threaten sensitive habitat along streams and wetlands in the Gila Wilderness.

The plan, which has drawn the ire of ranchers, calls for wildlife agents to shoot down unbranded livestock from helicopters.

While some environmentalists have long voiced concerns about leaving cow carcasses on the landscape, the Center says unowned feral cows are "dangerous and destructive."

"Getting them out of the forest hurts no one and helps everyone, including endangered species who have nowhere else to go," the group said.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association is concerned about the ability of the wildlife agents to distinguish branded from unbranded livestock. Ranchers argue the plan is a violation of federal law and won't help to solve the problem.

Santa Fe wants public's input in search for new police chief -Associated Press

Santa Fe officials are asking the public to weigh in on the search for the city's next police chief.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the search has been narrowed down to 10 candidates.

Kyra Ochoa, director of community health and safety, told the newspaper the city received 13 applications. No women applied.

The current crop of candidates include interim Santa Fe Police Department chief Paul Joye and applicants from as far away as New Jersey and North Carolina.

The city for the next two months will seek the public's opinion through panels, forums and surveys in English and Spanish.

Officials began the search Nov. 15, two weeks before Chief Andrew Padilla retired.

Air Force ordered to pay more than $230M in church shooting - By Terry Wallace Associated Press

The U.S. Air Force has been ordered to pay more than $230 million dollars in damages to survivors and victims' families for a deadly shooting at a Texas church.

The ruling comes from a Texas federal judge who earlier decided that the Air Force was liable for the massacre carried out by a former serviceman.

More than two dozen people were killed in the 2017 attack in Sutherland Springs when Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire during a Sunday service.

A lawsuit alleged the Air Force might have prevented the deaths by flagging Kelley's prior assault conviction, preventing him from legally buying the weapon used in the shooting.

The U.S. Air Force must pay more than $230 million in damages to survivors and victims' families of a 2017 Texas church massacre for failing to flag a conviction that might have kept the gunman from legally buying the weapon used in the shooting, a federal judge ruled in San Antonio on Monday.

More than two dozen people were killed, including eight children, when Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire during a Sunday service at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. Kelley, who died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound after being shot and chased by two men who heard the gunfire at the church, had served in the Air Force before the attack.

U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez had ruled in July that the Air Force was "60% liable" for the attack because it failed to submit Kelley's assault conviction during his time in the Air Force to a national database.

An Air Force record of the Kelley court-martial says he pleaded guilty to multiple specifications of assault, including striking his wife, choking her with his hands and kicking her. He also was convicted of striking his stepson on the head and body "with a force likely to produce death or grievous bodily harm."

In 2012, several months before his conviction in the domestic violence case, Kelley briefly escaped from a mental health center in New Mexico and got in trouble for bringing guns onto a military base and threatening his superiors there, police reports indicate.

Deputies were called to Kelley's home in New Braunfels in June 2013 about the rape case and investigated for three months, Comal County Sheriff Mark Reynolds said. But it appeared that they stopped investigating after they believed Kelley left Texas and moved to Colorado. Reynolds said the case was then listed as inactive.

Under Pentagon rules, information about convictions of military personnel in crimes like assault is supposed to be submitted to the FBI's Criminal Justice Investigation Services Division for inclusion in the National Criminal Information Center database.

For unspecified reasons, the Air Force did not provide the information about Kelley as required.

Lawyers for survivors and relatives of those killed had asked for $418 million, while the Justice Department proposed $31.8 million. Jamal Alsaffar, the Austin lawyer who led the plaintiffs' legal team, was pleased with the judge's award.

"These families are the heroes here. While no amount can bring back the many lives lost or destroyed at the hands of the government's negligence, their bravery in obtaining this verdict will make this country safer by helping ensure that this type of governmental failure does not happen in our country again," he said.

Messages left Monday by The Associated Press with the Justice Department and Air Force were not immediately returned.

The approximately 80 claimants include relatives of those killed and 21 survivors and their families. Authorities put the official death toll at 26 because one of the 25 people killed was pregnant.