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FRI: Anti-Crime bill gains momentum, State Police officer shot, search for two suspects, + More

People walk under the state Capitol rotunda during the annual legislative session on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Legislators advanced a pillar of the governor's tough-on-crime agenda Friday with House approval of a bill that increases penalties for some murder and attempted-murder charges and eliminates the statute of limitations for filing those charges. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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People walk under the state Capitol rotunda during the annual legislative session on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Legislators advanced a pillar of the governor's tough-on-crime agenda Friday with House approval of a bill that increases penalties for some murder and attempted-murder charges and eliminates the statute of limitations for filing those charges. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Anti-crime bills gain momentum in New Mexico Legislature — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico legislators advanced a pillar of the governor's tough-on-crime agenda Friday with House approval of a bill that increases penalties for some murder and attempted-murder charges and eliminates the statute of limitations for filing those charges.

The state House voted 66-0 to endorse the bipartisan bill, which moves to the Senate for consideration. The Democrat-led Legislature has until Feb. 17 to send bills to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The basic sentence for attempted murder would increase from three years in prison to nine years. The sentence for second-degree murder — an intentional killing with some mitigating circumstances — would increase from 15 years to 18 years.

Lujan Grisham earlier this week criticized Democratic legislators for the pace of work on anti-crime bills. Efforts to ban pretrial release for certain crimes have stalled amid concerns about constitutional rights and the effectiveness of the proposal.

Separately, House legislators voted without opposition Thursday night to expand the eligible purposes of state grants for law enforcement, sending the initiative to the Senate for additional vetting.

The proposed changes would be a financial boon for emerging policing and intervention programs that coordinate treatment for drug addicts, provide transitional housing to ease the aftermath of prison, and expand "crisis intervention teams" that reduce the risk violence during police encounters with the mental ill.

Lujan Grisham has signaled her support for the House-approved initiatives to combat crime, amid a record-setting spate of homicides in Albuquerque.

In other matters, legislators have outlined a package of tax relief for working families and Social Security beneficiaries that also would slightly reduce gross receipts tax rates on retail sales and business transactions.

A Senate panel on Thursday endorsed a tax-relief package that would eliminated taxes on Social Security income, though not for upper-income retirees, and provided slight reduction in the state tax on gross receipts for most retail sales and business transactions.

Tax rebate proposals are under discussion, but have not received a public hearing.

Democratic lawmakers are backing a proposed $1 billion increase in general fund spending for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1 with room for an additional $400 million in tax cuts. That proposal would still leave the state with roughly $2.6 billion in extra money by June 2023.

Search ongoing after New Mexico State Police officer shot — Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico State Police says it is looking for two suspects — a male and a female — after one of its officers was shot and wounded Friday along a state highway in rugged terrain east of Albuquerque.

The agency said on Twitter that the officer remained hospitalized in stable condition.

The agency said the shooting occurred along State Route 333, which the Albuquerque Journal reported later bustled with law enforcement vehicles and tactical gear as a helicopter and drones circled overhead.

"Heavy police presence in the area, the scene is still very active. Suspects are still at large," the agency said on Twitter. "Please avoid the area."

No additional information was released.

New Mexico seeks to protect judges from threats, doxing— Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico legislators are considering new criminal penalties aimed at protecting state and local judges and their immediate families from threats and the malicious sharing of personal information such as home addresses.

The bill responds to concerns about the physical safety of judges and about efforts to sway or disrupt judicial proceedings.

"It's vital that we keep our judicial process neutral, objective and free from any outside influengce," Republican Rep. T. Ryan Lane of Aztec, an attorney and co-sponsor of the bill, told a legislative panel in January.

His bill would make it a felony to threaten a judge or their immediate family with the intent to instill fear of physical harm, retaliate against a judicial decision or interrupt a judge's official duties. Retaliation includes threats of bodily harm and property destruction.

The malicious sharing of personal information — or doxing — would trigger misdemeanor sanctions.

On the federal level, security has been enhanced for U.S. courthouses and judges, which are protected by the U.S. Marshals Service, after a wave of protests battered courthouses in 2020. That same year, a deadly shooting at the home of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas left her son dead and husband wounded.

States each devise their own judicial security, with an array of approaches to protecting judges specifically from assault or under blanket protections for public officials. States including Colorado, Florida and New Jersey last year enacted laws to limit public access to information about judges or ban disclosure of certain personal information with criminal and civil penalties, according to the National Center for State Courts.

A New Mexico House floor debate and vote on the bill could take place as soon as Friday. Legislators have until Jan. 17 at noon to send bills to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Criminal penalties under the bill also would apply to threats against current and former judges, from Supreme Court justices to magistrates and arbiters of domestic violence cases.

The state judiciary documented five threats against courthouses and 10 threats to judges in 2021, according to Chief Justice Michael Vigil. Vigil said he believes many threats go unreported by judges who don't want to amplify disruptions or discourage other fair criticism of their work.

Vigil described the travails last year of a judge who had a rock thrown at his dinning room window after his home address was broadcast over the radio in a hostile manner.

He also recounted a barrage of threats that shut down the Taos County courthouse in 2018 amid judicial proceedings about the mysterious death of a child at a remote family compound. He linked the threats to the decision by one judge to retire.

Bill Raftery, a senior analyst for the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts, said collective nationwide statistics on threats to state judges are difficult or impossible to track. He said a slim majority of 27 states have developed centralized repositories for tracking threats against courthouses and judges.

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

A Democrat-backed bill to expand voting access in New Mexico advanced Thursday toward a Senate floor vote.

A legislative panel endorsed the bill on a 6 -5 vote, clearing the way for debate on the Senate floor. Lawmakers have until Feb. 17 to approve legislation during a rapid-fire 30-day legislative session.

The bill as recently amended would make Election Day a holiday for public schools, provide convicted felons with the opportunity to register to vote as they exit prison and distribute mail-in ballots year-after-year to people who prefer them. Currently absentee ballots are available by request only for each election.

The initiative also would expand the availability of monitored ballot drop boxes and expand voting options in Native American communities where requested.

New Mexico already allows felons to vote, with some obstacles to registration. They have to complete their sentence, parole or probation.

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.

Republicans in the legislative minority say the bill would undermine precautions against election cheating as well as public confidence in election results.

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.

Bill giving tenants more time to catch up faces stiff test in senate judiciary— Patrick Lohmann, Source NM

Proposed changes to the state’s landlord-tenant statutes have so far been met with skepticism across the political spectrum over at least six hours of debate during the legislative session.

Patrick Lohmann with Source NM reports that House Bill 65 will make its way next to the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee after being considered in the Health and Public Affairs on Wednesday night. Senators there sent the legislation to Judiciary without giving it either their stamp of approval or rejection, pushing it along “without recommendation” after members raised some concerns.

Last year, another bill that contained the same changes to housing laws died in the Judiciary, where it did not get a hearing. Sponsors have said they were more optimistic this year, touting its support from tenant lawyers, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Apartment Association of New Mexico, which represents landlords across the state.

The measure would update the landlord-tenant laws for the first time since the 1970s, sponsors said. Some changes include giving tenants more time to make their rent payments after they’ve been served with a notice that they’re late, ensuring they’re informed of protections and resources when an eviction begins, and prohibiting landlords from refusing to renew some leases during a declared public health emergency.

At the moment, a tenant has only three days to come up with rent after being notified that they are late to avoid grounds for eviction in court. That’s one of the shortest such periods in the country, sponsors said. The bill would expand that time to 11 days.

The bill represents the biggest proposed change to housing policy this legislative session, one that occurs amid rapidly increasing home prices and rents and the recent lifting of a two-year ban on evictions for non-payment. Among other benefits, the changes give tenants more time and flexibility to get rent assistance money from the state, sponsors said.

Rep. T. Ryan Lane (R-Aztec), questioned sponsor Rep. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) for about an hour during the bill’s hearing on the House floor this weekend. He criticized provisions that he said made landlords wait longer than necessary to bring an eviction case or get their day in court, or that gave them too many new hoops to jump through.

Taken together, Lane said, the provisions might make some landlords so fed up that they’ll sell their properties, reducing the state’s supply of rental stock and driving up rents. He also predicted landlords will scrutinize tenants more heavily to avoid a drawn-out court battle, harming would-be renters with bad credit history or past evictions.

“I think it’s going to make it a lot harder on the people we’re trying to protect,” he said. “I understand the intent, but I think it does the opposite.”

After about three hours of debate, the bill passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote, 38-27.

On Wednesday evening, in the Health and Public Affairs hearing, Sen. Jacob Candelaria (DTS-Albuquerque) took issue with the provision of the bill that would prohibit landlords from refusing to renew a lease during a declared emergency like the one the state is in now.

He said he generally supported the bill and its provisions but worried the requirement was an unconstitutional invasion by the government into contracts between landlords and tenants.

As the bill is written, the only exception to the requirement allows landlords in public emergencies to refuse to renew leases only if they or a family member plan to move into the property.

“Would I, under this section of law if enacted, be able to not renew a lease because I simply wanted to convert my tenancy into an orchid greenhouse and no longer lease it for people?” said Candelaria, who cultivates orchids in his spare time. “Would I be allowed to do that and take my property off the market?”

Maria Griego, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, was an expert testifying on behalf of the bill. She agreed that the bill would prevent Candelaria from evicting tenants in the scenario he described.

But advocates pointed out that the provision in question only applies if there’s a moratorium on evictions, a public health emergency is in effect, and the landlord’s motivation in evicting a tenant during a pandemic is because the tenant is behind on rent.

Health and Public Affairs Chair Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) also questioned whether landlords were losing some of their constitutional rights in another section of the bill, one that spells out scenarios in which a tenant can claim in court that an eviction is due to retaliation. Landlords also are unable to refuse to renew a lease if their conduct is deemed to be retaliatory, according to the bill.

“That’s forcing people to enter into a contract,” Ortiz y Pino said.

Candelaria and Ortiz y Pino predicted the bill will face a tough challenge in the Judiciary Committee regarding the prohibitions on terminating leases.

“If you can convince Judiciary that it passes muster and it comes to the floor, heck, I think I can probably vote for it as is,” Candelaria said.

Co-sponsor Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) said she has no clue what the bill’s prospects are.

“Unclear what to expect in SJC,” she said in a text message. “It can either go very well or very bad. No way of telling.”

Hundreds of abandoned uranium Mines in NM could be cleaned up if lawmakers approve legislationPatrick Lohmann, Source NM

A bill in the Legislature would mobilize state government to finally clean up a reported 1,100 uranium mining, milling and drilling sites that are contaminating state and tribal lands and waters.

Patrick Lohmann with Source NM reports The legislation would direct the New Mexico Environment Department to coordinate efforts to clean and reclaim the sites. It’s a matter complicated by overlapping jurisdictions and mine ownership that’s difficult to trace, according to a report from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico.

In addition to charging the state’s Environment Department with coordinating cleanup, the bill also directs the Economic Development and Workforce Solutions Departments to establish uranium reclamation as a target for growth, plus build a repository mapping all mine and mill sites.

Sponsors are seeking $350,000 to fund the program’s first-year operating expenses, though they say they hope the state could find money elsewhere, like the EPA or other uranium mine settlements, to fund site remediation and job training, according to the bill.

A report compiled by the independent Legislative Finance Committee found that the State Land Office has identified extensive uranium contamination on state trust land. There are also more than 500 abandoned uranium mines on or near the Navajo Nation, remnants of a time when nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore was extracted between 1944 and 1986, according to the EPA.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces), Rep. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland), Rep. Wonda Johnson (D-Rehoboth) and Rep. Debra Sariñana (D-Albuquerque).

Woman burned in Albuquerque apartment fire last month dies — Associated Press

A woman who was seriously burned in a northeast Albuquerque apartment fire last month has died, authorities said Thursday.

Albuquerque police said 29-year-old Ashleigh Keeto died from her injuries Monday at a burn center in Lubbock, Texas.

Police spokeswoman Rebecca Atkins told the Albuquerque Journal that Keeto's death is being investigated as a homicide based on information from arson investigators.

Keeto and a man were pulled from the fire and both were hospitalized in critical condition with burns and smoke inhalation.

A medical update in the male victim wasn't immediately available Thursday.

Woman burned in Albuquerque apartment fire last month dies -Associated Press

A woman who was seriously burned in a northeast Albuquerque apartment fire last month has died, authorities said Thursday.

Albuquerque police said 29-year-old Ashleigh Keeto died from her injuries Monday at a burn center in Lubbock, Texas.

Police spokeswoman Rebecca Atkins told the Albuquerque Journal that Keeto's death is being investigated as a homicide based on information from arson investigators.

Keeto and a man were pulled from the fire and both were hospitalized in critical condition with burns and smoke inhalation.

A medical update in the male victim wasn't immediately available Thursday.

Governor optimistic of approval for tax cuts, voting access - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed optimism Wednesday that legislators will embrace her proposals for tax cuts with a little over a week left in the annual regular legislative session, coupled with disbelief that Democratic legislators are hesitating to back major crime-fighting initiatives.

The governor also said she is determination to expand voting access through legislation, and is confident that New Mexico will offer some incentives to spur local hydrogen fuel development, as the federal government dedicates billions of dollars to the fledgling industry.

Lujan Grisham, running for reelection in November, has proposed eliminating longstanding state taxes on Social Security income that would benefit middle- and upper-income retirees, as well as a slight reduction to the state's gross receipts tax on most retail sales and business transactions.

"I'm very confident that those are coming together in the way that they need to" on tax cuts, said Lujan Grisham. She alluded to an additional proposal on tax relief for working families that has not been made public.

The state's quick-fire 30-day legislative session, which follows an abbreviated format in even-numbered years, ends on Feb. 17 at noon.

"On the other hand, it feels like it's a very long time to get all the things that we believe will make a difference for New Mexicans," Lujan Grisham said.

Legislators have given a mixed reception to bills for enhanced criminal penalties and sidelined proposed changes to the state's pretrial detention system aimed at keeping more people behind bars pending trial for serious crimes.

Lujan Grisham said the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have been slow to recognize that anti-poverty measures are not enough to contain crime.

"We are on track to have the deadliest year ever in Albuquerque, with violent crime increasing statewide," Lujan Grisham said. "I can't explain their inability to reconcile that issue."

In 2017, New Mexico joined a growing number of states in adopting risk-based approaches to releasing defendants that phased out money-based bail.

Numerous district attorneys and the mayor of Albuquerque say the pretrial justice system is failing to protect the public, while an analysis from the Legislature's budget and accountability office shows that arrests and convictions remain steady as crime rates have increased.

Republican legislators and district attorneys gathered outside the state Capitol on Wednesday to protest a Senate-endorsed bill that would ensure the right to a parole hearing for juveniles convicted of serious crimes, including murder, and sentenced as adults. They said the Legislature is straying from its public safety obligations.

"We have to have answers to protect the citizens of New Mexico," said District Attorney Dianna Luce of southeastern New Mexico

Legislators have spurned several bills that would provide state incentives to jump-start local hydrogen production using natural gas and coal, amid warnings from environmentalists that the industry may worsen climate-warming pollution.

Still Lujan Grisham said she expects New Mexico to be a staging ground for the industry, with support from the state.

"We have an $8 billion situation, an effort by the federal Department of Energy," the governor said. "It's happening to ... decarbonized transportation, and I will expect New Mexico to still be a top contender."

Senate lawmakers on Wednesday advanced an initiative backed by Democrats to expand voting access, while scrapping elements that would have further automated voter registration at state motor vehicle offices. Amendments also scaled back plans for a state holiday on Election Day, though all public schools would close.

"I'm working to make sure that every single voter, eligible voter in the state of New Mexico has adequate, easy, protected access to the ballot box," Lujan Grisham said.

New Mexico regulators looking to mitigate rolling blackouts -Associated Press

Regulators in New Mexico are trying to work with utilities to deal with supply chain problems that could threaten adequate power availability during peak consumer demand this summer.

The five-member Public Regulation Commission held an open public meeting Wednesday as they consider emergency measures to mitigate the looming crisis of rolling blackouts, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Public Service Company of New Mexico has said it may not have enough generating capacity for customers in the hottest months of July and August when electricity demand climbs to its highest levels.

Pandemic-induced supply-chain issues also have delayed the construction of four new solar facilities that were supposed to replace power from the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station when that plant shuts down in June.

PRC Chairman Joseph Maestas said supply-chain problems are also affecting other utilities around New Mexico, particularly some of the state's electric cooperatives.

The Journal reports that commissioners have agreed to immediately compile a lengthy questionnaire for all local utilities to fully assess the problems and consider emergency measures to alleviate potential power shortages.

Former Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales dies of cancer at 55 -Associated Press

Javier Gonzales, who served one term as the mayor of Santa Fe, has died after a battle with cancer, authorities said Wednesday. He was 55.

Gonzales' death was announced by Christus St. Vincent where he had worked as vice president and chief development officer of the hospital's foundation after leaving politics.

In an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican in October 2020, Gonzales said he was diagnosed with cancer after he'd struggled with hip pain and a loss of energy.

He told the newspaper that doctors found a tumor near one of his kidneys.

Gonzales was elected in 2014 and was Santa Fe's first openly gay mayor.

He decided against running for a second term in 2018, citing a desire to spend more time with his two daughters.

"I am deeply saddened by the loss of an undisputed leader and deeply treasured member of the northern New Mexico community," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "Javier Gonzales was a trailblazer, a fierce advocate, and a dedicated leader. He was also a beloved son, a remarkable father and an incredible friend, including to me."

Funeral plans were not immediately disclosed.