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WED: Pandemic crisis standards to expire for New Mexico hospitals, + More

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Pandemic crisis standards to expire for New Mexico hospitals - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's top health official said Wednesday that the state is still on track to lift its crisis standards of care declaration for hospitals in the coming weeks as COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations continue to decline.

The declaration was issued last fall as a way to ease the strain on New Mexico's already overburdened health care system. A few hospitals enacted the standards, which cleared the way for them to ration care and suspend procedures that weren't medically necessary if they didn't have capacity.

State Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during a virtual briefing that the availability of hospital beds increased this week, and the plan is to let the declaration expire March 11. He said the declaration did help the state to get some federal resources during the pandemic.

State data showed hospital admissions for the last week numbered 172, a significant drop from the 430 reported at the end of January.

"Most hospitals are now really feeling like they're out of the woods," he said. "We still have hospitals at 100% capacity. We still plan to try to support those hospitals as we are able with additional staffing resources, but workforce still is our key issue here in New Mexico."

Scrase also addressed the governor's surprise move to immediately lift her indoor mask mandate last week. While masks are still required at hospitals, nursing homes and in other congregate care settings, he said state officials believed it was time to give people a choice.

"I don't know that I agree that you need scientific evidence to remove a mandate," he said. "I think the role of government is to step in when necessary in critical situations and also to step back when you're out of that difficult period."

State officials also have sent text notices to some 40,000 people who are immunocompromised, recommending additional booster shots.

According to data from the state Health Department, about 15% of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths in the last four weeks were among those who were vaccinated and received a booster. Overall, about 68% of those who died in New Mexico in recent weeks had one or more underlying conditions.

New Mexico regulators approve plan to keep coal plant open - Associated Press

New Mexico regulators on Wednesday approved a plan by the state's largest electric utility to keep open part of a coal-fired power plant for an extra three months as a way to keep air conditioners humming this summer and reduce the risk of blackouts.

The Public Regulation Commission made its decision less than a week after Public Service Co. of New Mexico submitted its proposal.

The utility will keep one unit at the San Juan Generating Station running through September, rather than closing it this summer as planned.

Developers have blamed supply chain problems and the pandemic for delays in the construction of the solar farms and battery storage stations that were supposed to replace the lost capacity once the coal plant shut down.

As PNM tries to avoid a shortage this summer, the utility said challenges remain on ensuring customer needs are met in the summer of 2023 due to regulatory delays related to another case that involves the upcoming expiration of leases for power generated by the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona.

"PNM will always work to serve PNM customers regardless of regulatory outcomes," Tom Fallgren, vice president of generation, said in a statement. "While this was not PNM's original plan, we are relieved that the commission acted promptly on our solution."

Environmentalists said Wednesday during a briefing that no one could have predicted that the closure of the San Juan power plant and construction of the replacement power would be disrupted by a pandemic. They argued that the delays are short term and should not derail public confidence in New Mexico's mandates for emissions-free electricity generation within the next two decades.

"We're still squarely on this path to transition out of fossil fuels," said Jason Marks, a former member of the Public Regulation Commission and an attorney who works with the Sierra Club. "Renewable energy plus storage is a solution. It works. There's nothing that we're seeing that changes that."

PNM is a financial supporter of KUNM.

Court: Medical marijuana can't be taxed in New Mexico - Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling that found cannabis purchases by medical marijuana patients should not be subject to gross receipts tax.

The Supreme Court issued its order Wednesday, just days before parties in the case were scheduled to present arguments.

The case stemmed from requests for tax refunds by producers in 2014 and again in 2018. The state Taxation and Revenue Department had denied those claims. In 2020, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that medical marijuana should be treated like other prescriptions, which are not taxed.

Appellate Court Judge M. Monica Zamora had stated in the opinion at the time that New Mexico's Compassionate Use Act was intended to make medical marijuana accessible to those with debilitating conditions.

"It is reasonably self-evident that the deduction from gross receipts for prescription drugs was similarly intended to make medical treatment more accessible, by lessening the expense to those who require it," she wrote. "These statutes should be read harmoniously, to give effect to their commonality of purpose."

The Taxation and Revenue Department said it was disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision to quash its review of the case.

"We respect the decision and will move forward to issue refunds to the affected taxpayers once the court's decision is mandated to become final," agency spokesman Charlie Moore said.

It wasn't immediately unclear how much the refunds might total. Some in the industry have estimated that the state has collected between $25 million and $30 million in gross receipts taxes from medical marijuana producers.

Ultra Health, one of the state's largest producers, said Wednesday in a statement that it will receive a $7.4 million refund plus interest. Unlike some other producers, the company has not charged customers gross receipts tax and has been absorbing the cost throughout the litigation believing it would prevail in the case.

New Mexico established its medical marijuana program in 2007 and growth in recent years has been significant, with more than 130,340 patients enrolled as of January. The state also is preparing for recreational sales to begin April 1.

Marijuana rule changes spark criticism in New Mexico - Associated Press

The agency charged with setting up New Mexico's marijuana industry is proposing changes to existing rules less than a month before recreational sales are scheduled to begin, sparking criticism from some who are preparing to open new businesses.

The Cannabis Control Division heard some of those criticisms during a public meeting Tuesday, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. Officials acknowledged the challenge of establishing a new industry in a little over eight months and said tweaks are needed.

"We're not living in a perfect world," said Heather Brewer, a division spokeswoman. "There are changes that need to be made. There are things that, as we get further into the process and hear feedback (from various stakeholders), we realize we have to change."

Among the proposed amendments is eliminating a requirement for businesses to submit a diagram of their work premises in their license applications. Brewer said public safety was at the heart of the decision.

Jason Barker, a cannabis policy expert, said the diagram — which would be a publicly accessible record — could be used as a blueprint on how to break into a cannabis business.

"Obviously, with crime in the state, that's really concerning," he said.

Erica Rowland, who is working to open a cannabis country club in Albuquerque described the rules as moving targets. She spent about $2,000 to obtain a diagram as part of the licensing requirements.

"How is one to focus on requirements and plan to succeed when costly and timely paperwork requirements are constantly changing or being eliminated?" she asked.

The amendments also call for reports annually — "or as otherwise reasonably requested" — from manufacturers, testing laboratories and retailers.

During Tuesday's virtual hearing, a number of speakers also asked the agency to consider adding "Level 1 manufacturing" to production licenses to allow for the sale of such items as marijuana joints and cannabis oils to avoid putting micro producers at a disadvantage.

Barker said the basic micro producer license allows only for growing cannabis and selling the flower. A licensee would be breaking the law if they decided to sell pre-rolled joints, he said.

Others raised concerns about the division's lack of responsiveness, saying calls and emails have gone unanswered.

The agency has received more than 800 applications for business licenses across all sectors of the industry. Brewer said the agency has been short-staffed.

New Mexico Republicans compete to appear on primary ballot - Associated Press

Republican Party contenders for Congress and statewide elected office are competing for positions on the primary ballot ahead of the June vote.

A pre-primary convention Saturday is set to bring together hundreds of local GOP delegates from across the state to meet and listen to candidates.

Five contenders are seeking the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, including state Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block and former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti of Albuquerque.

Ronchetti released a video ad Wednesday that highlights concerns about public safety and drug trafficking along the state's international border with Mexico. He promises to deploy National Guard troops and "create a border strike force to go after the cartels."

Ronchetti ran unsuccessfully in 2020 for an open Senate seat against Sen. Ben Ray Luján.

The Republican convention will determine who gets on the primary ballot with at least 20% of endorsement votes and who gets top billing with the highest approval.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell is defending her 2nd District seat without a Republican primary challenger. The district spans much of southern New Mexico and was redrawn in December to include portions of Albuquerque.

Three Republicans are vying for the 1st Congressional District nomination to take on first-term Democratic Rep. Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque. They are Albuquerque city councilor Louie Sanchez, nurse practitioner Jacquelyn Reeve and former police detective and public prosecutor Michelle Garcia Holmes.

Republicans, farmer Jerald McFall of Angel Fire and Santa Fe-based engineer Alexis Martinez Johnson, are seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic first-term Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez of Santa Fe. McFall and Johnson have run unsuccessfully for the seat in previous general elections.

In several other races for statewide office, only one Republican is seeking the nomination. Among Republicans, former Santa Fe County commissioner Harry Montoya is running for state treasurer, attorney Jeremy Gay of Gallup is running for attorney general, and state utilities regulator Jeff Byrd of Tucumcari is running for state land commissioner to oversee oil, mineral and livestock grazing leases on state land.

Democrats control all statewide elected offices in New Mexico.

Companies face penalties for well violations in New Mexico -Associated Press

State oil and gas regulators have issued notices to two companies for violating their permits for wastewater injection wells in southeastern New Mexico.

The Oil Conservation Division said Tuesday that the civil penalties include more than $2 million against XTO Permian Operating for violations at four wells and $7,200 against Mewbourne Oil Company for violations at one well.

The state updated its guidelines for disposal wells in November following an increase in seismic activity in parts of the Permian Basin that was believed to be associated with injection wells for wastewater and other fluids generated during oil and gas production.

The guidelines included immediate response protocols for operators to follow, including reporting and operational requirements. The guidelines also detailed the next steps the Oil Conservation Division would take if seismic activity continues in the area.

During a review of all disposal wells in the area, division staff found that permit conditions at four wells operated by XTO and one well operated by Mewbourne were out of compliance. Violations included failure to test equipment, measure well pressure and submit required documents.

The companies have the option of entering into negotiations with the division. If a resolution isn't reached, a hearing will be held.

Haaland: 16 tribal water settlements will get $1.7 billion -Associated Press

The Biden administration will use $1.7 billion from the recently enacted federal infrastructure bill to fund 16 tribal water rights settlements, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Tuesday.

The money will ensure that tribes get access to water they've been promised but have been unable to use because of a lack of funding for infrastructure to store and move it.

"I am grateful that tribes, some of whom have been waiting for this funding for decades, are finally getting the resources they are owed," Haaland said in a statement during a trip to Arizona, where she announced the funding.

Access to reliable, clean water and basic sanitation facilities on tribal lands remains a challenge for hundreds of thousands of people. The funding for settlements is part of about $11 billion from the infrastructure law headed to Indian Country to expand broadband coverage, fix roads and provide basic needs like running water.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that tribes have rights to as much water as they need to establish a permanent homeland, and those rights stretch back at least as long as any given reservation has existed. As a result, tribal water rights often are more senior to others in the West, where competition over the scarce resource is fierce.

Litigation can be expensive and drawn-out, which is why many tribes have turned to settlements. The negotiations generally involve tribes, states, cities, private water users, local water districts and others and can take years if not decades to hash out.

Nearly 40 water rights settlements have been reached with tribes, some of which include more than one tribe. The Interior Department said 31 of the settlements are eligible for funds from the infrastructure bill. Altogether, the infrastructure bill included $2.5 billion for water rights settlements in the coming years.

The settlements receiving funding this year are: Aamodt Litigation Settlement (Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Nambe, Pojoaque, and Tesuque), Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow Nation, Gila River Indian Community, Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement and Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, San Carlos Apache Nation, Tohono O'odham Nation, and White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Last week, a group of Democratic senators from Western states wrote a letter calling on Senate leaders to include $616 million for drought and agricultural assistance in an upcoming appropriations bill. The senators from California, Oregon and Arizona noted that Colorado River flows are expected to continue to decline in coming decades, threatening a crucial water resource for seven states.

Ex-Las Vegas school guard pleads guilty to student sex abuse - Associated Press

A former Las Vegas, New Mexico, school security guard has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a student.

The Las Vegas Optic reports 53-year-old Abran Ulibarri pleaded guilty yesterday to criminal sexual penetration of a minor, three counts of false imprisonment, criminal solicitation to commit tampering with evidence, and bribery of a witness.

Attorney General Hector Balderas announced the agreement, commending the 14-year-old survivor for coming forward.

Las Vegas police initially investigated the allegations but the state eventually took over.

Investigators say Ulibarri sexually abused the West Las Vegas Middle School student for several months in 2019. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

A sentencing date has not been set.

Albuquerque balloon fiesta seeks waiver of FAA tracking rule -Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Organizers of Albuquerque's international balloon fiesta are seeking a waiver from federal aviation officials, saying a requirement that aircraft have specific tracking technology could affect the annual event.

The Federal Aviation Administration rule affects most of the airspace above New Mexico's largest city. The agency granted a waiver for last year's fiesta, and event officials tell the Albuquerque Journal they are seeking a similar exemption for this year's 50th anniversary celebration.

Balloonists say the rule remains a problem as it prevents passengers from getting expansive views from higher flights and bars pilots from more scenic locations such as the Rio Grande.

"This will be terminal to the industry, the sport and (the) culture that Albuquerque has been made world-famous for," said Scott Appelman, founder and president of the 39-year-old Rainbow Ryders ballooning company.

Appelman said balloons don't have the tracking technology, nor have federal regulators provided standards for how to incorporate it.

Murray Conrad, the owner of World Balloon, said he is still able to use his launch site on the city's west side as long as crews determine the winds will not blow them eastward into the more regulated airspace and as long as their balloons go no higher than about 2,000 feet off the ground.

"People have always seen balloons flying over Albuquerque and over downtown, and those days are done with this new regulation," Conrad said.

Appelman's company did $10 million in sales across three states last year, employs 80 people and is the biggest operation of its kind in the United States. He said Rainbow Ryders typically provides about 25,000 rides per year in Albuquerque, with the majority of passengers being tourists.

Appelman has emailed New Mexico's two U.S. senators and sought help from local and state officials, but so far there are no solutions.

"If we don't get this corrected, I could see us having to look at, quite frankly, laying people off," he said.

Appelman said he has not seen the new FAA rule enforced in other states where he operates and, in Colorado Springs, specifically, air traffic control operators and the local ballooning community have worked out terms for their continued operations in the affected airspace.

The federal rule requiring "automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast" equipment inside certain airspaces took effect in 2020. Appelman said it was not enforced actively until September 2021.

The surveillance technology is different from the transponders that balloonists can install temporarily so they can be seen on radar by Air Traffic Control. Under the rule, it must be permanently integrated into an aircraft's onboard electrical system.

Balloonists note that their aircraft don't have permanent electrical systems.

Fiesta officials have been told they would get a waiver for the 2022 event, but operations manager Sam Parks said the rule still makes flying harder for both Albuquerque-based ballooning companies and the recreational pilots who operate year-round.

Albuquerque police search for suspect in violent crime spree -Associated Press

Albuquerque police say a man accused of a trail of crimes including home invasions, car jackings and three kidnappings remains on the loose.

Authorities say the suspect, who they have not identified, went on a crime spree beginning late Sunday night near Elm Street and Thaxton Avenue.

Officers responded to a home that had been burglarized and determined a woman and her car had been taken.

Two hours later another homeowner heard gunfire in the home along with a man yelling. The family in the house took shelter upstairs. Police found the woman who had previously been abducted and the family's car gone. The woman told investigators the suspect drove her car until it ran out of gas.

Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies then reported being flagged down on the road by two women who reported being kidnapped from a gas station. They said a man fired a round and then forced them to get into their car with him. He later made them get out of the car.

Police believe the suspect then broke into a third home shortly before 3:30 a.m. He allegedly injured the homeowner and then took off in their car. Responding officers found one of the stolen cars.

The suspect was last seen Monday morning driving a silver Toyota Prius the wrong way on Interstate-40 before exiting near Coors Boulevard. Police in pursuit lost sight of the car.

The man is described as Hispanic, 5-feet-8 and around 200 pounds.

Mesilla clinic gets shoutout from actress Kate Bosworth - By Leah Romero Las Cruces Sun-News

As more movie productions come to the Las Cruces area for filming, so do actors who get to experience what southern New Mexico has to offer.

Actress Kate Bosworth, known for her roles in "Blue Crush" and "21," was in Las Cruces in late 2021 filming "The Locksmith." The new film stars Bosworth alongside Ryan Phillipe and Ving Rhames with Nicolas Harvard directing.

According to IMDb, the story follows a thief recently released from prison who is trying to reintegrate himself into the lives of his daughter and ex-fiancé, but he is forced to use his locksmithing skills once again.

While in town, Bosworth took in the sights around Las Cruces and Mesilla. She posted photos from her time in the area on Instagram just before Christmas, writing:

"That's a wrap on #locksmith 🎉 last job before the holidays :) Thanks for having us Las Cruces, you crazy-unique-desert-vortex! 👀✨ whole lotttttta energy in this place… what would we do without the brilliant gals at B-Well for keepin' our hearts, minds & bodies healthy (if you are in the area GO GO GO!) … we love you so much!!! 🙏🏻💧💛"

One place that caught her attention was B-Well Regenerative Medicine & Wellness Clinic in Mesilla. She gave them a shoutout on social media, encouraging people to visit their clinic, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.

B-Well was started by Chelsie Carter and Sheila Bardwell, both registered nurses who spent many years working in area hospitals. They opened on Telshor Boulevard in September 2020 and later moved to Mesilla across from the Fountain Theatre.

Bardwell explained that while working in the hospitals, they were required to treat patient's symptoms which led to multiple prescribed medications. Alternatively, at their clinic they treat clients from a holistic point of view. For example, if someone has high blood pressure, they question the root cause of the inflammation.

"We start treating from the cellular level and then we start taking you off (pharmaceutical medications)," Bardwell said.

The clinic offers a wellness consultation, nutrient injections, hormone replacement therapy and intravenous vitamin infusions as well as aesthetic services including Botox, micro needling and dermal fillers.

One of their most popular services is IV Vitamin Infusions. They have an IV lounge set up in their space for those with appointment as well as walk-ins. Bosworth was one such person who stumbled upon the clinic, but not the only person associated with film sets that they have welcomed.

B-Well has even been asked to go on set to give evening crew members shots to help maintain energy through the late hours.

Bosworth also posted photos of herself at the Las Cruces Dam, TruArt of the Earth, Double Eagle and Rincón de Mesilla. Her co-star, Phillipe, also photos of himself on Instagram enjoying White Sands National Park while he was in the area filming.

Two new movies are filming in Las Cruces currently — "Squealer" and "Bad Hombres" — featuring Tyrese Gibson, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Thomas Jane and others.

New Mexico man guilty in 1980 killing of 79-year-old woman -Associated Press

A New Mexico man was convicted Tuesday and raping and killing a 79-year-old woman in Southern California more than four decades ago.

Andre Lepere, 64, was convicted of first-degree murder with a sentencing enhancement because the crime was committed during a rape, the Orange County Register reported. He could face life in prison without the possibility of parole when he is sentenced next month.

Lepere was 22 years old and living in Southern California in 1980 when a neighbor of Viola Hagenkord discovered her body in her Anaheim apartment bedroom. There were signs of a struggle, authorities said.

Hagenkord had been sexually assaulted, had broken ribs and was gagged with a pillowcase that caused her to asphyxiate, prosecutors said.

Semen was collected in a rape kit, but DNA testing was in its infancy. The case went cold but last year, the evidence was reexamined and advanced testing last year tied Lepere to the DNA.

At his trial, Lepere testified that he had consensual sex with Hagenkord and denied attacking her — a claim that the prosecutor called ridiculous.

Deputy District Attorney Christopher Alex told jurors that Hagenkord, who was born in 1900, swore off men after divorcing her husband before the Great Depression, the Register reported.

Lepere later left California and lived in several places, including Washington, Wyoming and Arizona, before he was arrested last year in New Mexico.