FRI: New Mexico governor wants to divest from Russian stocks, + More
New Mexico governor wants to divest from Russian stocks – Associated Press
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to join other U.S. states in reconsidering public investments that might aid Russia as it wages war against Ukraine.
The Democrat announced Friday that she is urging the directors of the state's permanent funds and two major pension funds for public employees to examine investments that may benefit Russia and its supporters and take steps to divest.
"It is critical that the state of New Mexico demonstrates its support for the people of Ukraine and disclaim any investments that may directly or indirectly aid the Russian government's unjustified war," she said in a letter.
State Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque made a similar plea earlier this week.
The State Investment Council is in charge of managing more than $35 billion in investments on behalf of New Mexico.
Council spokesman Charles Wollmann said the state's exposure to Russian stocks or bonds amounts to $7.9 million, or about 0.025% of the state's portfolio. The council sends out more than 12 times this amount to beneficiaries that include public schools and the state's general fund every month.
Wollmann said some of the state's investments are in emerging market indexes, which are now being restructured by their originators to remove Russian stocks. For other related investments, the council could instruct external investment managers to make changes once Russian markets reopen. Russian securities markets have been closed for several days, halting trading.
Still, the council will likely have to discuss the governor's request as a matter of policy, Wollmann said.
The effect of sanctions by U.S. states often pales in comparison to national ones. But officials from New York to Arkansas and Indiana have said they wanted to show solidarity with Ukraine and do what they could to build upon the penalties imposed on Russia by the U.S. government and other Western nations.
Governor signs free college bill, expands coverage - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press
New Mexico's governor signed a bill into law Friday that makes it even cheaper for even more state residents to attend universities and community colleges.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has championed the Opportunity Scholarship program to help non-traditional students pursue a degree part-time or finish a degree after taking time away from college. Backing from state Legislators and a windfall of state revenues are allowing her to fully fund the program for the first time.
While the existing Lottery Scholarship covers tuition for recent high school graduates in the state, the Opportunity Scholarship also covers fees. It's also designed to allow federal awards of between $500 and $6,000 per year to go directly to low-income students to spend as they choose, offsetting additional costs like books and rent.
"With the Opportunity Scholarship Act, New Mexico has made history and set a national example of how states can break down barriers for students everywhere," Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said.
High school seniors graduating this spring will be eligible for both scholarship programs, according to state and university officials familiar with both of them.
Lujan Grisham signed the bill at Western New Mexico University in Silver City.
Funding for the measure is possible thanks to record-high state revenues, as well as one-time federal pandemic relief money. Most of the new scholarship program doesn't have a permanent funding source and would need new authorization from the Legislature next year.
State officials are still developing rules on which fees will be covered, according to Mexico Higher Education Department spokeswoman Stephanie Montoya, but there is a preliminary guide with details on the agency's website. Priority would likely go toward fees required to take a class, like a lab fee, Montoya said.
"If it's going to pay for fees other than tuition, I think that's huge because I have a son who's going to be a freshman at (New Mexico State University). And we've signed up for orientation, orientation is $175. We signed up to apply for the school. That's another fee right there," said Joe Teran of Las Cruces High School. He helps students through the logistics of college and financial aid applications.
Teran and other high school counselors are rushing to educate students on the changes as the final rules are being developed and students are making decisions on which colleges they will attend this fall.
New Mexico Democrats pick top contenders for June 7 primary - Associated Press
New Mexico Democrats are deciding which candidates to put at the top of their primary election ballot in June as the party strives to retain control of every statewide office and challenge a Republican incumbent in Congress.
Convention-related events began Friday in Roswell and extend into the weekend, when party delegates begin balloting to endorse their favorite contenders.
Candidates need at least 20% of delegate votes to automatically appear on the June 7 primary election ballot, with the most popular candidate listed first.
The convention's remote voting by local delegates takes place over a four-day period with results due in mid-March.
Competitive races for the Democratic nomination already are underway to succeed termed-out Attorney General Hector Balderas. Albuquerque-based District Attorney Raúl Torrez is competing against current State Auditor Brian Colón.
Vying for the nomination to replace Colón as auditor are Joseph Maestas, current chairman of the state Public Regulation Commission, and Zackary Quintero, recently employed by the governor as an ombudsman to review public complaints.
With no current GOP contenders for auditor, the primary could be decisive. The state auditor serves as a financial watchdog over local government and school district finances. The job was a political stepping stone for Balderas and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.
Two Democrats are competing for the Democratic nomination to try and succeed termed-out State Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, including former magistrate judge and treasury programs manager Heather Benavidez. Former Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya of Rio Rancho also is pursuing the nomination to a post that oversees multibillion-dollar state accounts and participates in state investment and lending decisions.
Two Democrats are vying for the nomination to a congressional swing district held by Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell of Alamogordo. Las Cruces City Councilor Gabriel Vasquez has the endorsement of prominent Democrats including Sen. Martin Heinrich. Lovington-based physician Darshan Patel also is seeking the District 2 nomination.
Unopposed Democrats seeking reelection include Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, State Lands Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard, U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez of Santa Fe in the 3rd District, and Rep. Melanie Stansbury of Albuquerque in the 1st District.
Toulouse Oliver is the state's top elections and campaign-finance regulator. The commissioner of public lands oversees lucrative natural resources contracts for oil, natural gas, grazing, timber and more that underwrite public education, heath care, the state budget and infrastructure spending.
New Mexico regulators refute attorney general's claims – Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press
New Mexico utility regulators are refuting allegations by state Attorney General Hector Balderas that the Public Regulation Commission isn't pursuing the public interest.
A letter sent Wednesday by the regulatory panel emphasizes the need for teamwork with Balderas but also corrects what the commission contends are inaccurate notions by the attorney general's office, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.
Balderas and regulators have had strained relations, including over a contested merger proposal in which Connecticut-based Avangrid, a subsidiary of global energy giant Iberdrola, sought to take over Public Service Co. of New Mexico.
Balderas supported the proposed acquisition early on, but the commission rejected it in December over concerns about Avangrid's reliability and customer service track record in other states where it operates. The case is now before the state Supreme Court.
The commission's letter also responded to accusations leveled by the attorney general's office that regulators were pursuing their own agenda and playing a role in the threat of rolling blackouts this summer.
The commission recently cleared the way for PNM to extend operations of one unit at the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station beyond its planned closure to ensure it can meet electricity demands during the peak summer season.
PNM and the commission have gone back and forth over supply chain problems and contractors' inability to build four solar and battery storage projects in time for the summer. PNM has said it should have been allowed two years ago to build a natural gas facility, but the commission was intent on replacing the San Juan plant with the other resources.
The commission's letter cites a 2020 brief in which the attorney general said the state Energy Transaction Act requires the commission to select electricity resources "with the least environmental impacts." The letter also noted that the utility made no effort to appeal the commission's decision on the replacement resources.
PNM officials have said it would have been counterproductive to appeal given that such an action can take up to two years and that new resource construction had to begin immediately.
The commission did write that it stands ready to work with Balderas and his office "as we navigate these challenging times."
In a separate letter, a majority of the commission called on the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to assist with preparedness regarding supply chain disruptions affecting New Mexico utility companies.
The commission offered several working ideas to be jointly investigated by the department, the governor's office, the attorney general and New Mexico's congressional delegation as part of an "all hands on deck" approach.
The commission ordered all local utilities late last year and again in January to report on supply chain problems, the potential for service disruptions, and ways in which government entities can help manage the situation.
The responses showed widespread difficulties across the state, the Albuquerque Journal reported.
"Some state cooperatives are even being forced to consider a cessation of new service connections, either to preserve on-hand material or because of supply scarcities," the PRC said in its letter to Homeland Security.
New Mexico hospitals seek new financial support - Associated Press
Hospital executives on Thursday urged New Mexico's governor to sign off on a health care spending proposal that would devote $171 million to shoring up labor costs at hospitals and nursing homes.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until March 9 to vet an $8.5 billion spending plan from the Democratic-led Legislature for the fiscal year starting on July 1. She can veto any portions of the budget.
In a public letter to the governor, the New Mexico Hospital Association describes the financial and physical strain of the pandemic on hospital staff that has left nursing staff depleted.
"Our challenges are sustaining the most precious resources, our people," said the letter signed by chief executives from 25 hospitals across New Mexico.
Health care spending provisions passed by the Legislature in February would funnel $171 million toward labor costs at New Mexico hospitals.
Health care executives also are lobbying for an $11 million increase to rates of reimbursement payments to hospitals through Medicaid, as well as $15 million to expand nursing education programs.
The governor also is weighing whether to sign off on a $1,000 personal income tax credit for resident nurses who work full time.
Sen. Ben Ray Luján: 'Absolute honor to be back' after stroke - Associated Press
Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico returned to Congress on Thursday for the first time since he had a stroke, which kept him away from Washington for weeks and temporarily weakened Democrat's hold on power in the equally divided Senate.
Luján received a standing ovation as he entered a morning hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and was greeted with hugs and fist-bumps from senators later as he stood on the Senate floor during votes.
Teary-eyed, he thanked colleagues at the morning hearing for their support and told them: "It's an absolute honor to be back."
"Every one of you that sent me notes, that sent videos, and all the prayers -- it worked," Luján said.
Luján, 49, began experiencing dizziness and fatigue on Jan. 27 and checked himself into a hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico, his office said. He was diagnosed as having had a stroke in the cerebellum and he had surgery to ease swelling in his brain.
His sudden absence had put new strain on Democrats' fragile 50-50 majority in the Senate, leaving them without full day-to-day control of the chamber and putting President Joe Biden's legislative agenda and Supreme Court nomination in doubt. But Luján, in a video message in February, vowed to return after a few weeks of recovery at inpatient rehabilitation facility.
The senator is expected to resume a fairly normal Senate schedule, participating in hearings and floor votes, as he returns to work.
In a 50-50 Senate, Luján's vote could prove critical if Democrats have to confirm Supreme Court nominee Kentanji Brown Jackson without the help of Republicans. His return could also help jump-start work on other legislation and nominations that Republicans oppose.
As Democratic colleagues including Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., stopped by to welcome Lujan back during an afternoon vote in the chamber, so too did Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Elected to the Senate in 2020, Luján is a quiet but well-known lawmaker on Capitol Hill who helped lead Democrats to the House majority with its record-breaking class of freshmen recruits heading the campaign committee during the 2018 election year. Senators of both parties had been pulling for his recovery.
"We love you Ben Ray and we're glad you're with us here today," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said at the hearing.
New Mexico to offer equal pay to Native American teachers - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America
New Mexico will begin to offer equal pay to dozens of Indigenous language teachers as part of a new law aimed at improving K-12 education for Native American students and preserving their languages and cultures.
A bill signed into law Thursday counts educators who are certified in the Indigenous languages taught in public schools and spoken by New Mexico's 23 tribes and pueblos as entry-level teachers eligible for the state's minimum salaries.
Earlier this week, the state raised the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 for a nine-month contract, up from $40,000. Together, the new measures will ensure that some 155 Indigenous language certificate holders will be paid at least that much if they have a teaching contract. Paid as "teaching assistants," some had been earned as little as $14,000.
"The teachers who carry on this integral piece of the culture and history of so many in our state deserve to be paid as the educational professionals they are," said Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The bill signing comes as Lujan Grisham's administration fights a decade-old lawsuit brought by parents of underserved students, including Native Americans.
A plan to address the lawsuit, which ruled against her in 2018, hasn't been released. Tribal leaders said in October that they hadn't been consulted as promised.
Around 11% of New Mexico students are Native American. Public and tribal schools in New Mexico teach eight native languages, including Zuni and Navajo, with language teachers certified through a process run by tribal authorities.
Those tribal language certificate holders are qualified to track in K-12 schools but haven't been eligible for minimum salary protections enjoyed by traditional teachers who complete a four-year university degree in subjects like English or Spanish. Universities don't offer degree programs for most tribal languages.
While at least one school district in New Mexico voluntarily paid the language teachers equitably, there was no minimum salary, and some made as little as $14,000 per year as teaching assistants despite performing the work of a teacher, like planning lessons, developing curriculum and leading classrooms.
"This is a watershed moment for Native language teachers," said Rose Chavez, a Keres teacher at Bernalillo High School and a member of nearby Kewa Pueblo. "I feel very honored and praised."
Chavez' boss at the high school started offering her equal pay in recent years and spoke publicly in support of the changes this year.
Native American leaders welcome the new law but say the governor has more work to do.
"I can appreciate her signing the bill, but I wish that the administration would be much more of a contributor," said Rep. Derrick Lente, of Sandia Pueblo, who sponsored the legislation. "Our students will be able to be taught their native tongue by the experts within our own communities."
Native American advocates have described recent efforts by the state to address Native American students as a piecemeal approach. They welcome increased teacher pay, as well as changes to the social studies curriculum.
But Indigenous students still lag behind their peers in internet and technology access and are more likely to attend schools that have lacked equal access to funding for buildings for decades.
"The tribal folks push but a lot of their efforts fall to the wayside," Lente said.
Lujan Grisham also signed a law codifying federal protections for Native American children in foster care. The law gives tribes the right to intervene on behalf of their members and prioritizes adoptions with fellow tribal members. The federal protections are being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Members of Congress highlight missing minority women, girls - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Members of a congressional panel focused on civil rights and liberties shared sobering statistics Thursday on the disproportionate number of Indigenous, Black and other minority women and girls who are being reported missing in the United States, saying more needs to be done to tackle the problem.
About 40% of the more than 250,000 women and girls reported as missing in 2020 were people of color, according to federal data gathered by the the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Despite making up a smaller share of the overall U.S. population, committee members said Indigenous, Black and Hispanic women and girls are going missing at higher rates.
The panel's chairman, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, called it a "crisis hiding in plain sight." He said he was hopeful Thursday's hearing would shine more light on a problem that has shattered countless families, exposed jurisdictional challenges for law enforcement and highlighted the importance of media attention.
The cases span the country, from South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana to Louisiana, South Carolina and New York. Of the more than 700 Indigenous people that have gone missing in Wyoming over nearly a decade, for example, less than 1 in 5 received any media coverage, Raskin noted, citing a recent report from the state.
The full scope of the problem is impossible to measure due to the lack of comprehensive and consistent data, committee members said during a hearing in Washington that included in-person and remote testimony.
Raskin also said that tribal communities often are hamstrung in their responses given jurisdictional issues, limited law enforcement resources and an inability to prosecute non-Native individuals who commit crimes on tribal land.
"The core function of government is to protect the safety and the security of the people," Raskin said. "That's the essence of the social contract. We have to secure and fortify the social contract for women of color all across America."
The hearing comes as the grassroots movement among Native Americans to bring attention to the cases of their missing and slain relatives puts more pressure on state and federal officials. In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently signed legislation to dedicate more resources to the investigation of such cases and improve coordination among law enforcement.
Other states, including California, Oregon and Washington, have approved studies of the problem or allocated more funding for tribes.
The panel heard Thursday from Pamela Foster, the mother of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike, who was abducted along with her brother on May 2, 2016, and left to die in a remote spot on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico. Foster's 9-year-old son was found alive by an elderly couple along a road after he fled the kidnapper.
Foster said she had to resort to social media to get word out about the abduction. Authorities didn't issue an Amber Alert for several hours.
"I endured the longest hours of my life — waiting, hoping and praying for my children, for their safe return," she said.
It wasn't enough to save her daughter, but Foster has been working ever since to ensure Ashlynne's death was not in vain by pushing for legislation to expand the Amber Alert system to tribal communities.
Some of the panelists also talked about disparities related to how law enforcement and the media perceive victims when they are people of color.
Natalie Wilson, founder of the Black and Missing Foundation, told lawmakers that advocates understand not every missing persons case will get national attention but noted that cases involving people of color get a very small percentage of national media coverage.
"We can all name Gabby Petito, Natalee Holloway, Chandra Levy and many other white women who have gone missing. But can any of you name a person of color that has garnered national media coverage?" she asked. "We want our missing to be household names too."
For Shawn Wilkinson, it took a month for law enforcement in Baltimore to begin looking seriously into the 2017 disappearance of his pregnant daughter, Akia Eggleston. Family members knew something was wrong when the 22-year-old Black woman failed to show up to her own baby shower.
Authorities announced an arrest in the case just weeks ago. While Eggleston's body has not been recovered, prosecutors pointed to internet searches by the suspect that suggested her remains might be at a local landfill.
A Marine veteran who served three tours in Iraq, Wilkinson said he gave all to his country but stood broken and frustrated at not being able to get immediate help for his daughter when he needed it.
"The epidemic of missing persons of color is not a new topic but one that has been dismissed because society does not care about us," he said. "This is a trickle effect that has come down through this country's history. Only time has brought us to this point of actually acknowledging the disparities that exist."
Ex-firefighter was 2nd driver killed in crash during pursuit - Associated Press
A retired New Mexico firefighter was the other person killed along with a Santa Fe police officer in fatal car crashes during a pursuit of a carjacked vehicle, authorities said Thursday.
Las Vegas resident Frank Lovato, a 62-year-old retired firefighter for the northern New Mexico city, died Wednesday at the scene on Interstate 25 in the Santa Fe area, a New Mexico State Police statement said.
Lovato was not involved with the pursuit, the statement said.
The other person killed in the crashes was previously identified as Robert Duran, 43, a senior officer assigned to the Santa Fe Police Department's patrol section.
The suspect fled after the crash and remained at large Thursday, the statement said.
Authorities have not released the identity of the suspect or the carjacking victim, a woman who was injured in the crashes.
Police responding to the reported carjacking tried to stop the stolen vehicle but were unsuccessful, and the crashes occurred after the vehicle drove south toward Albuquerque in northbound lanes.
A total of four vehicles, including two police patrol units, were involved in the crash along with the carjacked vehicle and Lovato's vehicle.
Water proposals trickle through Utah Statehouse in last days - By Sam Metz And Lindsay Whitehurst Associated Press
After the iconic Great Salt Lake hit its lowest level in recorded history, Utah's Republican-majority Legislature is working to preserve the lake, incentivize conservation and prepare for a hotter, drier future.
In the final days before they adjourn, lawmakers are advancing proposals to set aside millions to divert more water to the lake, encourage the use of drought-resistant landscaping and cut down on unmetered water use through a combination of incentives and potential penalties.
Utah — which is both one of the nation's driest states and thirstiest consumers of water on a per capita basis — is among a larger group of states confronting the realities of prolonged drought and climate change, while also trying to prepare for population growth. The state relies heavily on the over-tapped Colorado River and its past plans to create infrastructure to siphon more river water have provoked a united outcry from other states in the region — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.
This year's water focus is a detour from previous years for a growing state that has historically been one of the region's most reluctant to curtail water use. Here are a few proposals on the table as lawmakers barrel toward the end of the , legislative session:
In Utah, about 200,000 homes and businesses have access to essentially unlimited outdoor water in exchange for a flat fee. It's considered some of the cheapest water in the country.
This year, lawmakers approved a plan to spend about $250 million in federal funds to rein in what's called "secondary metering" and install meters on those connections so the amount of water they used can be measured for the first time.
The plan comes after small-scale projects indicated people use about 20% less water simply by knowing how much they're using. Legislation passed by the Senate Thursday doesn't explicitly increase the cost of the water, but lawmakers say it could help conserve the equivalent of another reservoir.
"We can't conserve what we can't measure," said Utah Republican Sen. Scott Sandall.
The proposal would require all secondary water connections to have water meters by 2030, though some small rural areas would be exempted.
GREAT SALT LAKE
Republican House Speaker Brad Wilson's plan to set aside $40 million for a trust to save the Great Salt Lake got final approval this week and awaits signature from Gov. Spencer Cox. The proposal would focus on ways to get more water into the shrinking lake, which hit its lowest level in recorded history last year.
It would also seek to improve the water quality and restore the wetlands around the lake. The initial investment of state money is considered a first step. It's expected to be funded with a combination of additional public and private funds in the future, Wilson has said. He cited copper company Rio Tinto's 2021 decision to donate water rights to the lake as an example of what the trust could facilitate.
"It's a big risk if we don't do this and do this right," he said during a committee hearing this week.
'FLIP YOUR STRIP'
Utah lawmakers are poised to pass new laws to encourage people and businesses to replace thirsty grass with drought-tolerant landscaping that uses less water.
A proposal from Ogden Republican Rep. Ryan Wilcox would prohibit cities, counties and homeowners' associations from requiring residents to plant traditional grass yards, rather than "water-wise landscaping" such as mulch, rocks and plants that can be sustained with drip irrigation, not sprinklers.
Homeowners' associations, including in Sandy and Salt Lake City, require residents to maintain grass yards. Cities including Orem and Saratoga Springs have similar municipal ordinances. Wilcox's bill passed the House in February and awaits a vote in the Senate.
Republican Rep. Robert Spendlove wants the government to set an example in conservation. A bill he's sponsoring would require agencies to conserve water through limiting how much grass they can plant around state-owned buildings and requiring they scale down their water consumption gradually in the next four years. It cleared the Senate Wednesday.
'USE IT OR LOSE IT'
Lawmakers are also aiming to reform a water law doctrine known as "use it or lose it" that jeopardizes property owners' water rights for water they don't consume, in effect, discouraging conservation.
Historically in Utah, unused water that flows past cities and farms and into the Great Salt Lake has been considered "wasted" since the body is too salty for fish or most other aquatic creatures to survive.
A plan from Republican Rep. Joel Ferry would allow farmers to let water flow downstream to the Great Salt Lake and other water bodies without the risk of losing their water rights — and get paid for it. Farmers would decide whether to sell their water, likely based on their harvests and balance sheets for the year. It awaits the governor's signature.
DAMS AND PIPELINES
In their roughly $25 billion proposed budget, lawmakers did not earmark funds for two contested water projects in northern and southern Utah.
Senate President Stuart Adams and Sen. Jerry Stevenson said Wednesday that the budget did not include provisions funding dams along northern Utah's Bear River. The dams would allow more water to flow to the growing population of the Wasatch Front, but potentially divert water from the largest tributary that feeds the Great Salt Lake.
The budget also does not include funding for the Central Iron County Water Conservancy District, which wants to construct a pipeline to transport additional groundwater to Cedar City and the growing surrounding areas.
Conservation advocates feared lawmakers would allocate parts of Utah's stockpile of federal infrastructure dollars to the projects, which would have facilitated more water consumption, not less. The projects remain under consideration but the absence of earmarked funds heading into the final days of the legislative session marks a victory for environmentalists.
*This story has been corrected to show a Utah proposal prohibiting grass requirements would apply to all political subdivisions in Utah including cities, not just counties and homeowners' associations.