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TUES: Strong winds fuel New Mexico wildfires, prompt evacuations, + More

Hermits Peak Fire, the morning of April 10, 2022.
U.S. Forest Service
Hermits Peak Fire, the morning of April 10, 2022.

New Mexico fires gain ground amid dry, windy conditions — Susan Montoya Brown, Associated Press

It's a simple recipe that requires only a couple ingredients, and New Mexico has them all.

Strong winds, low humidity and dry conditions that stem from two decades of persistent drought combined Tuesday for another day of critical fire weather across New Mexico. Forecasters warned of similar conditions elsewhere in the West as land managers and firefighters braced for what was expected to be another busy season.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a plea on social media: "Do not burn!"

She joined the chorus of forecasters and authorities who were urging people to take precautions as red flag and high wind warnings were issued for a large swath spanning the Central Plains, West Texas, all of New Mexico and parts of Arizona.

Two new wind-whipped fires reported Tuesday afternoon in the mountains of southeastern New Mexico prompted authorities to call for immediate evacuations.

The National Weather Service in Albuquerque shared satellite imagery of a fire signature near the community of Ruidoso and tweeted: "Take this fire seriously. This is a very dangerous situation."

In central New Mexico, authorities confirmed that at least one home and numerous barns, sheds and other outbuildings were damaged or destroyed by a fire burning along the Rio Grande in a rural area south of Albuquerque. About 200 structures were threatened, and the air was thick with smoke and dust.

Bulldozers were used to build a barrier between the fire and homes in the area. Managers were hoping for a break in the wind so a helicopter could drop water on the flames.

The fire had burned more than one square mile since being sparked Monday afternoon. That included a large portion of a wildlife conservation area along the river.

The cause remains under investigation.

In northern New Mexico, steep terrain and gusts up to 60 mph were keeping crews from directly attacking a fire near the community of Las Vegas. That blaze — which started last week when a prescribed fire jumped its containment lines — also forced evacuations.

About 100 people found shelter earlier this week at a school gym in Las Vegas, and San Miguel County authorities began evacuating several more small communities Tuesday afternoon as the fire made a big push to the northeast.

Some people have criticized the U.S. Forest Service's decision to conduct a prescribed fire amid erratic spring weather conditions. Federal officials have said conditions were calm most of the day before unforeseen winds ignited spot fires beyond the project's boundaries.

An internal review is expected to be done once the fire is suppressed, officials said.

New Mexico challenges effort to post voter rolls online — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico election regulators are resisting efforts by a conservative-backed foundation to post statewide voter registration information on a public website where it can be searched by names or addresses to view whether people voted in past elections and sometimes their party affiliations. The website does not list details of how people voted regarding candidates or initiatives.

The Voter Reference Foundation, created by Republican former Senate candidate Doug Truax of Illinois, announced in December that it would add registered New Mexico voters to its website database VoteRef.com that was established in the wake of the 2020 election and now includes voter rolls from at least 20 states.

That move has prompted calls for a state investigation into possible misuse of election records and a pre-emptive lawsuit by Voter Reference Foundation to ensure its plans to publish the details about New Mexico voters.

The foundation has said its goal is to usher in a "new era of American election transparency."

But New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said in an interview Monday that the foundation's efforts violate state law in New Mexico that restricts the use of voter registration data to political campaigning or noncommercial government purposes.

"This is an overtly political purpose and not necessarily towards a particular campaign and in the government interest," Toulouse Oliver said. "Their purpose is to intimidate voters and make folks become concerned about the security of their information, to potentially cause voters to de-register and not participate in our process."

Toulose Oliver in December referred the group's effort for possible prosecution to the state attorney general. Her office traced voter registration data used by Voter Reference Foundation to a person who paid about $5,400 for access on the condition that the information would be used only for governmental, election, research and campaign purposes.

In its March lawsuit, Voter Reference Foundation argued that New Mexico's restrictions on voter registration data violate free-speech guarantees of the U.S. Constitution.

The foundation said its "election purposes are to increase voter participation and provide transparency regarding New Mexico elections, both of which strengthen election integrity." A preliminary hearing in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque had been scheduled for Tuesday, but was delayed at the request of state officials.

The foundation's website highlights discrepancies in various states between the number of people listed as having voted on registration rolls and the number of ballots cast according to certified election results.

Election officials have described the methodology as flawed, noting that discrepancies likely surface for legitimate reasons when an election result is compared to state voting registration rolls that are continually updated as people change their addresses, enter and leave the state or die.

VoteRef.com on Tuesday added voter registration data from the District of Columbia.

Open Secrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending, has linked the Voter Reference Foundation to political groups supported by Republican political financing megadonor Richard Uihlein.

Toulouse Oliver and Attorney General Hector Balderas have warned residents of Otero County in southern New Mexico to be wary of intrusive questions and potential intimidation by door-to-door canvassers linked to a review of the 2020 election that was authorized by the Republican-led county commission through a private company.

Toulouse Oliver said that authorities are probing whether the contractor improperly obtained bulk voter records through a third party that she did not identify.

New Mexico hails expanded free college, but some remain wary — Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press, Report for America

Even after failing a test that set her back a semester, Maribel Rodriguez will be heading back to nursing school this fall with a generous new state scholarship that abandons eligibility criteria to help more working adults get a college degree.

New Mexico is expanding its "Opportunity Scholarship," which has already paid for Rodriguez's tuition and allowed her to apply federal grants toward living expenses like gas and groceries. She's reapplying to the nursing program and hopes to finish her degree without racking up debt that could hurt her husband and three children.

"I didn't think a whole lot of opportunities were really out there for me at my age," said Rodriguez, 37, of Lovington, New Mexico, who left college at 19 in part because she couldn't afford rent. "Even though if we missed it whenever we were younger there's still hope for us."

Many states — including New Mexico — have for years offered free tuition programs for four-year degrees to residents, but the programs had restrictions, limiting participation to recent high school graduates and requiring that they attend school full-time.

Supporters of those restrictions say they incentivize students to finish their degree and narrow the number of students who participate, reducing costs. But critics argue they create too many hurdles for students to succeed, especially those who are low-income and struggling to work, pay rent and raise a family.

New Mexico's revamped program provides students with more flexibility, including attending college part-time and allowing them to use federal grants for personal expenses. There's no requirement to finish in a set number of years.

"It opens the door for a lot of people, especially people who started a degree and had to leave for some reason," said Kathy Levine, financial aid director at Northern New Mexico College in Española.

Still, Levine and other college counselors hesitate to promise students future funding.

Most of the $75 million expansion of the program relied on one-time federal pandemic relief and is authorized for only one year. If funding is reduced, students could find themselves without support midway into their degree or certificate program.

As recently as 2017, New Mexico cut its other college scholarship program to just 60% of tuition because of an unexpected drop in state revenue. State officials say that program, the Lottery Scholarship, is now solvent at 100% for at least the next four years.

New Mexico's governor and Legislature hope the expanded Opportunity Scholarship will be enough to reverse the state's dismal education outcomes. Only Mississippi has a lower percentage of four-year-degree holders, at 23%, according to Census estimates.

Since 2020, the program has been used by 10,000 state residents pursuing associate's degree programs, including nursing.

"It checks all those boxes, very robust, certainly stands out as a national model," Jessica Thompson, vice president of the left-leaning think tank The Institute for College Access and Success, said of the revised program.

But Thompson warns that states are often ill-equipped to promise generous programs to students long-term because their revenues are so closely tied to the whims of the economy.

Thompson says other states like Oregon have authorized generous programs for undergrads, only to cut them when budgets were lean.

In 2020, Oregon had to cut its budget and tell 1,070 low-income students they wouldn't be receiving the aid previously promised to them. This month, Oregon announced it's doubling its cost-of-living grant for low-income students.

New Mexico officials had estimated that roughly 35,000 students could participate in the expanded program. But that number will likely shrink because universities across the state already have raised tuition, disappointing state higher education officials.

New Mexico Tech raised tuition by 9%, citing increased costs and the availability of the new scholarships. Others raised tuition by around 4%.

Starting in July, universities will have to negotiate with the state on tuition increase limits if they want to participate in the free tuition program. But the law didn't prevent them from increasing tuition before that date.

At least for next year, the expanded program also will make existing support for recent high school graduates even more generous by allowing them to use federal funding for personal expenses, in addition to the existing "Lottery Scholarship" that pays their tuition.

That's welcome news at an arts school in Santa Fe where students discussed their plans with a New Mexico State University recruiter on a lunch break.

"Some of our parents are still paying back their loans from college," said junior Zoë McDonald, 17, an aspiring cinematographer.

Painter Cruz Davis-Martinez, 18, knows he wants a four-year degree and is comparing the University of New Mexico and two schools in other states.

"A lot of my high school career, unfortunately, was spent taking dual credit," Davis-Martinez said, "because I had that financial insecurity."

At age 15, he started traveling 40 minutes so he could take advantage of free college classes paid for by his high school. The idea was to earn college credits so he could save money in college.

Now he's realizing he can attend all the classes he needs without going into debt and without having to work so much that it cripples his academic performance.

Under New Mexico's new plan, he'll get more support than expected, though the exact cost of college is unclear. State officials are still writing the final rules for the program, including what fees will be covered and how much universities can raise tuition.

Thompson said it's important for students to be able to pursue their education without the threat of debt hanging over them. Still, she thinks the state is one economic downturn away from cutting benefits and that the federal government needs to fund more of these programs.

"I'll be surprised if New Mexico can sustain this without, you know, continued federal engagement and involvement in funding," she said. "And I don't think other states can follow them."


Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

Discovery of radioactive liquid pauses work at US nuke dump - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

An area at the U.S. government's nuclear waste repository in southeastern New Mexico was evacuated over the weekend after workers handling a shipping container discovered a small amount of radioactive liquid inside it.

There was no indication of airborne contamination and testing of workers' hands and feet turned up no contamination after the discovery was made late Saturday in a bay where containers are processed before being taken underground for disposal, officials said in a statement issued late Saturday.

"The event at the site has been secured. There is no risk of radiological release and there is no risk to the public or the environment," plant officials said in the statement.

Officials confirmed Monday that the shipment was packed and sent from Idaho National Laboratory, but investigators were trying to determine the source of the liquid found inside the container, said Bobby St. John, a spokesperson for the contractor that manages the repository for the federal government.

The waste containers were securely placed back into the special shipping container, St. John said.

"We have written processes and protocols in place for this type of situation and all protocols were followed," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "Additionally, the (contact-handled waste) bay is designed to contain radiological contaminants in order to protect the workforce, surrounding ecology and the local community."

The repository is the backbone of a multibillion-dollar cleanup program that involves tons of Cold War-era waste from federal labs and defense-related sites around the country.

The waste — remnants of decades of nuclear research and bomb making — typically consists of lab coats, gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements.

Independent federal investigators last month raised concerns about whether cost overruns and missed construction deadlines will continue at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

A multimillion-dollar project is underway at the underground facility to install a new ventilation system so that full operations can resume, following a radiation leak in 2014 that forced the repository's closure for nearly three years and led to major policy overhauls.

The container that caused that release had been inappropriately packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico.

Operations had to be reduced after the waste plant reopened in 2017 because areas of the facility were contaminated and airflow needed for mining and disposal operations was limited.

It was unclear Monday whether operations had resumed in the area where shipments are processed. St. John said only that the shipping container with the radioactive liquid was placed in a "safe configuration, pending results of the investigation and resulting mitigation actions."

The repository was carved out of an ancient salt formation about a half-mile below the ground because officials say that the shifting salt will eventually entomb the radioactive waste.

Its current footprint includes eight sections, which the U.S. Energy Department estimates will be filled in 2025.

State regulators are weighing a permit change that some critics have said could lead to expanded repository operations. A decision is expected later this year.

Congress seeks input on election reform in New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's top elections regulator and voting rights advocates described efforts to combat disinformation and intimidation at the polls and ensure voting access for minority groups, as Democrats on a congressional subcommittee gathered testimony Monday to inform their work on election initiatives.

The field hearing led by Democratic U.S. Rep G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina highlighted New Mexico as a leader in efforts to expand voter access and as a counterpoint to a wave of restrictive new voting laws in Republican-led states, many of which were inspired by former President Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen 2020 election.

New Mexico's two Democratic congresswomen — Reps. Teresa Leger Fernandez and Melanie Stansbury — attended the hearing and called for changes to Senate filibuster rules that have been instrumental in blocking voting rights legislation in Washington.

In January, Senate Democrats fell far short of the 60 votes needed to push past a Republican filibuster of the House-approved Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which would make Election Day a national holiday, ensure access to early voting and mail-in ballots, and enable the Justice Department to intervene in states with a history of voter interference, among other changes.

There were no congressional Republicans in attendance at Monday's field hearing of the House administration elections subcommittee.

New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver told the congressional panel that the "current national discourse about voting and elections have been infected with a disturbing amount of misinformation about how elections are run and about the measures in place to secure the vote."

Toulouse Oliver pressed for additional federal funding to underwrite election cyber-security as well as physical safety at the polling places.

She insisted that voting access can be expanded while also ensuring the security and integrity of elections.

"Although policies like same-day registration are sometimes presented as giving an unfair advantage to Democrats, I should note that more Republican voters utilized same-day registration in the 2020 general election than any other party" in New Mexico, she said.

Heather Ferguson of the progressive watchdog group Common Cause New Mexico said New Mexico stands out as a "beacon of light" against states proposing to restrict voting access. She also called attention to vehicle caravans in recent elections that block or intimidate voters at polling locations.

Separately, Ahtza Dawn Chavez of New Mexico Native Vote noted that it has only been 74 years since a court overturned a New Mexico law that had prevented Native Americans from voting, and that changes are still needed to shore up Native American participation in elections.

A far-reaching state elections bill to expand voting access and protect election workers from harassment failed this year to win approval from the Democratic-led New Mexico Legislature.

FBI offers reward in vandalizing of Santa Fe petroglyphs - Associated Press

The FBI is offering a reward for information leading to an arrest in the vandalizing of the Cieneguilla Petroglyphs in Santa Fe.

The agency announced a $5,000 reward Monday for any details that could help locate a suspect or suspects.

Authorities say the spray-painted graffiti was discovered on the petroglyphs back in January. The Bureau of Land Management oversees the property where the petroglyphs are.

The petroglyphs, which date between the 13th and 17th centuries, draw visitors yearly. They are considered a precious Native American cultural resource.

New Mexico governor's mother, Sonja Lujan, dies at age 82 - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Sonja Lujan, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's mother and an advocate for children with disabilities, has died of natural causes. Sonja Lujan was 82.

The governor's office said in a statement Monday that she died on Sunday. The governor told reporters last week that her mother's health had declined and that she was in hospice care at the governor's residence in Santa Fe.

The first-term governor described her mom as "truly one of a kind" who fought for the best standards of care and refused to back down when she knew more could be done to help children in need.

"Her tenacity and determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges has inspired me every single day of my adult life," Lujan Grisham said. "She taught me to fight hard — to make sure no one is left behind, that no family is lacking the support they need and deserve."

Lujan Grisham said that while neither her mother nor father ever ran for political office, they taught her the importance of serving the community.

Her mother raised three children, including Lujan Grisham's sister, Kimberly, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor as a toddler. Kimberly's illness eventually resulted in blindness, and Sonja Lujan spent years fighting government and health care bureaucracy to make sure her daughter received the resources she needed, according to the governor's office.

As Kimberly grew up and attended the New Mexico School for the Blind, Sonja drove to Alamogordo every weekend to bring her daughter and her classmates back to Santa Fe to spend their days off with family.

Sonja Lujan went on to serve on the school's Board of Regents and remained a caregiver for Kimberly until her death in 1985 at age 21.

"She became a dedicated advocate for my sister Kimberly and children with disabilities across the country simply because there was no other choice," Lujan Grisham said.

Born Sonja Lee Jackson on Jan, 18, 1940, in Brazil, Indiana, she and her family lived abroad at times as her father's career in the U.S. Air Force landed them in Germany and Japan.

In 1959, Sonja married Llewellyn Eugene "Buddy" Lujan. The couple made their first home together in Los Alamos before moving to Santa Fe. Buddy Lujan was a dentist who often provided free care to those who afford to pay, particularly to disabled and underprivileged children. He continued practicing dentistry until his death in 2011 at age 81.

Sonja Lujan spent her final days surrounded by relatives, and the governor said she will be missed dearly.

Sonja Lujan was in an assisted living facility in Albuquerque during the coronavirus pandemic, which was often mentioned by Lujan Grisham. The governor said many of the public health decisions she made at the time were aimed at keeping people like her mother safe.

In a May 2021 post on social media, the governor said that despite the challenges over the past year, she was glad to finally be able to celebrate Mother's Day with her mom in person. She also acknowledged her mother's birthday during her state of the state address in January.

New Mexico senator sues fellow senator over retaliatory acts - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

New Mexico state Sen. Jacob Candelaria is suing fellow Sen. Mimi Stewart, accusing her of retaliation over his criticism of her leadership.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports Candelaria, an independent, believes Stewart, a Democrat, used her authority as president pro tem of the Senate to move his Capitol office and change his seat on the Senate floor.

Candelaria, 35, says he is suing out of principle because "any form of reprisal is unlawful."

A spokesman for Senate Democrats said Stewart, 75, would not comment on the lawsuit.

The relationship between the two senators was already known to be icy. But things escalated after Stewart allowed an investigation of a state administrator accused of making racist remarks but didn't alert all state legislators.

Several staffers under Rachel Gudgel, director of the Legislative Education Study Committee, alleged she made racist comments about Native Americans, belittled a gay man and had a harsh management style.

Only a few other legislative leaders knew an attorney was conducting an investigation into her conduct. But this did not include eight of the 10 lawmakers with direct supervisory authority over her.

Candelaria and others called for her dismissal but Stewart remained a steadfast defender of Gudgel.

Gudgel eventually resigned.

Candelaria wants his lawsuit to go to trial even though he's resigning from the Senate in December in the middle of a third term.