TUES: New Mexico to pay feds more than $19M over SNAP mishandling, + More
New Mexico to pay feds more than $19M over SNAP mishandling - Associated Press
New Mexico will pay the federal government more than $19 million to settle a claim by the Department of Agriculture that the state mishandled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and overpaid some needy families in 2014 and 2016, a newspaper reported Tuesday.
The Albuquerque Journal said in a copyright story that the state has agreed to spend about $15.8 million over the next three years to strengthen administration of the SNAP program.
New Mexico's Human Services Department also will pay the federal government about $3.6 million, bringing the total cost of the settlement to almost $19.4 million.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase told the Journal that the state Legislature has already authorized the funding necessary to cover the first year of the settlement.
"We've reestablished a trusting relationship between ourselves and the USDA," Scrase said Monday.
Federal officials initially sent the state a bill for nearly $164 million. New Mexico disputed that it had overpaid benefits anywhere near that much.
According to the Journal, federal officials accused New Mexico of certifying applicants as eligible without proper verification, incorrectly keeping applications pending beyond a deadline and improperly paying retroactive benefits.
The newspaper said New Mexico acknowledged liability of about $7 million.
Retired New Mexico teachers can apply to return to work without losing pension - By Nash Jones, KUNM News
Applications are open for retired New Mexico educators who are interested in teaching again while still holding onto their pensions.
A spokesperson for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that while the new law went into effect in May, the New Mexico Educational Retirement Board began accepting applications for the new “return to work” program this month.
The office of the governor says the new law applies to an estimated 48,000 retired K-12 and college educators.
The program allows retired faculty to come out of retirement to teach at a public school, college or university in New Mexico for up to three years without losing their pension benefits.
President of the teachers’ union AFT New Mexico, Whitney Holland, said in a statement that the legislation, which received broad bipartisan support earlier this year, supports the recruitment of quality educators amid a teacher shortage in New Mexico while “maintaining the financial security of our educational pension fund.”
Educators must be retired for at least 90 days before becoming eligible for the program. ERB staff are available to assist interested retirees in exploring their options, including their pension plan, by phone at 866-691-2345 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lawyer who advised Trump says federal agents seized phone in NM - By Eric Tucker Associated Press
A conservative lawyer who aided former President Donald Trump's efforts to undo the 2020 election results and who has been repeatedly referenced in House hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol said in a New Mexico court filing Monday that federal agents seized his cell phone last week.
John Eastman said the agents took his phone as he left a restaurant last Wednesday evening, the same day law enforcement officials conducted similar activity around the country as part of broadening probes into efforts by Trump allies to overturn the election.
The move underscores federal investigators' interest in the unsuccessful schemes advanced by Trump advisers to help keep the Republican president in power in the period between the November 2020 election and the riot at the Capitol two months later, when Trump loyalists stormed the building to halt the certification of the election results.
Eastman said the agents who approached him identified themselves as from the FBI but appeared to be serving a warrant on behalf of the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, which he contends has no jurisdiction to investigate him since he has never worked for the department. He said the cell phone that was seized contains emails that have been the subject of a months-long dispute between him and the House panel.
"That litigation has received extensive media attention, so it is hard to imagine that the Department of Justice, which apparently submitted the application for the warrant at issue here, was not aware of it," wrote his lawyers, Charles Burnham and Joseph Gribble.
The action was disclosed in a filing in federal court in New Mexico in which Eastman challenges the legitimacy of the warrant, calling it overly broad, and asks that a court force the federal government to return his phone. He says the warrant does not specify any particular crime for which evidence from the phone might be relevant.
The filing does not specify where exactly agents seized his phone, though the warrant was signed by a federal magistrate judge in New Mexico and footage of the seizure aired by Fox News on Monday night describes it as having occurred in the city of Santa Fe. Lawyers for Eastman did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
Federal agents investigating the run-up to the Jan. 6 riot last week served a raft of subpoenas related to a scheme by Trump allies to put forward alternate, or fake, slates of electors in hopes of invalidating the election won by Democrat Joe Biden. Also that day, agents searched the Virginia home of Jeffrey Clark, a Trump Justice Department official who encouraged Trump's challenges of the election results.
A spokeswoman for the inspector general's office declined to comment.
Eastman, who last year resigned his position as a law professor at Chapman University, has been a central figure in the ongoing hearings by the House committee investigating the riot at the Capitol, though he has not been among the witnesses to testify.
The committee has heard testimony about how Eastman put forward a last-ditch, unorthodox proposal challenging the workings of the 130-year-old Electoral Count Act, which governs the process for tallying the election results in Congress.
Eastman pushed for Vice President Mike Pence to deviate from his ceremonial role and halt the certification of the electoral votes, a step Pence had no legal power to take and refused to attempt. His plan was to have the states send alternative slates of electors from states Trump was disputing, including Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
With competing slates for Trump or Biden, Pence would be forced to reject them, returning them to the states to sort it out, under the plan.
A lawyer for Pence, Greg Jacob, detailed for the committee at a hearing earlier this month how he had fended off Eastman's pressure, and another witness, retired federal judge Michael Luttig, has called the plan from Eastman "incorrect at every turn."
The panel played video showing Eastman repeatedly invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination while being interviewed by the committee.
Eastman later sought to be "on the pardon list," according to an email he sent to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, shared by the committee.
Report: Lack of water access costs U.S. $8.6B each year - By Leah Willingham Associated Press
At least 2 million Americans don't have running water or a working toilet at home, a crisis that costs the U.S. economy $8.58 billion each year, according to a report released Tuesday by nonprofit DigDeep.
These water access issues disproportionately impact Indigenous tribes, people of color, immigrants, low-income people and those living in rural areas -- communities that have been largely excluded from past investments in water infrastructure, according to the report.
"Closing the water access gap will help correct these inequities, and directly benefit underserved communities," the report says.
California-based DigDeep compiled the report, "Draining: The Economic Impact of America's Hidden Water Crisis," using U.S. Census and other data to estimate the price tag of life without a toilet or tap.
The study found households without water and sanitation access spend an average of $15,800 a year more than other households in healthcare costs, lost productivity at work and at school and other issues. Purchasing bottled drinking water costs a family an average of $1,350 a year — an estimated $291 million for all households living without access across the country.
In many cases, those costs amount to more than that household's annual income.
"People are really feeling this at the gas pump and in their home budgets and no one's feeling it more than people who are already spending a third or half of their monthly income just to get enough water to survive," DigDeep CEO and Founder George McGraw told The Associated Press.
Families living in places like West Virginia and Navajo Nation in the western U.S. spend hours each week hauling water from streams, wells, or grocery stores, McGraw said. They have a higher risk of waterborne disease, diabetes, physical injury and acute mental stress.
The report estimates that the increased risk of disease, physical injuries from hauling water, and greater overall healthcare bills that come from lack of water and sanitation access across the U.S. cost a total average of $762 million a year. Each year, the water access gap causes 219,000 cases of waterborne illness and kills an estimated 610 people, according to the report.
In 2019, DigDeep released a report with US Water Alliance revealing that more than 2.2 million Americans live without running water or a flush toilet at home.
"Now we are finally able to measure the true magnitude of those impacts in real dollars. We must close the water access gap," McGraw said. "As this report shows, we can't afford not to."
The report suggests a number of recommendations to close the water gap, including that Congress appropriate around $42 billion in new spending to create long-term, sustainable water and sanitation access for all Americans. That includes $18.4 billion over the next 10 years.
DigDeep estimates that closing the water access gap could create nearly $200 billion of economic value over the next 50 years.
New Mexico governor orders safeguards for abortion access - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
New Mexico's Democratic governor took steps Monday to ensure safe harbor to people seeking abortions or providing abortions at health care facilities within the state.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order that prohibits cooperation with other states that might interfere with abortion access in New Mexico, declining to carry out any future arrest warrants from other states related to anti-abortion provisions. The order also prohibits most New Mexico state employees from assisting other states in investigating or seeking sanctions against local abortion providers.
"Residents seeking access will be protected, providers will be protected, and abortion is and will continue to be legal, safe and accessible, period," said Lujan Grisham, who is running for a second term in November.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision and ended constitutional protection for abortion, the battle over abortion rights has shifted to lower courts around the country, as one side sought quickly to put statewide bans into effect and the other tried to stop or at least delay such measures.
Lujan Grisham has signaled her steadfast support for continuing legal access to abortion in New Mexico.
She also ordered a review to ensure that reproductive health care providers won't be disqualified or disciplined by state professional licensure provisions under criteria from other states.
"It means we will not cooperate for any criminalization attempt," Lujan Grisham said at a news conference at her Capitol offices. "I think you will see a coalition of states that really work to shut off access" to abortion.
Last year, Lujan Grisham signed legislation to repeal a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures.
New Mexico is likely to continue to see a steady influx of people seeking abortions from neighboring states with more restrictive abortion laws. It already hosts patients from Texas and Oklahoma, where strict abortion bans were adopted earlier this year.
Albuquerque is home to one of only a few independent clinics in the country that perform abortions in the third trimester without conditions. An abortion clinic in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, is just a mile from the state line with Texas near El Paso.
The Republican nominee for governor, former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti, has proposed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest and when a mother's life is at increased risk.
That legislative proposal was described as dead on arrival by Democratic state Senate Whip Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, who attended the news conference.
The owner of the Jackson Women's Health Organization that is at the center of last week's Supreme Court decision says that she plans to open a new clinic in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as soon as mid-July.
Lujan Grisham said she'll encourage abortion providers to expand in New Mexico and consider possible financial incentives.
The governor said her administration would continue to pursue reductions in unplanned and unwanted pregnancies through state investments in family planning services and criminal justice programs, at the same time the state expands support for working families such as access to free child care.
"We should have fewer unwanted pregnancies. We should have fewer pregnancies from high risk issues, including violence, including rape," she said. "We need to do more in the family planning and healthy-family space."
US makes more wildfire recovery aid available for New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday authorized an increase in funding for debris removal and other emergency measures being taken as a result of a historic wildfire season in New Mexico that stemmed partly from missteps by federal forest managers in starting a prescribed burn.
The additional funding comes through an amended disaster declaration signed by the president that calls for direct federal assistance to be increased to 100% of the total eligible costs for 90 days following the declaration.
The wildfire still smoldering in the Rocky Mountain foothills of northern New Mexico grew to become the largest in the U.S. this spring after it was sparked in April by two planned government burns meant to reduce wildfire danger.
The U.S. Forest Service acknowledged in a recent report that managers underestimated how dry things have become in the Southwest over the last two decades and that modeling and training needs to improve to account for the extreme conditions.
Thousands of residents were displaced by the blaze, hundreds of homes were destroyed and now officials are warning of post-fire flooding.
Burn scars in both New Mexico and neighboring Arizona have been hit over recent days with rain as the Southwest region marks a robust start to the monsoon season.
Scott Sterns, a meteorologist assigned to the big fire in New Mexico, said Monday that up to 3 inches of rain fell over the last three days on some parts of the fire — which spans more than 533 square miles of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.
The potential for runoff is high now that the soils are saturated and the vegetation is moist, Sterns said.
"There's really not a whole lot more good we can do with more moisture at the moment," he said during a briefing. "The nice thing is so far on the incident we've had fairly consistent long duration moisture and that's always good to keep the (relative humidity) higher, which really helps us out in terms of the fuel situation."
There has been much criticism of the federal government in New Mexico for causing the largest wildfire, with some residents saying they have been left to wade through a bureaucratic maze as they look to be reimbursed for their losses.
Biden vowed during a visit earlier this month that the federal government would cover the full cost of the emergency response and debris removal, a responsibility that was previously shared with the state government.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more than $3.5 million in assistance for housing and other needs have been approved for residents so far.
The agency also is considering disaster requests for several other states from Minnesota to Tennessee because of wildfires, tornadoes and flooding since late April.
Scientists and government officials have warned of more severe weather as the world keeps getting hotter. In the United States, there were 20 weather or climate disasters last year with losses exceeding $1 billion a year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In southwestern New Mexico, a half-inch of rain has fallen each day, stalling efforts to rehabilitate fire lines around a massive blaze that has burned through the rugged Black Range.
Parts of northern Arizona, where a series of wildfires burned homes and forced evacuations over recent months, saw flooding over the weekend as storms brought rain, hail and wind. The National Weather Service reported that some roads in the Flagstaff area were closed as creeks and washes filled up with storm runoff.
Some cities nix July 4 fireworks for shortages, fire dangers - By Anita Snow Associated Press
The skies over a scattering of Western U.S. cities will stay dark for the third consecutive Fourth of July as some major fireworks displays are canceled again this year — some over wildfire concerns amid dry weather and others because of enduring pandemic-related staffing and supply chain issues.
Phoenix canceled its three major Independence Day displays because it couldn't obtain professional-grade fireworks. Shows in several other cities around Phoenix are still on.
"Unless you're in a really remote area where that was the only show, most people will be able to find a show nearby," said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.
Overseas shipping, transportation in the U.S., rising insurance costs and labor shortages have led to the canceled displays, along with demand for fireworks shows at concerts, sports stadiums and the Fourth of July holiday that largely were absent during the first two years of the pandemic, Heckman said.
"The demand is so high that it's almost like a perfect storm," Heckman said, adding that not having enough crew to work the shows or rental trucks to transport materials have added to the crunch.
China produces most of the professional-grade fireworks that shoot up into the air and produce colorful, dazzling bursts in various shapes. The shortage doesn't lie in manufacturing, Heckman said, but in congestion at U.S. ports.
Heckman said some companies recently chartered about a dozen vessels, each carrying 200-250 containers of consumer-grade fireworks that are considered hazardous material, and shipped them to ports in Alabama and Louisiana to free up space at ports on the West Coast.
Other cities around the country are halting the displays because of the threat of wildfire. Flagstaff in northern Arizona will carry out its annual Independence Day parade through the city's historic downtown, but a new laser light show will replace the standard pyrotechnic display.
Three large wildfires skirted the mountainous city this spring alone, prompting hundreds of people to evacuate, closing down a major highway and destroying some homes.
"The decision was made early because we wanted people to be able to make plans with their families," said Flagstaff city spokesperson Sarah Langley.
Many local jurisdictions have banned the use of fireworks amid a punishing drought, even with an early start of the annual rainy season that already has led to flooding in the U.S. Southwest. Fireworks always are prohibited in national forests.
A popular northern San Joaquin Valley fireworks show that in pre-pandemic times brought tens of thousands of people to Lake Don Pedro, California, also was canceled because of drought concerns, including the lake's projected low level.
"The safety of our guests and being good stewards of the land entrusted to us are our highest priorities," the Don Pedro Recreation Agency said in a statement.
Lompoc on California's central coast and Castle Rock in Colorado canceled their pyrotechnic displays over worries about wildfires. Still, an Independence Eve fireworks show with live music by the Colorado Symphony is planned July 3 at Denver's Civic Center Park.
In New Mexico, the most destructive wildfire season in modern history won't stop that state's major cities, including Albuquerque and Santa Fe, from holding Fourth of July fireworks displays under fire department supervision.
The Southgate Mall in Missoula, Montana, canceled its annual Fourth of July celebration and fireworks show without giving a reason.
Elsewhere in the U.S., some North Carolina towns canceled displays after a recent fireworks-related explosion killed a man on a small farm and a large cache of fireworks were destroyed in a related fire.
In Minneapolis, a fireworks display over the Mississippi won't be held because of staff shortages and construction at a nearby park.
Those who plan to light up consumer-grade fireworks like bottle rockets, firecrackers and ground-level fountains at home can expect to pay more for them. The American Pyrotechnic Association estimates that costs are up 35% across the industry.
Fire officials in some cities worry that the cancelations of community displays could prompt some people to ramp up their use of consumer-grade fireworks.
"We are typically worried about exposure of sparks and fire to homes and dry brush," said Phoenix Fire spokesperson Capt. Evan Gammage. "We get so many calls around this time of year."
New Mexico inks trust land leases for massive wind project - Associated Press
New Mexico's public land commissioner on Monday signed nearly a dozen leases that will clear the way for a major renewable energy developer to erect wind turbines across 230 square miles of state trust land.
Officials are billing Pattern Energy's planned development in Lincoln, Torrance and San Miguel counties as the largest wind energy project in the western hemisphere.
The company at the end of 2021 brought online four wind farms in central New Mexico totaling more than a gigawatt of capacity for utility customers in California. The new leases will be part of the larger SunZia project, which will ultimately have a capacity of 3,000 megawatts to power homes in more populated markets in the West.
New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said that together, the 11 leases signed Monday mark the largest leasing of state trust land for renewable energy development in the state's history.
"Tripling renewable energy may have sounded like a lofty goal, but we have made it there by executing these leases and we won't stop now," she said in a statement.
Pattern Energy has said it plans to invest $6 billion in upcoming wind energy and related infrastructure projects in the state over the next decade.
The company had a total winning bid of nearly $9.3 million for the parcels. State officials said they expect revenue from the planned project to bring in at least $196 million over its lifetime to benefit public schools and other state institutions.
In all, the State Land Office oversees 26 wind energy leases and 12 solar energy leases. The agency said it also has several dozen applications for new renewable energy leases in the pipeline.
Manchin: Commission on veterans facilities to be dismantled - By John Raby Associated Press
A group of U.S. senators has agreed to effectively dismantle a commission tasked by the Department of Veterans Affairs to carry out closures, downsizing and other significant medical facility changes nationwide, Sen. Joe Manchin said Monday.
The West Virginia Democrat, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said there is bipartisan support to avoid filling vacancies on the VA's Assets and Infrastructure Review Commission and to end the commission in the next National Defense Authorization Act.
The commission had recommended the closures or downsizing of several older facilities, a proposal that Manchin worried would significantly alter services provided to rural veterans across the country. But other groups had welcomed the commission's work, saying it was necessary to modernize and improve the VA's health offerings.
Manchin said in a statement that without the Senate's approval of the AIR Commission and its nominees, no commission will be established and the process as outlined by the 2018 VA Mission Act "will not move forward." The act required Veterans Affairs to make recommendations for its medical facilities and health care delivery, either through facility expansions, relocations, closures or changes in services.
For instance, the recommendations would have downsized three of four VA medical centers in West Virginia and would have closed four community-based outpatient clinics in New Mexico.
The group of senators said in the statement that the VA's recommendations given to the commission are not reflective of upholding the nation's obligations to its veterans.
The recommendations would put veterans "in both rural and urban areas at a disadvantage, which is why we are announcing that this process does not have our support and will not move forward," the statement said. "The Commission is not necessary for our continued push to invest in VA health infrastructure, and together we remain dedicated to providing the Department with the resources and tools it needs to continue delivering quality care and earned services to Veterans in 21st century facilities—now and into the future."
Joining Manchin in the letter were Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Martin Henrich and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Patty Murray of Washington, and Republicans Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Mike Rounds and John Thune of South Dakota, Rob Portman of Ohio and Steve Daines of Montana.
The group Concerned Veterans for America said the senators' decision will only harm veterans.
"To say this is disappointing is an understatement," group senior adviser Darin Selnick said in a statement. "Simply put, this decision is short-sighted and will hurt veterans by keeping them trapped in a broken and outdated system not built to address their needs. The AIR commission was the best chance to modernize the VA health care system to meet the needs of the veterans it serves."
The VA released preliminary recommendations in March, prompting a bipartisan group of senators led by Manchin to initially ask President Joe Biden to be sure that rural perspectives were considered by the AIR Commission.