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WED: New Mexico certifies primary election results after standoff, Top elections regulator says she was threatened, + More

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver certify results of the state's primary election on Tuesday, June, 28, 2022, at the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M. The June 7 primary was nearly derailed by county officials amid voter distrust fueled by unfounded voting machine conspiracies that have spread in the U.S. Toulouse Oliver says she wants to provide better access to accurate information about the election process. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
Morgan Lee/AP
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, and Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver certify results of the state's primary election on Tuesday, June, 28, 2022, at the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M. The June 7 primary was nearly derailed by county officials amid voter distrust fueled by unfounded voting machine conspiracies that have spread in the U.S. Toulouse Oliver says she wants to provide better access to accurate information about the election process. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

Top New Mexico elections regulator says she was threatened - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's top elections regulator says she received threats to her safety via an email and telephone calls to her offices and that the FBI has been notified.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver on Tuesday told The Associated Press that there have been three instances of threats against her within the last two weeks and that federal investigators have been alerted. Two threats were made indirectly in phone calls to the office of the secretary of state.

FBI spokesman Frank Fisher in Albuquerque said the agency had been contacted by the secretary of state's office regarding communications it received and declined further comment.

Toulouse Oliver previously went into hiding in response to online threats by leaving her home for several weeks in December 2020 and January 2021. Investigators linked those threats on a website against multiple election officials to Iran.

"I went a nice, long period without anything" threatening, Toulouse Oliver said. "My election security officer has referred them over to the FBI. They're looking into it obviously."

Toulouse Oliver said the threatening email touched upon social media and video commentary by a conservative filmmaker in defense of his widely debunked documentary "2000 Mules" that alleges widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

The New Mexico Secretary of State's Office has sought to dispel false assertions in the movie on the agency's "rumor versus reality" website regarding elections and misinformation, prompting a response from filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza.

Toulouse Oliver was closely involved in a standoff with local officials in Otero County in recent weeks that nearly derailed certification of election results.

The Otero County Commission initially refused to certify local results of the June 7 primary because of unspecified concerns with Dominion Voting Systems, a target of widespread conspiracy theories since the 2020 presidential election.

After an order by the New Mexico Supreme Court to certify, the commissioners voted 2-1 to sign off on the election and avert a broader crisis. Statewide results in the June 7 primary were certified Tuesday by the state canvassing board.

New Mexico certifies primary election results after standoff - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's state election board on Tuesday certified results of a primary that was nearly derailed by county officials amid voter anger and distrust fueled by unfounded conspiracies about vote-counting equipment and election procedures.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, both Democrats, voted together to endorse the election results as members of the state election canvassing board, at a sparsely attended meeting in the state Capitol. A third board member, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon, had a scheduling conflict and was attending a retreat with chief judges and court executive officers.

County commissioners in politically conservative Otero County initially refused to certify local primary election results because of unspecified concerns with Dominion voting systems, a target of widespread conspiracy theories since the 2020 presidential election.

Two of three county commissioners relented and certified the primary results under an order from the New Mexico Supreme Court and pushback from state election regulators and prosecutors.

Outbursts from angry crowds were on display in Torrance and Sandoval counties as local boards certified their local primary results. Those county commissions later approved resolutions that highlight dissatisfaction with election procedures.

Toulouse Oliver said an independent auditor reviewed the primary results with no findings of irregularities. Responding to anger that roiled the county election certification process, Toulouse said "we are just trying to be as transparent as possible about all the different checks and balances that go into ensuring an accurate, fair election."

She urged people who are concerned about the way elections are run to learn more and volunteer to work as poll workers. She said her office is "strategizing currently about how do we better work with and educate county commissioners."

"If you have concerns about the integrity of the election, put your money where your mouth is and go work the polls and be part of making sure the election is run legally and fairly," she said.

At the same time, New Mexico's top election regulator said that the primary adhered to state and federal election law, and warned that a refusal by county boards to certify the election would disenfranchise voters.

"Had Otero County not certified, they would have just effectively flushed 7,300 votes down the drain for every candidate on the ballot that was entirely within that county," said Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who is running for reelection in November against Republican nominee Audrey Trujillo.

In the wake of the election standoff, Torrance County commissioners have approved a resolution that seeks to "verify and audit" the outcome of the primary election using a hand-tally method.

The all-Republican commission continues to raise concerns that the current criteria for certifying state-owned Dominion machines may be outdated. The machines also are tested locally prior to each election in view of the public to ensure they provide an accurate count.

Toulouse Oliver offered assurances that New Mexico is using the most current standards available in the U.S. for certifying vote-tallying machines and related computer coding. She said that state law allows for a discretionary recount with specific procedures.

Election experts say hand-counting of ballots is not only less accurate but extremely labor-intensive, potentially delaying results by weeks if not months in larger counties. They also say it's unnecessary because voting equipment is tested before and after elections to ensure ballots are read and tallied correctly.

Automatic recounts have been ordered in six local election contests for judges, county commissioners and county assessor with narrow margins of victory.

Biden administration holding its first onshore oil sales - By Matthew Brown Associated Press

The U.S. government this week is holding its first onshore oil and natural gas drilling lease auctions since President Joe Biden took office after a federal court blocked the administration's attempt to suspend such sales because of climate change worries.

The online auctions start Wednesday and conclude Thursday. About 200 square miles of federal lands were offered for lease in eight western states. Most of the parcels are in Wyoming.

The sales come as federal officials try to balance efforts to fight climate change against pressure to bring down high gas prices.

Republicans want Biden to expand U.S. crude production. He faces calls from within his own party to do more to curb fossil fuel emissions that are heating the planet.

Oil production increased in the U.S. in recent months, but it's still well below pre-pandemic levels. Companies have been hesitant to expand too quickly because of uncertainty over how long high prices will continue.

A coalition of 10 environmental groups said in a lawsuit filed before the sales even began that they were illegal because officials acknowledged the climate change impacts but proceeded anyway.

An immediate ruling was not expected. Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said the agency did not have comment on the litigation.

Beginning with this week's sales the royalty rate for oil produced from new federal leases is increasing to 18.75% from 12.5%. That's a 50% jump and marks the first increase since the 1920s.

Parcels also are being offered in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Hundreds of parcels of public land that companies nominated for leasing had been previously dropped by the administration because of concerns over wildlife being harmed by drilling rigs. More parcels covering about 19 square miles were dropped at the last minute in Wyoming because of potential impacts on wilderness, officials said.

But attorney Melissa Hornbein with the Western Environmental Law Center said the reductions in the size of the sales were not enough.

"They are hoping that by choosing to hold sales on a smaller amount of acreage they are threading the needle. But from our perspective, the climate science is the one thing that doesn't lie," Hornbein said.

Oil industry representative Kathleen Sgamma said the environmentalists' lawsuit ignores the fact that lease sales from U.S. lands are required under federal law.

"Public lands are managed in a balanced manner. Balance is a word these groups don't understand," said Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies.

Fossil fuels extracted from public lands account for about 20% of energy-related U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making them a prime target for climate activists who want to shut down leasing.

Biden suspended new leasing just a week after taking office in January 2021. A federal judge in Louisiana ordered the sales to resume, saying Interior officials had offered no "rational explanation" for canceling them and only Congress could do so.

The government held an offshore lease auction in the Gulf of Mexico in November, although a court later blocked that sale before the leases were issued.

ABQ encampments rule becomes official; City Council repeal expected soon – By Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

An ordinance is on the books today allowing Albuquerque city government to sanction camps for unhoused people. It will take effect July 28, though it’s looking like the Albuquerque Council will repeal it soon after that.

Tuesday, the city clerk filed the “Integrated Development Ordinance,” which includes an amendment that lets the city approve permits for camps and establishes legal protections for people living in tents in public spaces.

The ordinance was sent to the clerk on Friday without a decision from Mayor Tim Keller, who could have signed or vetoed the measure. He took no action, which means the law is established anyway.

The City Council is expected to vote on a repeal of the encampment law when it meets again in August. Northeast Heights councilor Brook Bassan is leading the charge to repeal, reversing her support for the “Safe Outdoor Spaces” plan just weeks after she voted in favor of the amendment.

Bassan began her attack at last week’s City Council meeting — her swing vote struck down a proposal meant to generate rules and guidelines for how to sanction camps.

She is expected to introduce a bill that would put a one-year moratorium on sanctioned encampments that could have a final action by mid-August. Her push for a full repeal is expected to take months as it will likely have to go through several committees, according to City Council spokesperson Julian Moya.

Bassan said outrage from her constituents in the Heights caused her to reconsider.

As Bassan and her supporters on the Council wait more than a month to continue their repeal battle, the city is still responsible for rolling out the new law on sanctioned camps later this month without a Council direction on a framework.

What’s next is unclear, especially with so much uncertainty around the proposal. But the ordinance does require the city to assign someone to create a development plan within 100 days after the law goes into effect.

That could help determine locations for encampments, guidelines for applying, as well as safety plans for operations.

Anyone who applies would have to go through the Planning Department to figure out how to meet the standards, Moya said, and file a management and security plan with the Family and Community Services Department.

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 - or ERB - began acceptingapplications for the new “return to work” program this month.

The office of the governor says the new law applies to an estimated 48-thousand retired K-12 and college educators.

The program allows retired faculty 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 ‑ bolsters 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 or email.

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.

Truck tragedy a reminder of struggle to stop migrant deaths - By Chris Megerian And Elliot Spagat Associated Press

Drowned in the Rio Grande. Murdered in Mexico. Perished in the Arizona desert. For migrants traveling to the United States, the journey has always been full of peril.

A tragic reminder came this week when at least 51 people died after being abandoned in the back of a tractor-trailer in sweltering San Antonio. Authorities believe the vehicle was part of a human-smuggling operation.

While the scale of the calamity was shocking, it's only the most recent example to illustrate how U.S. officials have struggled to find the right strategy for patrolling the border and preventing deaths.

Lax enforcement can encourage more people to travel north in hopes of a better life. But clamping down is not always a deterrent. Instead, migrants may rely on riskier routes to avoid detection, or put themselves in the hands of smugglers who promise that they can evade authorities for a price.

The San Antonio tragedy triggered familiar reactions across the U.S. political spectrum, indicating that a solemn record as the deadliest smuggling attempt in the nation's history will do little or nothing to reshape a debate that has hamstrung Washington for decades. Finger-pointing began almost immediately.

President Joe Biden, in Europe this week for international summits, said the deaths were "horrifying and heartbreaking."

"Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy, and my administration will continue to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry," Biden said.

The migrants were discovered on Monday when a city worker heard a cry for help from the abandoned truck that was parked on the side of a back road. Dozens were already dead; more died at nearby hospitals.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who is investing billions of dollars of state money on border security, tweeted within hours of the grisly discovery that the deaths were "on Biden."

"They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law," Abbott said.

Immigration advocates disagreed with Abbott's criticism and said Biden was too focused on enforcement. A federal judge has kept in place a Trump-era policy that denies many migrants a chance to seek asylum on grounds of preventing spread of COVID-19.

"If the Biden administration continues to illegally turn away migrants and deny their chance to rightfully seek asylum, individuals and families escaping persecution, war, and climate disasters will continue to face violence and death," advocacy group RAICES Texas said in a statement.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One — as Biden was flying between summits in Germany and Spain — that the administration was focused on the victims and holding human smugglers accountable.

"The fact of the matter is, the border is closed, which is in part why you see people trying to make this dangerous journey using smuggling networks," she said.

The U.N. migration agency has reported that nearly 3,000 people went missing or died trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States since 2014. The San Antonio tragedy pushed the total to nearly 300 for the first half of this year.

The International Organization for Migration, along with the U.N. refugee agency, called for a swift investigation.

"Without sufficient pathways to safety, vulnerable and desperate people will continue to be preyed upon by smugglers or forced to resort to desperate measures to cross borders," said Matthew Reynolds, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' representative to the United States and Caribbean.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which counts deaths differently, reported 557 people perished on the southwest border in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998.

Deaths became commonplace on the border after "Operation Gatekeeper," launched in 1994, pushed migrant traffic to the Arizona deserts from San Diego. Despite billions of dollars spent every year on border security since then, neither Republican or Democratic administrations have been able to stem the loss of life.

Migrants routinely take risks to cross into the United States.

Jose Castillo, 43, left Nicaragua with his wife and 14-year-old son in January but didn't cross the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, Texas, until May, paralyzed with fear that they would drown. He and his wife finally decided that one of them could die, as long as their child made it safely. They took a chance — and it worked.

"We can never return to Nicaragua," he said.

Under Trump and Biden, Border Patrol agents have been stretched extremely thin because they spend long stretches of time processing cases for immigration court. Such responsibilities take them out of the field, making it easier for people to cross undetected. The Border Patrol recently began releasing tens of thousands of migrants on parole in hopes of freeing up more agents to be in the field to try to stop migrants.

The number of people found crossing the border illegally is at or near the highest in about two decades. Decisions to migrate are complex, but it could be that many people are getting through undetected and encouraging others to come. Migrants who succeed sometimes tell their stories to family and friends back home, encouraging them to follow.

At the same time, Title 42 has encouraged repeat attempts to cross the border because there are no legal consequences, such as criminal charges or records of deportation, for getting caught. Many people cross several times until they succeed.

It's unclear whether any of the migrants who died in San Antonio had previously been expelled.

Isis Peña, 45, fled Honduras with a friend, who urged her to cross the border illegally. Peña refused but began to regret her decision after the friend soon called from San Antonio to say she made it easily and U.S. authorities didn't even ask her any questions before getting released.

The next day, Peña tried to cross. Although she made it across the river, she was expelled to Mexico under Title 42 authority.