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SAT: Thunderstorms bring flooding to the Southwest, "Breaking Bad" statues shine a new spotlight on the show and Albuquerque, + More

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Southwest rains flood deserts, cascade into Vegas casinosBy Ken Ritter, Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Intense summer thunderstorms that drenched parts of Las Vegas — causing water to cascade from casino ceilings and pool on the carpet of a stadium-sized sports betting area — were part of a broad regional monsoon pattern that may repeat through the weekend, a National Weather Service official said Friday.

"We're getting right into the heart of the most active part," said John Adair, a veteran meteorologist at the weather service office near Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas. "This is turning out to be a pretty active monsoon season, compared with the last five years or so. There's plenty of more opportunities for thunderstorms to develop."

The annual weather pattern has brought a parade of storms across the U.S. Southwest in recent weeks that lead to flooding in normally dry washes, rain measured in inches and rescue operations.

In Arizona, a driver had to be rescued from a vehicle caught in floodwaters in Apache Junction. A youth conservation crew abandoned the red truck they were riding in at Canyon de Chelly National Monument on the Navajo Nation when it got stuck in the mud and water rose around it. Mohave County sheriff's officials rescued a woman who was clinging to a stop sign earlier this week after her car was swept away.

Parts of the Hualapai Mountains in Mohave County have received up to 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) of rain in recent days, Adair said. The National Weather Service said parts of Arizona can expect 1 (2.5 centimeters) to 2 (5 centimeters) inches of rain per hour before a flood watch expired Saturday morning.

While the rain is welcome in a region gripped by drought, it creates headaches for neighborhoods where wildfires have stripped the land of vegetation, which normally slows and partially absorbs floodwaters.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted a request to include effects of flooding and mudslides in certain counties hit by massive wildfires this year to the state's disaster declaration.

In northern Arizona, Flagstaff residents have grown accustomed to constant alerts on cell phones and sirens in neighborhoods warning of imminent flooding.

Bret Henneman estimates he has about 3,500 sandbags around his home just north of Flagstaff where two wildfires burned this spring. His wife was babysitting and had the back door open two weeks ago when heavy rain fell and sent a few inches of rain and mud through the home.

With every flood alert, they now cringe.

"We still need the rains and all that and we really need the monsoons around here," said Henneman, who is staying with family while his house dries out. "It's just that wildfires have changed everything. So, yeah, when it does rain, we're in fear."

Parts of Arizona, including the towns of Heber, Show Low, Bellemont and Prescott, are near or above 200% of normal rainfall so far during the monsoon, which started June 15 and runs through September. The weather pattern is hit-and-miss, though, meaning some places like Payson are far below normal.

"There's not really a good explanation for why that occurs, but that's part of the nature of storms," said Valerie Meola, a meteorologist with the weather service in Flagstaff.

Jacquetta Brown was walking on a trail in Canyon de Chelly near Chinle, Arizona, this week when heavy rain swept through and she spotted the red truck partially submerged. The rain is a blessing for crops that families plant in the canyon and livestock, she said, but the monsoon also comes with a downside.

"We have dirt roads here, and when we can't cross the wash, we can't get to work and school," Brown said.

While only 0.3 inch (0.76 centimeters) of rain was registered at the Las Vegas airport late Thursday, more than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) fell just 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) away at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Adair said.

Nearby wind gusts peaked at 71 mph (114 kph) and toppled trees. Pea-sized hail fell from lightning-streaked skies in suburban Henderson, where almost 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) of rain fell in some areas.

Police, county and city officials and the weather service said no injuries or widespread damage was reported.

Casino patrons posted videos of water pouring from ceilings at Caesars Palace and Planet Hollywood resorts on the Las Vegas Strip and from behind a huge video display at the downtown Circa hotel-casino sports book. One video showed a man continuing to gamble at a casino slot machine while water fell around him.

"A night we'll never forget," Circa owner Derek Stevens said in a Twitter post.

"Last night's weather took Vegas by storm and we were no exception," Stevens said Friday. "But the show must go on and I'm happy to share that repairs are underway."

Roped-off sports book seats were expected to reopen during the weekend, he said.

Rapid runoff from sunbaked lots flooded street intersections, prompting vehicles to creep through high water near Las Vegas Boulevard and Main Street. Flood-control channels turned to roiling torrents. Scattered power outages were reported in places including the downtown Fremont Street Experience casino pedestrian mall.

Las Vegas firefighters responded to 330 calls for service and swift-water teams rescued seven people between 9 p.m. and midnight, city spokesman Jace Radke said. Clark County firefighters responded to six water rescue calls, county spokeswoman Stacey Welling said.

Adair said the Las Vegas area usually receives around 4.2 inches (10.7 centimeters) of rain per year, but the official measuring station at the airport has recorded less than 0.7 inch (1.8 centimeters) in 2022.

The surface level at the region's drought-stricken water supply — the Lake Mead reservoir behind Hoover Dam on the Colorado River — has dropped to less than 30%.

While runoff from storms in the Las Vegas area will reach the lake, monsoon moisture is not likely to affect the ongoing regional drought, Adair said.

"For that, we generally rely on the winter season, where we get multiple Pacific storms coming in and covering a wide area with rain and snow," the meteorologist said. "That can make a significant impact on drought."

'Breaking Bad' statues shine light on actors, AlbuquerqueBy Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Bronze statues of mythical methamphetamine cookers Walter White and Jesse Pinkman were installed at a convention center in Albuquerque on Friday to celebrate the "Breaking Bad" TV series and its entertainment legacy, winning applause in a city that played its own gritty supporting role.

Local politicians including Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller mixed with "Breaking Bad" stars Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and director Vince Gilligan to help unveil the artwork, donated by Gilligan and Sony Pictures.

The 2008-2013 show and its ongoing prequel "Better Call Saul" helped fuel a renaissance in filmmaking across New Mexico, while also cutting close to Albuquerque's real-life struggles with drug addiction and crime.

Gilligan said he recognized that the statues of "two fictional, infamous meth dealers" won't be universally cherished in New Mexico.

"In all seriousness, no doubt some folks are going to say, 'Wow, just what our city needed.' And I get that," Gillian said. "I see two of the finest actors America has ever produced. I see them, in character, as two larger-than-life tragic figures, cautionary tales."

Still a fixture on Netflix, AMC's "Breaking Bad" follows the fictional underworld trajectory of a high-school science teacher, played by Cranston, and a former student, played by Paul, as they team up to produce and distribute meth amid violent, cliffhanger plot twists.

The show and its iconic lead characters already are lionized on T-shirts and airport merchandise, while tour guides in Albuquerque shepherd fans to former film locations in a replica of the RV from the show that doubled as a meth lab.

New Mexico has long struggled against the toll of addiction, with more than 43,000 deaths linked to alcohol and drug overdoses in the last three decades. Albuquerque also currently contends with a record-setting spate of homicides.

Surging overdose deaths from meth and fentanyl surpassed heroin and prescription opioids as the leading causes of drug overdose deaths across the state in 2020.

Keller heralded the positive economic impact of "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" on Albuquerque, acknowledging the dollars and delight it brings to a city he jokingly called "Tamale-wood."

"While the stories might be fictional ... jobs are real every single day," Keller said. "The city is also a character. ... We see ourselves in so many ways, good and bad."

Republican state Rep. Rod Montoya of Farmington said he admires Cranston as an actor but that the statues bring the wrong kind of attention.

"I'm glad New Mexico got the business, but really?" Montoya said. "We're going down the road of literally glorifying meth makers?"

He also questioned the logic of the tribute after Albuquerque in June 2020 removed a statue of Spanish conqueror Juan de Oñate.

Demonstrators tried to topple that bronze artwork in denunciation of Oñate's brutal treatment of Native Americans roughly 500 years ago. A fight that broke out at the protest resulted in gunfire that injured one man.

New Mexico politicians, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, have pinned their hopes on the film industry to boost economic opportunity in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

New Mexico's film and TV industry recently hit a new production peak, with record-setting in-state spending of $855 million for the fiscal year ending in June. Recent video projects drawn to the state include the Netflix series "Stranger Things."

New Mexico offers a rebate of between 25% and 35% of in-state spending for video production that helps filmmakers large and small underwrite their work. Incentive payments crested at $148 million in 2019.

‘These people don’t care’: U.S. Senate GOP stalls bill for veterans exposed to burn pits  By Jennifer Shutt, Source New Mexico

Veterans and their advocates gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday for what was supposed to be a celebration, one day after a crucial Senate vote on bipartisan legislation that would expand health care and benefits to 3.5 million veterans exposed to burn pits during their deployments.

The gathering instead became a forum for those who have been working on the bill for years to vent their frustrations with Republicans for blocking it Wednesday afternoon over objections raised by retiring Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.

“The Senate is where accountability goes to die,” said Jon Stewart, celebrity comedian and longtime advocate for veterans. “These people don’t care.”

Stewart said he was used to the lies, hypocrisy and the cowardice from members of Congress, but that he wasn’t used to the cruelty, calling Toomey “a f****** coward.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Thursday afternoon he plans to hold another procedural vote on Monday evening. He said he would also re-extend an offer to Toomey to offer his amendment on the floor.

“I don’t know where they came up with this. We offered Toomey, who is standing in the way, the ability to do an amendment at 60 votes, just like the bill is a 60-vote bill,” Schumer said.

Toomey instead insisted in conversations with others that he wanted his proposed changes reflected in the bill automatically without an amendment vote, Schumer said, noting he stands by his original offer.

“We will give Sen. Toomey a right to bring his amendment to the floor and try to get the votes for it,” Schumer said.

The shortage of votes to get past the Senate’s legislative filibuster during a Wednesday vote took many in the chamber by surprise, especially since senators voted 84-14 on June 16 to send the bill to the House, an overwhelming bipartisan endorsement and a victory for the sponsors, Kansas Republican Jerry Moran and Montana Democrat Jon Tester.

After making a minor change to the legislation, the House sent the package back to the Senate after a 342-88 vote on July 13.

The bill had appeared on track to get the 60 votes necessary to move toward final passage, but stalled when Republicans began voting against the bill en masse, resulting in a 55-42 vote in the evenly split chamber.

Those who opposed it, all Republicans, included Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley of Missouri, Mike Braun and Todd Young of Indiana, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy of Louisiana, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, Steve Daines of Montana, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Rob Portman of Ohio, Rick Scott of Florida, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, and Toomey.

Those who switched their position since the June vote on a nearly identical bill included Blackburn, Blunt, Braun, Cassidy, Ernst, Fischer, Hagerty, Hawley, Johnson, Kennedy, Marshall, Portman, Sasse, Scott of Florida, Sullivan and Young.

Schumer switched his vote to a no vote before the gavel went down to make it easier for him to call up the bill again once there are at least 60 senators willing to advance the measure.

Toomey said after the failed procedural vote that he has “no quarrel with” the bill creating $278.5 billion in new spending during the next decade that would be classified as “mandatory.”

Mandatory spending tends to run on autopilot and includes programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The other category of federal spending, known as discretionary, has to be approved annually by Congress as part of the appropriations process. That spending covers much of the federal government, including the departments of Defense, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Transportation and State.

Toomey said his opposition to the bill comes from a section that “would authorize $400 billion over the next 10 years of existing spending … to be switched from discretionary to mandatory.”

Moran, the top Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, said Thursday during a brief interview that he is willing to “accept whatever solution is necessary to get it done.”

“There is a problem with this bill in the way that it’s funded,” Moran said. “My view has been, let’s get it done, and then we’ll work to fix the problem after it becomes law.”

“But we also know that there’s not a lot of leverage that exists after that occurs, so getting us there is what we’re trying to accomplish,” Moran continued.

Veterans Affairs Chairman Tester said Thursday afternoon he’s pushing to get the legislation passed before the August recess begins, though it didn’t appear there was a clear path forward to solve the dispute.

“Toomey wants to take away the ability of appropriators to do their job,” Tester said. “Every appropriator should be mad as hell about that … Unfortunately, many of the appropriators voted with Toomey. But I’m not gonna allow that to happen.”

“If we can’t trust our own ability to appropriate, fund and defund that, what the hell have we turned into?” Tester added.

Loss of Medicaid coverage could ramp up crime in NM, lawmaker warnsBy Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

If authorities end the public health emergency in the fall and allow people to lose access to health care, it could lead to an increase in violent crime in New Mexico, a state lawmaker said in a hearing last week.

Since the federal government declared the COVID-19 pandemic a public health emergency, people on Medicaid have been able to stay enrolled in the program and get free health care — even if their coverage is up for renewal or their income changed.

But New Mexicans are at risk of losing Medicaid coverage when national public health emergency status is expected to expire in October, KUNM reports.

Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) raised the issue during a July 20 hearing in her district about ways to reduce violent crime in New Mexico.

“This is gonna have a ripple effect across our state in terms of economics, as well as mental health support, possibly an increase in violent crime,” Hemphill said. “We really need to be thinking about this proactively because that could happen at any time.”

This is supported by research showing a link between increased health care coverage and reductions in crime, particularly how often people commit a new crime after getting out of prison or jail, according to a report by Legislative Finance Committee staff. The analysts say it’s because Medicaid coverage can boost access to mental health care and substance use disorder treatment.

Nearly half of New Mexicans are enrolled in Medicaid, and more people in the state count on Medicaid than anywhere else in the nation, they wrote.

LFC Senior Fiscal Analyst Ellen Rabin, one of the report’s authors, said during the hearing that lawmakers should expand ways for people who get caught in the criminal legal system to enroll in Medicaid so they can get medication-assisted treatment.

The state’s seen double digit drops in recidivism when people who return home after being incarcerated get on Medicaid, the LFC wrote.

Young adults see substantial benefits from being on Medicaid, and when they lose it, they have a much higher risk of incarceration, the LFC’s July 20 report states. Children on Medicaid also see reduced rates of incarceration later on in life.

“That risk is even higher for individuals with mental health issues,” the analysts report.

There is evidence from South Carolina that cutting off Medicaid when people turn 19 made it more likely that they would be incarcerated within the next two years by 15%, said Jennifer Doleac, associate professor of economics at Texas A&M University.

“Just kicking them off of Medicaid when they became an adult increased their incarceration rates,” Doleac said.

This was especially true for people with histories of mental health problems, and more people who used Medicaid to buy medication related to their mental health treatment were likely to end up in jail or prison, she said.

There is some disconnect though, between spending to expand health care coverage and immediate results, according to the LFC.

“Although research would suggest such coverage should reduce the state’s crime rates, New Mexico had the highest overall crime rate and the second-highest violent crime rate in the country in 2020,” the analysts wrote.

That points to barriers preventing even people on Medicaid from getting the substance use disorder and mental health treatment they need, the LFC wrote. And it’s worth noting, too, that throughout 2020, people around the U.S. struggled to access mental health care and substance use services.

“Even as the state tripled its spending on core substance use services between 2014 and 2020, its violent crime rate rose 30%,” the LFC wrote.

The year before that, then-Gov. Susana Martinez froze Medicaid payments to behavioral health providers around the state, alleging fraud. Though the providers were eventually cleared of those accusations, much of the state’s mental health care system was destroyed in the process.

In 2018, the state Department of Health found that 134,000 New Mexicans needed treatment but were not getting it.

DOH found the problem persisted into 2020, and that the biggest gap in treatment was for people with alcohol use disorders, making up over 73,000 people left without care. Use of methadone and residential treatment went down between 2018 and 2020, the LFC wrote.

“Over the same period as the state increased its spending on these services and increased service delivery by 85%, drug overdose and alcohol-related death rates rose by 43% and 49%, respectively,” the LFC wrote.

“Although several DOH facilities offer evidence-based programs, some are operating at less than half their licensed bed capacity,” the LFC wrote.

Doleac told the committee about 44% of people in jail and about 37% of people in prison have a history of mental health problems.

“This can lead to self-medication, including alcohol and drugs,” she said.

About 42% of people in jail and 47% of people in prison have some kind of substance use disorder, she said.

“Increasing access to mental health care is extremely beneficial,” Doleac said. “We now have a lot of evidence for this, that increasing access to mental health care prevents violent crime.”

Expanding Medicaid to include low-income childless adults gave them better access to mental health care and treatment, and reduced violent crime by 5% to 6%, she said.

Increasing the availability of treatment centers for substance use disorders reduces homicide, Doleac said.

“Just opening one additional treatment center in a county reduced homicide rates by 0.2%,” she said.