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THURS: Gov. Lujan Grisham tests positive for COVID, + More

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Luis Sanchez Saturno, Santa Fe New Mexican
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New Mexico governor tests positive for COVID – Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday morning and was receiving an antiviral drug treatment.

Lujan Grisham said in a statement that she was experiencing mild symptoms and is working in isolation from the governor's mansion in Santa Fe.

It was the first positive coronavirus test for the 62-year-old Democratic governor and former congresswoman. Lujan Grisham says she has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, including two booster shots.

"I am very grateful to be experiencing only mild symptoms," she said in a statement. "Per medical guidance, I have also started a course of the antiviral Paxlovid."

The governor last tested negative for COVID-19 on Aug. 24. People in close recent contact with the governor were notified.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sacket says the governor traveled to Colorado on Monday and Tuesday for campaign-related activities.

Lujan Grisham is vying for a second term in the November election against Republican nominee Mark Ronchetti, a former television meteorologist.

APS board OKs union contract following negotiation impasse - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

After a first-of-its kind decision by the Albuquerque Public School Board of Education last week to table the district’s agreement with the teachers’ union, the board voted Wednesday night to approve it.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the 6-1 vote came after an hours-long private bargaining meeting. Board member Peggy Muller-Aragón was alone in voting the ratification down.

Several board members had initially taken issue with the amount of professional judgment the contract gave to educators over academic issues, hoping the board would retain more control. The board asked for more time to consider the agreement, leading the Albuquerque Teachers Federation to declare a formal impasse on the negotiations.

The board received considerable criticism, including more than 6,400 letters. Dozens of teachers wore red to the meeting, calling for the board to approve the contact.

The contract includes raises for social workers and counselors on-par with those approved for teachers in the last legislative session. While the board had already approved the raises, the impasse put them in question, according to union president Ellen Bernstein.

Bernstein told the Journal the board “did the right thing” by approving the contract, but that their initial resistance damaged trust with APS teachers.

'Forever chemicals' pose urgent concern in New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico's top environmental regulator on Thursday warned state lawmakers that taxpayers could be on the hook for groundwater contamination since the U.S. Defense Department continues to challenge the state's authority to force cleanup of "forever chemicals" at two air bases.

The plumes of PFAS compounds are projected to move further beyond the boundaries of Cannon Air Force Base, and Environment Secretary James Kenney told a panel of lawmakers during a meeting in Clovis that it's an urgent economic and environmental issue.

The state already has spent $6 million on the problem, he said.

The Defense Department has worked with other communities in neighboring Texas to remediate similar damage, but not in New Mexico, where the agency opted in January 2019 to file a lawsuit challenging the state's regulatory authority.

Work also has been done in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Colorado, and Kenney said that leaves New Mexico as the only state being sued by the federal government over this issue.

"We have to tackle this," Kenney told members of the Legislature's Water and Natural Resources Committee, "and unfortunately we are tackling it as taxpayers, as opposed to the Department of Defense tackling it as the polluter."

Records obtained by the state Environment Department through public record requests do not indicate plans by the federal government to clean up contamination beyond Cannon's boundaries.

The Air Force Civil Engineering Center announced earlier this spring that it was installing groundwater monitoring wells as a part of an investigation to determine the extent of potential PFAS compounds in groundwater from the base. The Air Force also installed filtration systems in 2021 and provided drinking water to some well owners who had their supplies tainted.

Advocates have long urged action on PFAS after thousands of communities detected PFAS chemicals in their water. PFAS chemicals have been confirmed at nearly 400 military installations and at least 200 million people in the United States are drinking water contaminated with PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization.

In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned some PFAS compounds found in drinking water were more dangerous than previously thought and pose health risks even at low levels.

The agency issued health advisories that set thresholds for PFOA and PFOS to near zero, replacing 2016 guidelines that had set them at 70 parts per trillion.

Found in products including cardboard packaging, carpets and firefighting foam, the toxic industrial compounds are associated with serious health conditions, including cancer and reduced birth weight.

With the EPA posed to set a drinking water standard for the compounds later this year, New Mexico lawmakers asked if that would mean more drinking water wells in the Clovis area and those around Alamogordo — home to Holloman Air Force Base — would have to be shut down if the level of contamination is detectable.

Kenney said there are numerous sites around New Mexico — from a national guard armory in Rio Rancho to an old army depot east of Gallup — where there's suspected contamination.

Outside of Clovis, fourth generation dairy farmer Art Schaap had his livelihood destroyed by contamination from the nearby base. About 3,600 of his cows had to be euthanized, he had to let dozens of employees go, and it's unlikely his farm will ever be contamination-free.

He told lawmakers about the resulting financial ruin and the mental and physical anguish.

"We're just scratching the surface now with this problem," Schaap said, warning that other dairies are next in line if the contamination isn't addressed.

The state has helped with the disposal of the toxic livestock carcasses and state officials vowed Thursday they would continue to the fight the Defense Department in court. A federal judge just last week dismissed the agency's lawsuit, saying it was a matter that needed to be decided by the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

Lawmakers suggested they might consider amending the state's hazardous waste law to remove any ambiguity regarding the Environment Department's authority for toxic chemicals like PFAS. They also discussed the possibility of an epidemiological study of residents and veterans to see if they have been exposed to the chemicals.

People in NM prisons often held at the wrong security level, report shows – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

There is technically a law library at the maximum security Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, but someone like Michael Armendariz can’t just walk in and pull a book off the shelf.

All New Mexico prisons “have legal library services,” said New Mexico Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart.

This is true, but someone classified as a level four prisoner, also known as someone held in “security threat unit housing,” cannot just go to a library. They also don’t have access to a computer, or the Internet, or even a copy machine.

Armendariz is a poet, rapper and artist from Los Lunas. Anything that he and the roughly 230 people in level four and held in Santa Fe seek must be requested through pencil and paper, and they rely on others to deliver those things, including library materials.

“We don’t actually go anywhere,” he said.

And when you don’t know anything about the law to begin with, you can’t possibly know how to use the law library in the first place, Armendariz said.

“The option is technically there, but it’s effectively useless,” Armendariz said.

The prison system is designed to be in opposition to an incarcerated person’s needs, said Melissa Mullinax, who has been friends with Armendariz since she met him while running education programs in New Mexico prisons from 2011 to 2013 for AmeriCorps and the Corrections Department.

“Once you’ve been convicted of a crime, the state has a vested interest in you remaining convicted and continuing to be incarcerated,” Mullinax said. “That is the premise on which everything else operates.”

Armendariz said authorities in 2005 classified him as a member of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang.

His mother Diana Crowson testified at an interim legislative committee hearing on July 27 that her son’s classification was the result of him being incorrectly identified as a gang member.

Hart, the prison spokesperson, said someone “validated as a member of a prison gang with a well-documented history of gang violence or gang activity” would be placed in level four.

She said the department has a process that allows people to be classified at a lower level “if they are willing to renounce their gang membership and disassociate themselves from the gang.”

Armendariz said he has had no discipline in the past 10 years that might affect his classification. He said prison officials have kept him in level four because he grew up with and knows a lot of people who are in some way associated with prison gangs.

According to court records, Armendariz was convicted of first-degree murder for fatally shooting an off-duty Valencia County sheriff’s deputy and wounding his brother, an off-duty New Mexico State Police officer, on Oct. 6, 2002 during a fight at the Two-Minute Warning, a bar in Los Lunas.

Armendariz has spent the last 20 years fighting his conviction, twice in state court in 2006 and 2018. To do that, he must use the law library.

“It’s an incredibly laborious, tedious and often unreliable process because the employees in the correctional facilities, in my experience, are not motivated to help people and do the bare minimum that’s required by their jobs,” Mullinax said. “I don’t mean to say that to degrade anyone; I think it’s a systemic function of the prison itself. But it makes it incredibly challenging — impossible — to do any real legal work.”

That’s not even considering how complex the law is, Mullinax said, all of the logistics around trying to fight a case, more or less on your own, while in prison.

Armendariz’s profile on the department’s website shows him as level five, however, Hart said the level five classification refers to a program that no longer exists. Level four is the highest level in the classification system today, Hart said.

Hart said access to legal library services “is not dependent on the custody level of the facility.”

But if Armendariz was in a lower classification, he could transfer to one of those prisons where he would have better access to a law library in-person.

Incarcerated people who are classified as level four and held in Santa Fe must wait for about a week to hear back about their request for library materials, which can make it harder to understand and use prior case law to argue before the court and meet its deadlines, he said.

That’s especially hard for someone like Armendariz who has to count on prison staff to deliver library materials.

And in Mullinax’s experience, it doesn’t always happen: Staff members often bring back something else, don’t respond for weeks — or don’t respond at all.

“I can’t emphasize enough how unmotivated the staff are,” Mullinax said. They’re encouraged to do as little as possible, she said, “because if you show interest in people, then they call that ‘undue familiarity’ and you could be fired for that sort of thing.”

Armendariz is working on it doggedly despite the conditions, she said, but he can’t do it himself.

“He’s relying on this network of people who are systemically required not to care about him or his well-being,” Mullinax said. “They don’t want to help, and so he’s up against this constantly.”‘

REFORMS TO CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM DELAYED

Armendariz is not alone: People in New Mexico prisons “are frequently placed at higher security levels than the scoring tool indicates is necessary,” according to Legislative Finance Committee researchers. The classification system is not something written out in state law or regulation. It is determined by Corrections Department policy.

In a July 2020 report, LFC analysts found that between 2014 and 2016, 60% of all newly incarcerated people scored low enough to be held in minimum security, but the majority of them ended up in medium security.

Because the tool prison officials use to classify people has never been validated, it is impossible to say for sure whether the decisions based on it are appropriate or represent unnecessary overclassification, the LFC analysts wrote.

“Validation should help shed light on whether some portion of the medium-security population could be safely housed in minimum security,” the LFC wrote.

Since before her son went to prison in 2002, Crowson has been an activist on prisoners’ rights issues. She told lawmakers the informant who accused Armendariz of being in a gang did not need any proof.

If someone is ever identified as a gang member, they can never go below level four unless they snitch someone else out, Crowson said.

“But most of the inmates realize that that’s probably a death sentence to do that, number one,” Crowson said. “ And number two, they just have more integrity.”

Armendariz has not been charged with any crime since his original conviction, according to court records.

Corrections Department policy requires prison officials to figure out every incarcerated person’s programming and rehabilitation needs, but the LFC found that in 2018, they had conducted the needs assessment on only 4% of incarcerated people.

If someone shows good behavior over a long period of time, they can get moved to a lower classification. However, the LFC wrote that good behavior can be canceled out by old offenses.

“Revising this aspect of the scoring instrument may make it easier for inmates to access less restrictive custody levels without compromising safety,” the LFC wrote.

The researchers are asking the state to change the scoring so that it only considers discipline over the past year.

Incidents that result in discipline follow people for a decade, and serious misconduct within the last 10 years can raise someone’s classification, the LFC analysts found. But UNM researchers in 2017 found that only recent misconduct over the past year actually helps predict the risk for future misconduct.

The July 2020 report said the department was expected to finish validating its classification system this summer with help from the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research, which will result in new classification tools for incarcerated people.

But Paul Guerin, director of the institute’s Center for Applied Research and Analysis, said on Aug. 11 that the work is still ongoing and will not be done until June 2023.

“COVID-19 limited our ability to access prisons for some of the work and made it more challenging to get needed data,” Guerin said.

Researchers also wrote that the classification system results in increased costs of holding people at high-security levels, totaling as much as $28 million per year.

Hart said that as it stands, the classification system is effective at reducing violence, but the department does recognize that it is over 20 years old.

“The ISR study is assessing the potential benefits of revising the classification process, including not only cost but overall safety,” Hart said. “The safety of our staff, individuals in our custody, and the entire community, will always be NMCD’s top priority.”

To Mullinax, trying to fight a conviction while in prison is unimaginably frustrating, like Sisyphus eternally rolling a boulder up a hill in the depths of Hades.

“So you’re doing it on top of living in this totally inhumane environment where you aren’t allowed any love, or physical contact, or intimacy, or support,” Mullinax said. Imagine trying to tackle something really difficult and important in your life, except in a cell “with this whole mountain of things against you, knowing that nobody wants you to succeed.”

New Mexico prison admissions increase slightly after seven-year decline - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

Amid a guard staffing shortage, prison admissions increased in New Mexico for the first time in seven years.

Prisons saw 2% more admissions so far in fiscal year 2022 compared with last year, the Legislative Finance Committee reported. Of the 2,409 people who went to prison in recent months, 60% were incarcerated because of new convictions, according to an August LFC newsletter.

And though prison populations in the state shrank steadily for years, that trend may be shifting. Inmate populations in New Mexico dropped nearly every month for more than three years, the LFC found, but that decrease has been tapering off.

Overall, population numbers are still down despite the uptick in new admissions. There were 225 fewer prison inmates reported in April 2022 compared with April 2021.

The New Mexico Sentencing Commission predicted that there would be an uptick in prison populations after courts recovered from being forced to slow down sentencing during the height of the pandemic.

New Mexico has higher incarceration rates than most other states in the county and the U.S. as a whole, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group focused on criminal justice reform.

UNDERSTAFFED PRISONS

About 100 guard positions remained unfilled in recent months, according to the legislative report, with employment gaps at 28% in state-run prisons and 27% in prisons operated by private corporations.

Corrections Department spokesperson Carmelina Hart said this isn’t necessarily an issue. “Although we may be seeing some vacancies, we’re also seeing a lower population as well,” she said.

But reports have connected violence, medical and mental health negligence, and other unsafe conditions with the lack of workers to oversee the prisons. And over at the state’s largest jail, the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center, trash piled up in the halls while inmates sat confined for days in cells without being allowed to go outside or make phone calls, according to Searchlight New Mexico.

Wanda Bertram with Prison Policy Initiative said states have lower incarceration rates when they invest in housing and health care for people with mental illnesses or substance use disorders.

The lack of NM prison staff is a cause of concern for Barron Jones, senior policy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. He said understaffing in prisons can also lead to worse treatment of inmates, limited access to social activities or being locked up in cells for longer periods of time. The problem, he said, exemplifies the need to provide treatment to people rather than locking them up.

“The system-wide staffing crisis, it runs the risk of placing people in dangerous situations,” Jones said.

LOCKED UP AMID HEALTH CRISES

Over 4,000 COVID cases and 29 deaths were reported in NM prisons between the pandemic’s start and May 2022. The growing admission rate comes amid both the ongoing pandemic and a national monkeypox crisis. Hart said she’s not aware of any monkeypox cases in the prisons and that the department is following all executive orders the governor sets.

“Our role in public safety is to provide the appropriate care for the individuals, the convicted individuals, that are at our facilities,” Hart said.

New Mexico prisons had much higher rates of COVID than other states, according to the LFC. “Covid-19 has ravaged New Mexico’s prison population,” committee analysts wrote in a 2021 Corrections Department report card. Jones said this speaks to the department’s inadequate response. Imprisoning people right now puts them at risk for catching these viruses and endangers them, Jones said.

“Packing people in our prisons and jails when we’re still experiencing several federal public health crises is a recipe for disaster,” he said.

N.M. prisons still don’t allow in-person visitation. That’s a COVID safety measure, Hart said.

“It’s a nightmare to be incarcerated right now,” Bertram said.

Pecos River rises as New Mexico towns prepare for flooding - Associated Press

Authorities in eastern New Mexico on Wednesday warned residents of continued flooding along the Pecos River.

Storm runoff has led to historic flows, prompting the National Weather Service to issue a flood warning for the area near Lake Arthur.

State emergency managers were monitoring the situation, and forecasters said that a significant crest of the river is still expected before the end of the week.

Some roads in Dexter and other communities have been closed due to the high water levels, and images shared on social media show standing water around homes in the rural area.

Some parts of New Mexico have had a robust monsoon, with daily thunderstorms dropping significant amounts of rain that have led to flooding, particularly across burns scars left by spring wildfires. The latest forecast called for rain chances to peak Friday as a disturbance moves east across the region.

Biden extends feds’ full wildfire coverage another 90 days - By Marisa Demarco, Source New Mexico

After a presidential declaration expired earlier this month leaving the state to cover a chunk of the costs from the wildfire in northern New Mexico, the White House announced Wednesday that the feds will pay that bill and all costs into November.

President Biden came to New Mexico this summer and said the federal government would pick up the whole tab for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire.

The U.S. Forest Service failed to put out all of the embers from one prescribed burn and lost control of another, starting the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Since a federal agency is responsible for that damage, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said, it should be the federal government that foots the bill.

Biden’s initial disaster declaration expired on Aug. 4, and the state became responsible for one-quarter of the costs. But the Governor’s Office said the president’s new order is retroactive, meaning the federal government will cover 100% of expenses for debris removal, direct federal assistance and emergency protective measures — even during that gap the last couple of weeks. The new declaration expires Nov. 4.

As of Sunday, the northern New Mexico wildfire still burned in spots, though officials announced it’s fully contained. It scorched 341,735 acres.

Earlier this month, Lujan Grisham called for the declaration’s sunset date to be pushed out, and she requested more money for housing assistance and dealing with flash floods. She also sought to include Sandoval and Los Alamos Counties in the list of impacted areas. All of those asks became part of the president’s amendment, according to the Governor’s Office.

Biden’s initial 90-day presidential declaration was meant to serve as a stopgap measure until Congress could pass a bill to help people who lost homes and livelihoods, and who remain in peril in the area because of flash floods and debris. But that hasn’t happened yet, and Congress has been in recess throughout August.

Over two decades ago, a bill to fully compensate fire victims in Los Alamos County was passed quickly during the Cerro Grande fire — also lit by the Forest Service.

Lawmakers to propose making pandemic rental assistance program permanent – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

A slate of housing reforms that would make it harder for landlords to evict people and make permanent the emergency rental assistance program necessitated by the COVID pandemic will be introduced in the 2023 legislative session, according to a presentation to lawmakers on Monday.

In 2021 and 2022, Reps. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) and Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) introduced a bill designed to balance the rights of tenants and landlords by amending the state Uniform Owner-Resident Relations Act.

The legislation would have allowed tenants 11 days to get current on rent, instead of three days currently allowed in the law.

It also would have allowed tenants three weeks to prepare for court and find legal help, instead of 10 days, and 15 to 20 days to get new housing and move if those people were evicted, instead of one week.

It also would have given tenants the opportunity to avoid eviction if they can pay what they owe at any point prior to eviction, require court summons to explain tenants’ rights and their option to get rental assistance, and prevent landlords from refusing to renew a lease during a declared state of emergency.

Both versions of the bill were widely supported by advocates, the Apartment Association of New Mexico and the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts, said Maria Griego, director of economic equity at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, in a hearing with the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Monday.

In each of those years, the House of Representatives and the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee approved the legislation, “but it never made it to the finish line,” Griego said.

Karen Myers, a consumer lawyer in Albuquerque and former head of the Consumer Protection Division at the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, told lawmakers in early 2022 that the unprecedented financial assistance during the pandemic helped families throughout New Mexico preserve their housing and utilities.

Griego said on Monday there has been discussion at the federal level of making rental assistance a long-term federal program for states to administer, Griego said, and so there is a need for New Mexico to reform its laws to be prepared to effectively deliver that money.

So next year, Rubio and Romero will introduce the third iteration of the housing reforms which will codify into state law the rental assistance program currently administered by emergency rental assistance director Donnie Quintana through the Department of Finance and Administration.

Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Albuquerque) said given that the House has passed the bill twice, it might have a better chance of passing if it goes to the Senate first. She suggested that Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) figure out who would be a good senator to sponsor the legislation.

Duhigg asked what lawmakers need to make the program workable in New Mexico.

Griego said the absolute need is extending the court hearing schedule timeframe longer than the current 7 to 10 day deadline.

Navigators in the program told Griego that often those hearings happen before seven days. Clerks get the filing and schedule the hearing on the same day, perhaps because they aren’t properly trained.

“We need more time before the judges must conduct the hearing,” Griego said.

That gives time for navigators to reach out to the parties and ask if they’ve applied for rental assistance, Griego said. If they haven’t, they can get them connected to the application and if they have, figure out what’s missing to get it approved. If it is approved, they can tell the landlord payment is on its way, which usually results in the landlord dismissing the eviction case, Griego said.

Program officials had compromised with the apartment association to allow 21 days instead of the maximum of 10 to schedule a hearing, Griego said, which would build in time for the parties to work with the navigators.

She said New Mexico was already in a housing crisis before the COVID pandemic, which compounded economic hardship for many New Mexicans.

Between 2018 and 2019, the rate of homelessness in New Mexico increased by 27%, the highest increase in the country. It also had the highest increase in chronic homelessness at 56% and some of the shortest eviction timelines for nonpayment of rent, Griego said.

“Courts have expressed existing timelines of 10 days to schedule hearings once filed make it impossible to implement programs known to be effective to prevent evictions,” Griego said.

The state’s Eviction Prevention and Diversion Program has been hugely successful. Ninety percent of cases that go to mediation end in a mutually beneficial agreement or settlement for landlords and tenants, Griego said.

According to the Princeton Eviction Lab, eviction rates in New Mexico are down from pre-pandemic levels. Griego said the decrease is entirely due to the Emergency Rental Assistance programs that have emerged and the newly implemented Eviction and Diversion Program.

New Mexico received $352 million from two federal spending bills for rental and utility assistance, Griego said, and delivered more than $152 million to 45,000 households for rent, utilities, and costs related to emergency housing and moving.

New Mexico has until September 2025 to use the federal money.

New Mexico Chief Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon spearheaded a program in New Mexico aimed to replace the state’s court-issued eviction ban. The program empowers judges to pause eviction proceedings if landlords and tenants agree to mediation and enlists a group of court navigators to help parties with emergency rental funds and court processes.

During a virtual White House event on Aug. 2, Bacon said eviction filings have stayed below average rates even though the state and federal eviction bans were lifted.

“In no way is the mission accomplished,” Griego said. “It would be a shame for our state not to capitalize on the great progress that has been made, and to not make this a lasting and sustainable program.”