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WED: State reduces paperwork and feds fund prep program to chip away at teacher shortage, + More

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Marisa Demarco
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Source New Mexico
Barrack at an elementary school in Barelas, Albuquerque.

State reduces paperwork and feds fund prep program to chip away at teacher shortage - Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico 

New Mexico teachers getting comfortable with their classrooms a few weeks into the school year could soon see support that would benefit their time with students.

Following the announcement that the state’s Public Education Department found a way to eliminate 34% of administrative paperwork, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $2.1 million to a Four Corners nonprofit that helps with teacher professional development.

Since so much of this is about saving time, I’ll be short.

The state’s overall plan to create more time devoted to teaching will be done via four strategies: reduce duplicate student data collection, streamline reporting, improve data systems and build a council to ensure these changes are being made.

“School districts and staff have been requesting a reduction in administrative burdens for a long time,” said Rio Rancho Public Schools Superintendent Sue Cleveland.

New Mexico plans to cut 580,849 hours by the beginning of the next school year. More than 330,000 hours could be cut as soon as Sept. 15 if PED meets its deadline, according to its Reporting Reduction Implementation Plan. Take a look at target areas where the state looks to cut down admin time. Teachers and school staff are likely very familiar with the tasks.

“While 89% of our reporting requirements are mandated by federal law and state statute, there are actions within our control that can reduce administrative burden on schools,” PED Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said. “Our goal is to ensure that we make the collection of required data as easy and useful as possible.”

The bulk of those hours expected to be reduced next week is specific to the time spent on data input for Student Assistance Teams that provide one-on-one support for students in struggling.

PED spokesperson Carly Bowling said teacher reporting requirements will be reduced, along with repetitious questions. The criteria to refer a student to the teams will be limited, too, which means fewer teachers will have to work on these plans.

The plan also gives teachers greater say in moving quickly to get students classroom support without the need of implementing a plan for the assistance teams.

PED says this will improve classroom experiences because teachers will have more time to teach.

And some teachers could soon benefit from professional development grants as part of the federal dollars coming to the state.

Yesterday, Three Rivers Education Foundation was awarded $2.1 million by the U.S. Department of Education to recruit, train and diversify teaching staff. The nonprofit organization is based in Farmington and works with local school districts, as well as the Bureau of Indian Education schools in New Mexico.

A primary mission of this funding is to support recent college grads working in communities that need teachers and have high-risk student populations.

“These programs help prepare, place, develop and retain effective teachers and leaders in our schools and classrooms,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said. “Our students need quality educators now more than ever to address their academic and mental health needs.”

And in New Mexico, those teachers will have a little less paperwork to fill out.

Moth outbreak stresses trees in New Mexico forests – Associated Press

An insect outbreak is believed to be causing conifer stands in some central New Mexico forests to lose their needles, further stressing trees amid an ongoing drought.

Officials with the Cibola National Forest said Wednesday that Douglas fir, white fir and even some ponderosa pine trees are turning brown as the larvae of the tussock moth feeds on the previous year's needles.

The concern, officials said, is that defoliation weakens the trees, making them vulnerable to subsequent attacks by bark beetles that may kill the tree tops or even entire trees.

The population of Douglas-Fir tussock moths, which are native defoliators, has been increasing in the Sandia and Manzano mountain ranges just east and south of Albuquerque.

"Trees may recover from early infestations which can look quite dramatic. However, multiple seasons of repeated defoliation can predispose trees to disease and other insects causing tree mortality," Forest Service entomologist Steven Souder said in a statement.

Officials also warned that people should avoid touching or handling the insects.

The caterpillars have thousands of tiny hairs covering their bodies. The female moths, egg masses and cocoons also have hairs that can cause tussockosis, an allergic reaction from direct skin contact with the insects themselves or their airborne hairs.

Symptoms may include itchiness, rashes, watery eyes, runny nose and sneezing. More severe reactions, though less common, include blisters, coughing, shortness of breath, wheezing and chest tightness.

The Forest Service conducts annual aerial surveys during the summer to track damage done by the moths and other insects around New Mexico's forests.

Souder said trees that regrow their needles will put out new shoots over the summer that will appear more bronze than gold in the fall.

In older trees or trees stressed by drought, the caterpillar can hasten mortality.

While extreme and exceptional drought in New Mexico are less prevalent than last year, all but a small portion of southern New Mexico is dealing with some form of drought. Most of central New Mexico is seeing moderate to severe conditions even as summer rains begin to tapper off.

Increasing pressures on Colorado River water in New Mexico - By Theresa Davis Albuquerque Journal

Colorado River tributaries in New Mexico bring water to the alfalfa fields in the Four Corners and the forested hills of the Gila wilderness in the southwestern part of the state.

But Colorado River and reservoir management was designed during a much wetter period.

And now, water officials are grappling with how to make do with less.

State Engineer Mike Hamman, New Mexico's top water manager, said the state "really feels the shortages" because it doesn't have the big reservoirs of other states in the Colorado River Basin.

"That's the dilemma — looking at how we can reduce demand with as soft a blow as possible," Hamman said.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part of a collaborative series on the Colorado River on the eve of the Colorado River Compact, signed nearly 100 years ago. The Colorado Sun, The Associated Press, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore the pressures on the river in 2022.

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U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton this year tasked Colorado River states with creating an ambitious conservation plan.

Touton said the states need to conserve an additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water next year to protect levels at Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada and Arizona.

A basinwide conservation plan had not materialized by the mid-August deadline.

Nevada, Arizona and Mexico will all receive less water from the Colorado River next year because of rapidly-declining reservoirs, the Interior Department announced on Aug. 16.

Interior officials did not issue any mandatory water cuts for New Mexico.

But the state's existing water conservation programs could be under increased scrutiny.

The Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming did release a five-point plan this summer that points to the region's "limited" conservation options.

For two years, the states have released additional water from at least three reservoirs — including New Mexico's Navajo Reservoir — to prop up Lake Powell levels.

Those Upper Basin reservoir releases will likely continue next year, Interior officials said.

A more arid climate means all water users need to work harder to "live within our means," said Estevan López, New Mexico's representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

"It certainly seems that we have to reset our expectations for what we might be trying to get out of the river," said López, a former Reclamation commissioner.

In 2021, water managers considered releasing even more water from Navajo Reservoir to help water levels in downstream reservoirs.

But López said the additional release could have jeopardized regional water supplies.

"Ultimately, we argued against it," he said. "Reclamation would perhaps not have been able to fulfill its contractual obligations to folks like the Navajo Nation and Jicarilla Apache and others that depend on water out of Navajo."

The same issues could resurface next year if officials look to the New Mexico reservoir as an emergency supply for downstream users.

The Upper Basin plan hinges on existing conservation programs.

Strategies include fallowing fields and making irrigation more efficient.

But the entire region must work together, López said, to avoid more mandatory cuts.

"If we can get water users within places like the San Juan Basin to agree to shortage sharing agreements, then there's no need for strict priority administration," he said. "It's a more acceptable solution, generally."

Colorado River tributaries serve relatively small portions of northwest and southwest New Mexico.

But the basin's water is essential for the state's largest city: Albuquerque.

Rio Grande flows in Albuquerque are closely tied to the Colorado via the San Juan-Chama Drinking Water Project.

The system of tunnels and dams at the New Mexico state line diverts water into the Rio Grande Basin.

Albuquerque's municipal supply is entitled to as much as 15 billion gallons of San Juan-Chama water every year.

David Morris, the water utility spokesman for the city and county, said the Colorado River water has allowed the region to wean itself off of unsustainable groundwater pumping.

Since 2008, aquifer levels underneath the city have rebounded as much as 40 feet.

"That's exactly what we were hoping that our use of surface water would allow the aquifer to do," Morris said. "We're in a very fortunate situation here in Albuquerque to have two different and distinct sources of supply."

But less snowpack and spring runoff resulting from climate change have led to several consecutive years when the utility and other New Mexico entities have received far less water than expected from the inter-basin project.

"It's important for us to invest in things like outdoor water conservation and reuse," Morris said. "It's quite possible that there just won't be as much San Juan-Chama water available in the future because of drought and climate change."

The Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922 — just 10 years after New Mexico became a state.

New Mexico still uses only about half of its allotment under the compact each year.

That could change as more tribes reach water rights settlements and build out infrastructure to use those rights.

Agencies are making progress on large projects to deliver water to Navajo communities in western New Mexico.

A resilient future on the Colorado must have tribal sovereignty at the forefront, said Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation water administrator and a staunch advocate for tribal inclusion in water management issues.

"The term 'consultation' gets thrown around in the basin a whole lot," Vigil said. "But if you know one tribe, you only know one tribe. Having a seat at the table means working with every tribe to learn their specific water rights and needs."

The U.S. Interior Department has said it will engage with tribes in the basin as parties hammer out some management details of the compact that are set to expire after 2026.

A historic influx of funding for infrastructure and drought response could also help New Mexico and other basin states reduce water use and prepare for a drier future.

"I'm optimistic that we're going to sort through some of these more sticky problems with a good collaborative solution," Hamman said.

ACLU calls on Biden’s Homeland Security secretary to close the ICE detention center in Estancia, NM – By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

The American Civil Liberties Union is again asking the head of the Department of Homeland Security to close more immigration detention centers, including the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, N.M.

In a Sept. 6 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, two senior ACLU staff pointed to Torrance as a stark example of appalling conditions at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers that have gotten worse during his tenure.

ACLU Federal Policy Director Christopher Anders and Senior Legislative Counsel Naureen Shah cite the recent death by suicide of Brazilian asylum seeker Kesley Vial at Torrance, and hazardous conditions documented by the DHS Office of the Inspector General, including lack of basic medical care, severe understaffing and cells that routinely flood with human excrement.

DHS did not reply to a request for any comment on the letter or a question about whether Mayorkas has responded to it.

After the ACLU urged Mayorkas to begin the reform process by closing 39 facilities notorious for substandard conditions and civil rights violations, the secretary closed two of them and announced in May 2021 that his agency would continuously review treatment and conditions inside.

“We will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention,” Mayorkas said in a memo to ICE acting director Tae Johnson, who has personally been briefed on the conditions inside Torrance, according to ACLU New Mexico attorney Rebecca Sheff.

Yet Torrance has remained open, and the atrocious conditions persist — while CoreCivic, its private operator, continues to profit from a contract with ICE, Anders and Shah wrote. Along with Torrance, they are also urging Mayorkas to close two other detention centers in neighboring Texas and another in Pennsylvania.

“In light of their history of abuse, these facilities should not remain open in any form,” they wrote, “and should not be kept on standby in case a subsequent administration seeks to use them for large-scale detention of families.”

Bernalillo County funds new detox center - KUNM News

The Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners has approved funding for a detox facility to become part of the new Gibson Health Hub — an array of services for those who are unhoused — which is expected to open next summer.

The commission approved $4.35 million dollars for the city’s Medical Sobering Center, which will offer non-emergency medical assistance related to substance use.

The county said in a statement Wednesday that patients will be diverted from jails and Emergency Rooms, which have historically served this need. Patients will also be able to access other services available on site, including The Gateway Center emergency shelter.

State of emergency declared for Hidalgo County flooding - KUNM News

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has declared a state of emergency in Hidalgo County due to flooding.

The declaration opens up $750,000 dollars in federal funding for prevention, repair, and recovery efforts, according to the Governor’s Office. It also allows the county to request additional state resources.

Lujan Grisham’s office said in a statement that the Gila River near Virden has seen record high water levels this monsoon season, which has caused property damage.

Mountain West Commissioner Thompson stepping down - By Pat Graham AP Sports Writer

Craig Thompson, the only commissioner the Mountain West Conference has known, is stepping down after nearly 24 years in charge.

The league announced Wednesday that Thompson's last day will be Dec. 31. He was on board when the conference began operations in January 1999.

With the 66-year-old Thompson at the helm, Mountain West teams took part in five bowl games affiliated with the Bowl Championship Series or College Football Playoff. He also helped bolster the league's portfolio on the football field by adding Boise State — officially joining in 2011 — when Utah left for the Pac-12 and BYU became an independent.

"The entire Mountain West Conference owes a debt of gratitude to Craig for his selfless service over the history of our conference," said Garnett Stokes, the president at New Mexico and chair of the conference board of directors. "His fingerprints are on every accomplishment and every initiative we have undertaken, and he has positioned the conference to continue to be among the nation's elite."

When college football went through widespread realignment, Thompson helped the league not only add Boise State but Fresno State and Nevada in 2012, along with Hawaii in a football capacity. A year later, the Mountain West officially brought in San Jose State and Utah State.

In 2020, the league announced a six-year, $270 million media-rights deal with CBS and Fox Sports. The package includes football and men's basketball games being aired, with Fox Sports having rights to the league's championship game.

"Craig has provided important leadership to the MWC since its inception," said UNLV President Keith Whitfield, who also serves as the vice chair of the conference board of directors. "We are stronger because of his work as we go forward into a quickly changing landscape in the NCAA and the College Football Playoff discussions."

Thompson said in a statement that his final priority was expansion of the College Football Playoff. A plan was recently announced for the playoffs to include 12 teams, which sets the stage for a multibillion-dollar tournament as soon as the 2024 season.

"I take considerable pride in my committed engagement to this effort over the past two-and-a-half decades and look forward to the finalization of those details in the coming months," Thompson said. "With CFP expansion accomplished and having invested almost a third of my life in the Mountain West, the time is now right for me to conclude my tenure and allow the Conference to continue its momentum under new leadership."

Before arriving at the Mountain West, Thompson served as the commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference.

Thompson spent 43 years in athletic administration and along the way served on numerous boards, including the CFP management committee. He just finished his second stretch as a member of the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee.

New Mexico governor embraces US law on climate, health care - Associated Press

The governor of New Mexico is using a visit to Washington to celebrate Democrats' flagship U.S. climate and health care bill and to advocate for addition federal wildfire relief.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she was traveling to Tuesday's celebration of the Inflation Reduction Act at the invitation of President Biden.

Signed in August, the law could save money for some Americans by lessening the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly, extending health insurance subsidies and reducing energy prices.

The legislation represents Congress' largest ever investment in curbing carbon emissions. It would also modestly cut the government's budget deficit.

Also in Washington, the 62-year-old governor and skiing enthusiast will consult with with an orthopedic surgeon about a lingering knee injury.

Campaign related activities in Washington and New York are scheduled before the Lujan Grisham's planned return to New Mexico on Friday.

Lujan Grisham is seeking a second term in the November general election against Republican nominee and former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti.

Ronchetti is campaigning on proposals for a permanent annual tax rebate tied oilfield production, new restrictions on abortion access and enhanced criminal penalties to address crime.

The two candidates boasted Monday of collecting a combined $5 million in direct campaign contributions for the two month period ending Sept. 5.

New Mexico is reeling from serious of catastrophic wildfires during the spring and early summer that have been followed by debris-choked flooding with the arrival of seasonal monsoon rains.

One fire — the largest in state history — was traced to a prescribed burn by the U.S. Forest Service outside Las Vegas, N.M., that escaped control and dry, windy conditions.

Roundhouse anti-harassment policy needs reform, advocates and senators agree - By Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

New Mexico senators and the lobbyists they work with are calling for changes to the Roundhouse anti-harassment policy to include greater transparency during the investigative process and more clear timelines for how it proceeds.

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) is under investigation after a complaint was filed by lobbyist Marianna Anaya alleging that he acted inappropriately, groped her on at least one occasion and then retaliated against her by blocking voting rights legislation she supported.

Ivey-Soto and Anaya are under a strict order of confidentiality while the case remains an active investigation under review by lawmakers.

Neither can give any information on where the process stands, leaving the public in the dark about a process that could lead to the expulsion or suspension of a powerful New Mexico senator.

Ivey-Soto did speak to Source NM broadly about how he would like to see such investigations changed going forward, saying he would support reform efforts if he is still in office for the January 2023 legislative session.

As it stands, the anti-harassment policy outlines that lawmakers, via interim legislative committees, determine probable cause based on an independent investigation.

If the interim committee decides to proceed with a debate on Ivey-Soto’s future, the case file is opened up, and the public will hear details of the investigation for the first time. If his colleagues decide there is no wrongdoing, the case file is tucked away never to see the light of day.

This process is entirely separate from complaints filed with the State Ethics Commission, an independent agency with jurisdiction on matters involving acts related to campaign finance, lobbyist regulation and government conduct.

It does not have any oversight on the anti-harassment policy. Ivey-Soto and advocates calling for his removal share common ground in wanting the commission to take over these cases.

“I think the process can be improved upon,” Ivey-Soto said. “I do think we ought to have at the very least, the option — if not the presumption — that the investigation will be conducted by the State Ethics Commission.”

Sen. Mimi Stewart said the Legislature could begin discussion about how to move the needle on reform during an interim committee meeting scheduled at the end of September. The meeting will be open to the public.

Groups like Common Cause New Mexico said they want to see harassment complaints reviewed by an independent agency, such as the State Ethics Commission — not lawmakers.

And more transparency, advocacy groups are saying, would not only create public confidence in the process but provide more support for survivors speaking up.

“I think that what we’ve seen from this is that there’s not a clear way for harassment or abuse to be reported to Senate leadership or leadership in the Roundhouse,” said Jessie Damazyn with the Center for Civic Policy. “And so I think that there’s sort of a little bit of a lack of a process to begin with.”

Last month, a coalition of advocates and survivors put out a list of demands to Senate leadership calling for the immediate release of the investigative report, the Ethics Commission to be given the go-ahead to oversee the process — and for Ivey-Soto’s removal from interim committees.

In late August, Ivey-Soto still served as the chair on the Finance Authority Oversight Committee and on others. Dozens of lawmakers from both chambers are on the committee, some who might even be responsible for the outcome of the harassment complaint. We won’t know, because the members of the committee determining Ivey-Soto’s fate are not publicly listed.

The coalition was upset that their request to suspend him from the committees went without a response. Damazyn said her group did not hear from Senate leadership. The same goes for Andrea Serrano, executive director at OLÉ, a group that’s been part of the coalition demanding change.

“I think it’s disrespectful to the people who came forward and publicly shared their stories and publicly put themselves out there,” Serrano said. “And it sends a message that despite the investigation, there’s going to be business as usual.”

Stewart, the Senate pro tem, said she did read the letters addressed to her from the coalition and does not have sole authority to remove a senator from a committee position. She said that would have to go through another process.

“I have a committee that I work with, unlike the (House) speaker who does have sole authority. The Senate pro tem does not. I work with the Committee’s Committee,” she said. “And so I may be reaching out to them. It’s too soon yet for me to say. I definitely can say that I am trying to put together a group to rewrite our policies and procedures so that they work better.”

She said she agrees the process should be reformed overall. “We definitely need to review and rewrite these procedures, so there’s more transparency, so that there’s timelines built in and so that we have more help with how it’s conducted,” Stewart said.

Until then, advocacy groups are still preparing for work at the Roundhouse and do what it takes to keep people safe. Lan Sena, with the Center for Civic Policy, said her staff has a safety plan in place to prepare for unwanted interactions or potentially dangerous situations. It’s unfair, she said, but necessary until everyone feels comfortable working in Santa Fe.

“The Roundhouse is the people’s house,” Sena said. “It’s a public place where we can advocate and express our First Amendment rights. Yet we have to tell folks that there are certain members of the Legislature that they cannot be alone in a room with because of the fear for their safety. It’s appalling.”

In response to people making safety plans, Ivey-Soto said if he is still serving office in January, he also plans to institute safeguards in his office “so that I can focus on policy issues and not have to worry about other allegations being made, based upon who I’m working with or not working with.”

“If people are choosing to do safety plans, I don’t aggress that at all,” he said. “And frankly, I’m in the same process of doing safety plans for myself.”

Indigenous groups ask Supreme Court to overturn power shift - By Lindsay Fendt, Searchlight New Mexico

A coalition of Indigenous women’s groups on Sept. 12 filed a petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court seeking to throw out a constitutional amendment that shifts the state’s utility regulatory body, the Public Regulation Commission, from an elected board to one appointed by the governor.

Charged with everything from setting electricity rates to managing utility safety and quality of service, the PRC has a major influence on many New Mexican’s daily lives, but its inner workings are often poorly understood by the general public. The amendment had no organized opposition when it appeared on the ballot in 2020 and passed with 55 percent of the vote. But with an appointed commission set to take control in January, the change is coming under new scrutiny.

The petitioners argue that the ballot measure is null and void because it failed to meet accuracy and clarity requirements, among other issues.

“I unknowingly voted in favor of an amendment that I thought would improve the PRC’s professionalism,” said Anna Rondon, executive director of the New Mexico Social Justice and Equity Institute, one of three nonprofit groups petitioning the court. “At the time, I didn’t realize I was giving up my right to vote for PRC commissioners, and I think many other voters were in the same position,” she said.

Rondon and the other petitioners — Indigenous Lifeways and the Three Sisters Collective, both focused on Indigenous rights and equity — argued in their filing that although the amendment was presented as a reform to the PRC, it instead serves to “repeal democracy.”

A NOMINATION COMMITTEE HOLDS POWER

In the past, voters from five districts elected a commissioner to represent their region for four-year terms.

Under the new process, a seven-person nomination committee chooses potential candidates, and the governor ultimately makes all the appointments. The nominating committee includes one person from a tribal nation, appointed by the governor; other members are chosen by the secretaries of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Economic Development Department, as well as by the leaders of both parties in the state legislature.

The amendment also extends commissioners’ terms from four years to six. Instead of having them come from five distinct regions, they must come from three different counties (even if those counties are all in the same part of the state).

Supporters say the changes will help ensure that commissioners are free of electoral politics, including the potential influence of campaign contributions and dark money from anonymous donors. The switch will also help ensure that commissioners have the necessary experience in utilities and regulations, they say.

But for Rondon and her fellow petitioners, the amendment represents a major power shift, denying a voice to the people most affected by oil, gas and coal interests.

“Extractive industries have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous communities in New Mexico,” Rondon said in a written statement. “Therefore, it is imperative that our communities have representation in the agency that regulates extractive industries: the PRC.”

The petitioners also argue that the amendment contains numerous “ad hoc” measures that don’t achieve the goal of reforming the PRC.

If the Supreme Court rules in the petitioners’ favor, two PRC commissioners — Theresa Becenti-Aguilar and Cynthia Hall — would remain in place. The three whose terms are expiring would have their seats filled either through a special election or by governor appointment, according to attorney Sarah Shore, of Butt Thornton & Baehr in Albuquerque, who is representing the petitioners.

AGENCY WITH A TROUBLED PAST

Formed in 1996 by combining two other regulatory agencies, New Mexico’s PRC at its outset was considered the largest state regulatory body in the country. For years, the commission served as a clearinghouse for a host of seemingly unrelated regulatory matters, from railroad safety and insurance to business registrations. There were no professional or educational requirements for commissioners.

The early PRC was perpetually mired in scandal, riddled with conflicts of interest and allegations of abuse of power. By the 2010s, calls for reform had reached a fever pitch. Throughout that decade, voters and the legislature slowly stripped away the agency’s responsibilities and focused it on utility regulation.

A 2012 constitutional amendment provided additional reforms, including strict qualifications for commissioners, requiring them to have at least 10 years of relevant educational or professional experience.

Many of the adopted reforms were proposed by Think New Mexico, an independent think tank, which researched the matter at length. Among other issues, the group investigated whether an appointed commission would be an improvement.

“Our conclusion was that it didn’t seem like a magic fix,” said Fred Nathan, the group’s executive director. Instead, he said, the group found that both elected and appointed commissions can be vulnerable to political influence. “We really found that it’s just a coin flip either way.” The better solution, he said, was to simply raise the qualification requirements.

MORE ATTEMPTS AT REFORM

In 2019, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced a resolution to make PRC commissioners appointed, as a first step to getting the amendment on the ballot. Though the resolution proposed no new qualifications for commissioners, supporters held it up as a way to professionalize the panel.

Four of the five sitting PRC commissioners were opposed to the amendment. But it met very little public opposition outside of the PRC, with no election spending to defeat the issue, according to the Secretary of State.

Becenti-Aguilar, a current PRC commissioner from the Navajo Nation who represents the state’s northwest region, is one of the four who opposed the amendment. Like the petitioners in the court case, she worries that an appointed commission will shift power away from communities.

“Whoever’s going to be on the next commission may not go to the small villages that I used to go to, to update the people,” she said. The choice of appointees will be “really heavily driven by the inside circle of the state legislature and the executive branch.”

THOSE IN FAVOR

Supporters of the amendment include democrat Peter Wirth, the Senate majority floor leader and one of the sponsors of the 2019 resolution. Wirth believes that an appointed commission will improve the quality of the PRC and actually improve its representation.

“What I’d like to see are people who have the right type of regulatory backgrounds that don’t have to worry immediately about having to run in the next election,” Wirth said in a phone interview. “With all the dark money that is showing up in these races I just think at the end of the day the citizens in New Mexico are going to be better served.”

Historically, PRC elections have attracted floods of cash from political action committees and nonprofits, some of it from anonymous donors. But the campaign for the amendment similarly attracted dark money. Two groups — Vote Yes to Reform the New Mexico PRC and the Committee to Protect New Mexico Consumers — spent a combined $1 million on advertising promoting the measure, according to the Secretary of State.

The New Mexico Supreme Court in the coming days can deny the petition or agree to hear the case. There is no deadline for its decision.