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THURS: Secretary of state candidate removes gun-for-donation offer, New Mexico braces for exodus from Medicaid insurance, + More

Audrey Trujillo
Morgan Lee/AP
/
AP
Audrey Trujillo, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in New Mexico, courts voters at a campaign rally in Rio Rancho, N.M., on June 24, 2022. Trujillo on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, removed an online campaign flier that offered the chance to receive a firearm in return for campaign donations in apparent violation of state restrictions on raffles. State gambling regulators say the matter was resolved voluntarily. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

New Mexico candidate removes gun-for-$100 donations offer — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's Republican nominee for secretary of state has removed an online campaign flier that offered the chance to receive a firearm in return for $100 donations to her campaign.

The gun "giveaway" offer on a Facebook campaign website for candidate Audrey Trujillo appeared to run afoul of a state prohibition on the use of raffles to raise funds for an individual running for office.

Contacted Thursday by The Associated Press, Trujillo said that she was removing the gun giveaway flier out of concern it might be out of compliance. She said her campaign would offer refunds for any possible contributions linked to the gun offer.

Trujillo is challenging incumbent Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver in the November general election for the New Mexico's top elections regulation post that also oversees campaign finance and ethics provisions. The small business owner from Corrales is campaigning for large-scale changes to elections as part of the America First Secretary of State Coalition.

Trujillo said she was aware of restrictions on raffles for campaign purposes and had intended simply to give away a gun that was provided to her campaign in honor of the constitutional right to bear arms. She said the notice was posted without her review and that she took it down after seeing the wording.

"I know that for a fact that we're not supposed to do raffles or sell anything — it was being given away," Trujillo said. "We took it down immediately. We're not doing it because we want to make sure that we comply."

The campaign flier, with an image of Trujillo, announced an October gun giveaway and that "with each $100 donation, you will be entered for a ticket. Only 200 tickets will be sold ... winner is responsible for background check fee." A QR code was linked to a campaign contribution processing website.

The gun displayed on the flier was a 12-gauge, semi-automatic shotgun with a magazine for multiple shells.

Trujillo campaign manager Freddie Lopez said the campaign spoke with an official at the state Gaming Control Board to inform the agency that the gun offer had been removed.

"It was a mistake on our part, and we corrected it," he said.

Gaming Control Board staff representative Richard Kottenstette said the agency is satisfied for now by voluntary compliance after an enforcement agent contacted Trujillo's campaign manager to confirm that the campaign notices were removed, with no apparent campaign contributions received.

"It's been made public before that political campaigns should not be using raffles for fundraising," he said. "It's out there. It's not hard to find."

New Mexico braces for exodus from Medicaid insurance - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico is bracing for a rapid exodus of up to 100,000 people from subsidized Medicaid health care next year as the federal government phases out special pandemic-era spending and eligibility for the program, the state's top health official told lawmakers Wednesday.

State health and welfare officials say the federal government appears likely but not certain to declare an end to its COVID-19 public health emergency in January, curtailing enrollment in Medicaid and leaving a $167 million annual gap in state general fund finances.

A legislative panel on Wednesday met to weigh the consequences. The Biden administration plans to give states 60-days notice before making the move.

At that point, Health and Human Services Secretary David Scrase said between 85,000 and 100,000 residents are no longer likely to qualify for Medicaid because of increased earnings as they rejoin the workforce. He said a reduction in supplemental assistance for food may also drive people back into the workforce and off Medicaid.

"We knew this would be coming some day and now it is becoming a part of our budget," Scrase said.

State insurance regulators are preparing to help residents make the transition to insurance policies on the state's health insurance exchange with a plan to waive the first monthly charge, according to a policy briefing from the Legislature's accountability and budget office.

The state has a new stream of tax dollars dedicated to underwriting health-exchange insurance offerings for low- and moderate-income individuals, along with employees at small businesses.

It comes from a new 2.75% tax on health insurance premiums — the upfront payments made on behalf of an individual or family to keep insurance active.

New Mexico residents flocked to Medicaid insurance — for people living in poverty or on the cusp — during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the federal government temporarily boosted reimbursements to medical providers and extended eligibility for patients.

New Mexico officials say the state has the nation's highest rate of enrollment in Medicaid, and its companion Children's Health Insurance Program, with a June 2022 caseload of roughly 970,000 people out of 2.1 million state residents.

New Mexico is among the states around the country that have made it easier for new moms to keep Medicaid in the year after childbirth, a time when depression and other health problems can develop.

Scrase said the state hopes to soon provide continuous Medicaid enrollment for qualified children, to avoid intermittent lapses in enrollment that can interfere with regular medical checkups and immunizations. He said New Mexico would be the second state to adopt the practice.

Governors races take on new prominence, with higher stakes — Sara Burnett, John Hanna, Associated Press

Governors races often are overshadowed by the fight for control of Congress during midterm elections. But this fall, which candidate wins a state's top executive post could be pivotal for the nation's political future.

With abortion rights, immigration policies and democracy itself in the balance, both parties are entering the final weeks before the Nov. 8 election prepared to spend unprecedented amounts of money to win seats for governor. Those elected will be in power for the 2024 election, when they could influence voting laws as well as certification of the outcome. And their powers over abortion rights increased greatly when the U.S. Supreme Court in June left the question to states to decide.

"Governors races matter more than ever," said North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, chair of the Democratic Governors Association, the group working to elect Democrats to lead states.

For Democrats, Cooper said, governors "are often the last line of defense" on issues that have been turned over to states, including gun laws and voting rights in addition to abortion. That's been especially true in places with Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures, such as Wisconsin and Kansas — states both parties have made top targets for victory in November. Democrats are leading Republican candidates in two important battleground states with GOP-led statehouses, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is the only Democratic governor running for reelection in a state carried by former President Donald Trump in 2020. The former legislator won the office in 2018 against a fiery conservative after running as a moderate who promoted bipartisanship.

She now faces three-term state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who has repeatedly tried to tie her to President Joe Biden and criticized her as too liberal for the red state. Schmidt's campaign has been hurt, however, by a third-party bid from a conservative state lawmaker.

During a debate at the Kansas State Fair this month, Schmidt portrayed Kelly's position on abortion as too extreme, telling a crowd she supports abortion without restrictions.

Kansas has been the unlikely site of Democratic hopes in regard to abortion rights. In August, Kansas voters overwhelmingly defeated a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have allowed the GOP-controlled Legislature to greatly restrict or ban abortion. Kelly opposed the measure, though she has tried to focus her campaign elsewhere.

Schmidt said he respects the outcome of the vote but that the abortion debate isn't over.

"What was not on the ballot was Governor Kelly's position," he said.

Throughout nearly two decades in elective politics, Kelly has opposed nearly every restriction on abortion now in Kansas law. But asked about Schmidt's characterization of her position on abortion, she said, "You know, I have never said that."

Kelly hasn't emphasized abortion as an issue, though many Democrats think it would help her. Instead, she has been touting the state's fiscal strength and her work to lure businesses and jobs.

"Maybe I'm not flashy, but I'm effective," she said at the end of the state fair debate.

In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers warns voters that democracy is on the ballot this fall and notes he has vetoed more bills than any governor in modern state history, including measures Republicans pushed to change how elections are conducted.

Evers faces businessman Tim Michels, who was endorsed by Trump. Michels has claimed the 2020 presidential election was rigged — a lie Trump has pushed in an effort to overturn his loss to Biden — and supports changes to voting and election laws in the state, a perennial presidential battleground.

Michels is among several Trump-backed nominees who emerged from sometimes brutal GOP primaries. In some cases, more moderate or establishment Republicans warned that the far-right pick endorsed by Trump would struggle to win in a general election.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, chair of the Republican Governors Association, acknowledged the intraparty turmoil during a discussion at Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Policy last week.

"We're a divided nation right now, and it is very tribal. And much of that crept into this cycle," said Ducey, who is term-limited.

The RGA doesn't endorse in primaries. But as governor, Ducey endorsed businesswoman Karrin Taylor Robson for Arizona's GOP nomination for governor. She lost to former TV news anchor Kari Lake, who had Trump's backing.

Ducey and Trump have feuded over the governor's refusal to cede to Trump's wishes and overturn the 2020 election results in his state. Lake has said she would not have certified Biden's victory, even though it has been affirmed by multiple reviews.

Cooper said the DGA will be "leaning in hard" in Arizona as well as in a tight contest in Georgia, where GOP Gov. Brian Kemp is facing Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former state legislative leader who lost a close 2018 race to him. In the primary, Kemp easily defeated former Sen. David Perdue, who was endorsed by Trump.

Both the Democratic and Republican governors associations entered 2022 having raised record amounts of money — over $70 million each — in what they say is a sign that voters are increasingly focused on state races. Cooper attributed some of the increased interest to Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

The RGA is bullish about defending Republican governorships in Arizona and Georgia, and is heavily focused on picking up a handful of blue states in the West, including Oregon and New Mexico.

At the top of the list is Nevada, where Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is among Republicans' most prized recruits this election cycle and is challenging Gov. Steve Sisolak.

In Oregon, GOP hopes rest on an independent candidate siphoning enough support from the Democrat and allowing the Republican to pull out a victory.

Democrats, meanwhile, are confident they will take back governorships in Massachusetts and Maryland, two blue states currently led by moderate Republicans, after far-right Republicans won their party's nominations.

Pennsylvania, a top presidential battleground, is another state where the GOP nominee could hurt Republicans' chances in November. GOP voters chose Doug Mastriano from a crowded field, picking a Trump-backed candidate who opposes abortion rights without exceptions, spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and organized bus trips to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the day of the violent insurrection. He faces Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Asked about the race during the discussion at Georgetown, Ducey was blunt.

"Another axiom that we have at the RGA is that we don't fund lost causes, and we don't fund landslides," he said.

In Michigan, a swing state where Trump and his allies also tried unsuccessfully to overturn his 2020 loss, Trump-backed nominee Tudor Dixon won a chaotic GOP primary. Democrats have repeatedly criticized Dixon for her stance against abortion, including in cases of rape or incest. A measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution also will be on the November ballot, and Democrats are hoping it will help their candidates.

First-term Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has millions more in her campaign fund than Dixon, but said after an appearance at the Detroit Auto Show that she was taking nothing for granted.

"This is Michigan, and it's always tight in Michigan," she said.

Fire crews clean up land they damaged while fighting Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

From mending fences to planting seeds, firefighters are nearly done fixing the damage they caused while battling the largest wildfire New Mexico’s ever seen.

With suppression efforts like bulldozing vegetation and trees, as well as igniting controlled burns, crews tore up land and damaged property on and around the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar. They’ve been tracking what they destroyed — roads, fencing, culverts, cattle guards and more — and are repairing it all now.

As of Tuesday, federal fire personnel had cleaned up 95% of the total 3,259 damaged structures or land in private, state and federal areas, said Dee Hines, spokesperson with the incident management team on the fire.

But people can still request repairs in Colfax, Mora, San Miguel, Santa Fe and Taos Counties. Crews have addressed 624 calls for help on private land as of Friday, spokesperson Cass Cairns said.

Need a repair? To apply or to ask about a pending request, call (720) 417-8048.

Property owners will be asked for personal information, what kind of suppression work was done and how extensively the damage impacts the use of the land.

Matt Rau was one of the liaison officers doing repair work last week. Firefighters prioritize the damaged areas or property that most severely hinder people’s daily operations, he said.

The federal crews order and pay for whatever is needed to fix the damage, he said, though there have been delays caused by supply-chain issues. For example, Rau said, some suppression efforts damaged RV equipment, which required specialized materials that took a long time to arrive. There are also dozens of requests for reseeding, he said, but a lack of seeds.

“We move through these things as fast as we can,” he said.

Some calls did slip through the system. Rau said he’s found unresolved requests dating back to late July, which is around when people could first start asking for repairs.

Since each firefighter crew only serves for two weeks at a time, he remarked, there’s difficulty in carrying over information from crew to crew. At almost every transition, he said things get missed.

“That’s unfortunate, but nonetheless, it’s just the human factors of something like this with this many complexities and moving parts,” Rau said. “And so we have had a few of them dropped through the cracks, and we’re picking up those pieces as we can.”

Climate-fueled wildfires worsen danger for struggling fish - By John Flesher And Brittany Peterson Associated Press

Biologist Bryan Bakevich unscrewed the top of a plastic bucket and removed a Rio Grande cutthroat trout that squirmed from his grasp and plopped onto the grassy bank of Middle Ponil Creek.

"He wants to go home," Bakevich said, easing the fish into the chilly, narrow stream — the final stop on a three-month, 750-mile odyssey for this cutthroat and 107 others plucked in June from another stream in mountainous northern New Mexico.

The state's largest wildfire on record had roared perilously close to their previous home, torching trees and undergrowth on nearby slopes. Summer monsoon season was approaching, and heavy rains could sweep ashy muck into the creek, clogging fish gills and smothering gravel bottoms where they feed and spawn.

State and federal crews rushed to the rescue, using electrofishing gear to stun and net as many cutthroat as possible. They were trucked south to Las Cruces and kept in tanks at New Mexico State University until Middle Ponil Creek was readied to host them.

Today, wildlife agencies in the southwestern U.S. consider missions like this essential as climate change brings more frequent and hotter wildfires, fueled by prolonged drought and tree-killing bug infestations. Particularly vulnerable are Rio Grande cutthroat trout and gila trout — rare species found mostly in small, high-elevation streams.

"With every fire, more of their populations are being affected," said Jill Wick, native fish program manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. "Their habitat is often gone, washed out of the creek. There's no place they can hide and cool off. Their food is decimated as well."

The danger is rising elsewhere. Tens of thousands of salmon, trout and other fish perished in August when a flash flood swept through a burn area in Northern California, sending a sludge plume into the Klamath River.

Trout numbers fell up to 80% in sections of Colorado's Cache la Poudre River after floods and mudslides in summer 2021, a survey found. The biggest wildfire in state history had burned 326 square miles (844 square kilometers) in that area the previous year.

LOCATION MATTERS

Fire isn't always bad for fish. Many species evolved to benefit from the "patchiness and diversity" wildfire brings to landscapes and waterways, said Dan Isaak, a U.S. Forest Service fisheries scientist in Idaho.

The one-two punch of fire and torrential rains is less common in northern regions. Ash tends to stay put through winter snows and seep into the ground or trickle into streams during spring thaws. It delivers nutrients for algae eaten by insects that become fish food. Burned trees topple into streams, creating pools and riffles for feeding and spawning.

But farther south, ever-larger fires incinerate so much foliage holding soil in place that heavy debris flows cause oversized algae blooms that can suffocate fish.

Their health also depends on surrounding features such as slope steepness, plant life and soil types, said Christopher Clare, a habitat protection biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. And, Clare said, climate change is heating streams, a problem worsened when fire robs banks of shade trees.

Rebecca Flitcroft, a U.S. Forest Service fish biologist in Corvallis, Oregon, has modeled danger that fire poses to spring Chinook salmon and bull trout in Washington's Wenatchee River system feeding the Columbia River.

While both species are imperiled, results suggest the trout are worse off because they occupy isolated, cold headwaters. Fire intensity there is higher than in lower portions of river systems preferred by Chinook for easier access to the Pacific, Flitcroft said.

Man-made changes to waterways and landscapes make it harder for fish to survive during and after fires, she said. Water diversions have shrunk habitat. Low levels caused by drought, plus culverts, roads and dams, prevent fish from fleeing to cooler spots.

"We're at a critical place right now with very intense fires, compounded with highly disturbed systems that don't allow for connectivity and movement," Flitcroft said.

CUTTHROATS IN TROUBLE

The Rio Grande cutthroat, New Mexico's state fish, has long been going downhill. Drought and dams have disrupted its habitat. Nonnative brown and brook trout, stocked for sport angling, compete for food. Introduced rainbow trout interbreed with the cutthroat, diluting its genetics.

Named after the reddish slashes beneath its lower jaw, the colorful cutthroat occupies about 12% of its historical range in New Mexico and Colorado, according to a 2019 study that predicted continued decline.

New Mexico had 92 Rio Grande cutthroat populations at the beginning of this year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 rejected a petition to place the cutthroat on the federal endangered list but was overruled by a federal judge and is reconsidering. The nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity had sued for the designation, saying the trout was "barely hanging on."

But a listing could bring land-use restrictions that many would find unpopular, said Toner Mitchell, New Mexico water and habitat coordinator for Trout Unlimited.

"There's a risk of demonizing or villainizing the Rio Grande cutthroat," Mitchell said. "That could result in anything from vandalism to outright efforts to exterminate the fish, when by and large, longtime residents prize them."

Teams have rescued cutthroat and Gila trout from New Mexico streams more than two dozen times since the late 1980s.

"Before these mega-fires, it might be one or two populations in trouble at one time," Wick said. "Now, it's two or three times as many."

Nine cutthroat streams were within this summer's Calf Canyon-Hermits Creek blaze, which began as two fires set to clear undergrowth but blew out of control, consuming more than 530 square miles.

Ash wiped out at least one stream's cutthroats. Trout were salvaged from three others. Among them was Rito Morphy, a twisting, tree-lined creek in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range.

Not all of 190 fish from there survived the stress of two road trips and a months-long stay in university tanks. But the effort kept most alive until a new habitat could be prepared in Middle Ponil Creek, about 58 miles from Rito Morphy.

That required poisoning rainbow trout in the stream section where the fish would be placed. "We want to make sure the cutthroat stay genetically pure," said U.S. Forest Service biologist Alyssa Radcliff.

It's ecologically important to preserve a rare strain of fish, Radcliff said. Another goal is making more available for anglers. "A lot of people were taken by their grandpas and their grandmoms to these streams to catch these fish," she said.

FREE AT LAST

On a recent sunny, windswept afternoon, a pickup truck stopped alongside a dirt road in Carson National Forest. Workers scooped cutthroats four to eight inches long from a large cooler into several five-gallon buckets, strapped them onto backpacks and lugged them through a meadow to the brush-lined, boulder-strewn creek.

When the buckets were tilted into the stream, the liberated fish darted about in the clear water and swished tails in the sandy bottom. Their new digs extended from the creek's headwaters to a wire-and-rock barrier 8 miles downstream to keep out rainbow trout.

It was a quick ending for a mission that lasted all summer, said Bakevich, the state's native fish supervisor.

"After doing all the hard work and coming here," he said, "this is the best part."