MON: Pelosi hints aid to NM fire victims will come sooner than expected, + More
During NM visit, Pelosi hints aid to fire victims will come sooner than expected - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
Those who suffered damage or injury due to the biggest fire in state history could be in line to receive substantial compensation sooner than expected, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a visit to Albuquerque on Monday.
The Hermits Peak Fire Assistance Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-Las Vegas, N.M.), requires the federal government to pay damages for the 500-square-mile wildfire a U.S. Forest Service crew accidentally caused in April. The fire north of Las Vegas destroyed about 1,000 structures, including more than 500 homes, charred the landscape, imperiled the watershed and forced thousands to flee.
Pelosi came to Albuquerque on Monday to hear from victims of the fire and elected officials from the area. She also touted the possibility of including the act in Congress’ continuing resolution. That’s the spending deal that keeps the government funded and other priorities, so long as lawmakers agree to it before Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year.
Speaking to reporters after the roundtable, she hinted that the legislation would be part of the spending bill but would not say how much money it would contain.
“Stay tuned,” she said at the news conference at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
Putting the legislation in the budget deal means the aid could arrive earlier than anticipated, though it remains to be seen how quickly victims will be able to file claims under the act and then receive compensation.
In July, the legislation was slated to be part of the National Defense Authorization Act, which may not be passed until February 2023, according to a recent report by a defense industry trade publication.
Meanwhile, thousands are still recovering from the massive fire and the complications it caused. Destructive floods coursed through the burn scar during the monsoon season, adding further damage to landscape and communities, and threatening Las Vegas’ water supply. Many people suffered losses, including farmers and ranchers, who are still displaced while trying to navigate an alphabet soup of federal relief programs, often with limited success.
FEMA, for example, issued denials to about 30% of individual applicants so far, according to the last figures from July. (FEMA has declined repeated requests from Source New Mexico in recent months for updated denial numbers).
The legislation that is included in the spending bill would go much further than other programs. It’s an effort to pay back lost revenue, fully rebuild homes or structures lost and restore the environment.
“This is an extraordinary assault on the environment that is the clear responsibility of the government,” Pelosi told members of the roundtable. “When something happens like a natural disaster, there is a compact between the people and the government that we will be there. But we have to be there in a timely fashion, in a way that facilitates benefits coming forward.”
WHAT THE BILL WOULD DO
However much Congress allocates would be divided among claimants and administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It would establish a designated FEMA office to pay out claims. That’s a similar structure to the last time the federal government accidentally let a prescribed burn escape in New Mexico. In 2000, the National Park Service ignited the Cerro Grande Fire near Los Alamos.
The bill would allow those with fire or flood losses to file an application within two years, and then the government will have up to six months afterward to determine if a claim is valid. The total will be reduced by any insurance payments an applicant would have received up to that point.
Individual applicants can file claims for loss of property, a decrease in property value, damage to infrastructure “including irrigation infrastructure such as acequia systems” and any costs that result from lost subsistence through hunting, fishing, gathering firewood, timber, grazing or agriculture.
Businesses can also seek damages under the act, including for damage to inventory, business interruptions, lost wages and more.
As written, the legislation would also cover new flood insurance payments, flood or fire mitigation, debris removal, increased mortgage interest or loans provided by the Small Business Administration.
There is no cap on the amount a person or business can receive, unlike the individual FEMA payouts so far, which are capped at $40,000.
‘EVERY DISASTER HAS ITS OWN PERSONALITY’
Pelosi and Leger Fernandez spoke to various elected officials and local forestry experts during the roundtable, which reporters could not attend most of. Attendees described the toll of the past five months and shortfalls in the federal response.
“FEMA is scary,” San Miguel County Chair Harold Garcia said during the end of the discussion. “I’m thinking that the guidelines FEMA has, that maybe they need to change those guidelines.”
Pelosi later said she understood concerns about FEMA.
“I hear what you’re saying about FEMA,” she said. “Every disaster has its own personality. And so we have to make sure that they understand that.”
Pelosi and Leger Fernandez both struck a hopeful tone in describing the region’s future, saying that recovery could take years but that, eventually, water will again be safe to drink again, and the forest renewed.
“We hope to bring healing and payment for the loss of income in homes and business,” Leger Fernandez said. “…That is important not just in terms of looking at it as rebuilding a home or rebuilding a barn, but it is also rebuilding a future for these children.”
New Mexico legislators weigh changes to harassment policies - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
State legislators in New Mexico are reconsidering how they evaluate complaints of sexual misconduct against colleagues, amid outrage about the handling of a complaint against an influential senator.
A panel of leading legislators met Monday to discuss possible changes to ground rules for harassment investigations at the Legislature.
"It has become clear that our anti-harassment policy is not working," said Democratic state Rep. Damon Ely of Corrales, co-chairman of a legislative ethics committee. "This is intended to start a discussion."
Harassment complaints against lawmakers are often assigned for an initial investigation to a panel of four legislators, which may deadlock on a 2-2 vote. Ely proposed the changes that would assign an outside expert to break any tie vote, with public notice of the outcome.
Ely outlined proposals that would remove secrecy provisions that currently prevent people who complain of harassment by legislators from publicly discussing any investigation that has been dismissed without a finding of probable cause.
"How do we fix that so that we have closure for those people?" said Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup. "It can't come out in a tie. There has to be closure for both sides."
Also Monday, a coalition of advocacy groups held a news conference in Santa Fe to describe a "toxic culture" that favors perpetrators over victims of harassment at the Legislature.
Some said an independent authority such as New Mexico's State Ethics Commission would be better suited to review harassment complaints against legislators — rather than a panel of legislators.
"The current system only supports the perpetrators," said Lan Sena, policy director for the Center for Civic Policy. "This is a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house."
Sena reiterated calls for the resignation of Democratic state Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque in response to harassment accusations.
Ivey-Soto, a gatekeeper on election legislation, recently announced that a Senate investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against him had been "indefinitely suspended, with no further action to be taken."
But a leaked report also shows that a special counsel to the investigation concluded there was probable cause to indicate that Ivey-Soto violated anti-harassment policies. And the female lobbyist who leveled accusations of harassment against Ivey-Soto has filed a lawsuit challenging secrecy provisions at the Legislature that prevent her from saying more.
Marianna Anaya's harassment complaint to the Legislature in February was accompanied by an open letter to the public that accused Ivey-Soto of groping her at a hotel reception in 2015 and of more recent aggressive and disrespectful behavior while discussing proposed legislation over drinks. She called on the lawmaker to resign, as other women say they were harassed by Ivey-Soto.
Ivey-Soto said he has no recollection of touching Anaya during the encounter and that their encounters over the years were never sexual. The Associated Press generally does not identify people alleging sexual assault, but Anaya has been openly public about her allegations and prior advocacy against harassment.
On Saturday, Ivey-Soto was removed from one of his leadership positions on an interim committee in response to harassment allegations.
New Mexico lawmaker removed from committee over allegations – Associated Press
State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto has been removed from his position as chairman of the New Mexico Finance Authority interim committee due to sexual harassment allegations against him.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart announced the move Saturday, and appointed Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, to replace Ivey-Soto on the committee.
"Given the scope and nature of the allegations levied against Senator Ivey-Soto, it would be inappropriate for him to remain in a position of authority until the allegations are fully, fairly and transparently resolved," Stewart said in a statement. "Our committees must be functioning at their very best. Members should feel comfortable working with their committee leaders, as should the public and all those who interact with them."
Stewart also wants Ivey-Soto to step down from the Senate Rules Committee, the panel he leads during formal legislative sessions, but she does not have the power to remove him from that post unilaterally.
Ivey-Soto has denied the harassment allegations.
"Apparently, we've dispensed with the concept of innocent until proven guilty," Ivey-Soto told the Albuquerque Journal.
More than 10% of New Mexicans eligible for student debt relief, numbers show - Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
Recently released figures show that more than 1 in 10 New Mexicans are eligible to have some of their student loan debt wiped out.
According to the White House, 215,900 New Mexican borrowers are eligible for at least $10,000 in debt relief, not to mention a slew of other changes meant to ease the pain of being a student borrower. That’s about 17% of all New Mexican adults.
Of those eligible, 159,000 are Pell Grant recipients, meaning they can get $20,000 forgiven of their student loan balance. That’s 74% of eligible recipients, making New Mexico tied with Arkansas for the second-highest percentage of Pell Grant borrowers in the country. Pell Grants are given to low-income students. Mississippi has the highest percentage of Pell Grant recipients at 76%.
The White House on Tuesday announced the number of borrowers in each state who could benefit from the student debt relief program and encouraged those who are eligible to apply.
To be eligible, household annual income must be below $125,000 for individuals or $250,000 for married couples or heads of households.
Other reforms include changes to income-based repayment plans that reduce bills from 10% of one’s monthly income to 5%, and forgiving loan balances of less than $12,000 after 10 years, not 20 years, of payments.
The application to receive the debt relief is not yet available. But it’s expected to be in early October. Borrowers who want to be alerted about the application can sign up at this link.
See a map below showing how many folks are eligible in each state.
Albuquerque church security guard killed, suspect arrested - Associated Press
A suspect has been arrested in connection with the death of a security guard at an Albuquerque church, authorities said Sunday.
City police said 35-year-old Marc Ward was taken into custody Saturday. It was unclear Sunday if Ward has a lawyer yet who can speak about the case.
Police said 61-year-old Daniel Bourne was killed in the church's parking lot Friday night.
His body was found in an adjacent arroyo and police said Bourne was apparently run over by a vehicle and dragged.
Prior to that, police said Bourne had sent his supervisor photos of a suspicious truck near the church along with the license plates and that is what led them to the suspect.
Authorities said Bourne served as a commander for the Bernalillo County Fire Rescue for 20 years and retired in 2008.
They said Bourne is survived by his wife and three children.
'Eco-warrior' and Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman dies - Associated Press
Dave Foreman, a self-proclaimed eco-warrior who was a prominent member of the radical environmentalism movement and a co-founder of Earth First!, has died. He was 74.
The New Mexico-based Rewilding Institute, which Foreman founded as a think tank to develop long-term land conservation plans, said on its website that he died peacefully at his home in Albuquerque on Monday.
A cause of death wasn't immediately released, but friends of Foreman said he had battled a lung illness for several months.
"There will never be another like him. One of the greatest conservationists ever," the institute said. "He is sorely missed by so many as a dear friend, leader, and mentor."
John Davis, the institute's director and an associate of Foreman's for 37 years, told the Arizona Daily Star that Foreman had remained involved in conservation issues up until his death.
Foreman, who used to live in Tucson, Arizona, helped launch two groundbreaking environmental movements. One is Earth First!, which was launched in 1979 and uses a direct-action approach to draw "attention to the crises facing the natural world," according to the movement's website. The other is the "rewilding" movement, which for decades has sought to protect huge expanses of nature for wildlife.
In the 1980s, Foreman was repeatedly accused of engaging in eco-terrorism — including from some mainstream environmentalists — for his advocacy of environmental direct action, going beyond civil disobedience and tree-sitting protests to tree-spiking, cutting down billboards and pouring sand into gas tanks of bulldozers, the Star reported.
Former Earth First! member Kieran Suckling, who now is the director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, told the newspaper that Foreman "was deadly serious about the essential importance of wilderness and wildlife to the planet, and to human society, and calling people to defend them as the highest calling in life."
Born in Albuquerque in 1947, Foreman worked for the Wilderness Society from 1973-1980. Dissatisfactions with environmental groups led him and other activist friends to form Earth First!.
In 1991, Foreman co-founded the Wildlands Network, which seeks to establish a network of protected wilderness areas across North America. He founded the Rewilding Institute in 2003.
Foreman wrote at least five books from 1991-2014, starting with "Confessions of an Eco-Warrior."
New Mexico allows funds for prosecutions in 'Rust' shooting - Associated Press
New Mexico has granted funds to pay for possible prosecutions connected to last year's fatal film-set shooting of a cinematographer by actor Alec Baldwin, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported Thursday.
The state Board of Finance greenlit more than $317,000 to cover the cost of investigating potential charges in the shooting on the set of "Rust" outside Santa Fe.
First Judicial District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies made an emergency request for the funds to go toward a special prosecutor, special investigator, several experts and other personnel.
As many as four people could face charges, according to a copy of the request obtained by the newspaper, though Carmack-Altwies did not say anyone definitely would.
"One of the possible defendants is well known movie actor Alec Baldwin," she stated.
When reached for comment by the newspaper, she declined to say which crew members or cast could face charges. The possible charges her office is looking at range from homicide to violations of state gun statutes.
Carmack-Altwies said she is expecting to receive the final investigation report from the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office soon.
Baldwin was pointing a gun at cinematographer Halyna Hutchins when it went off on Oct. 21, killing her and wounding the director, Joel Souza. They had been inside a small church during setup for filming a scene.
Baldwin has said the gun went off accidentally and that he did not pull the trigger. But a recent FBI forensic report found the weapon could not not have fired unless someone pulled the trigger.
The film's armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, has been named in several lawsuits, including a wrongful death claim filed by Hutchins' family.