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MON: NM’s gubernatorial candidates dive into police funding, homelessness, oil and gas, and more

Screenshot from the debate on Friday, Sept. 30, between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mark Ronchetti via KOB.
Screenshot from the debate on Friday, Sept. 30, between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mark Ronchetti via KOB.

NM’s gubernatorial candidates dive into police funding, homelessness, oil and gas, and more - Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

The New Mexico governor went head-to-head with a former meteorologist on Friday in an Albuquerque television studio where they relayed their views and priorities for the state.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Mark Ronchetti took priority over NBC’s Friday night primetime TV content to pitch New Mexicans on why one of them should be elected governor in November.

KOB anchor Tessa Mentus and reporter Matt Grubs moderated the first major gubernatorial debate in N.M. of 2022 as voters began requesting absentee ballots to be mailed to their homes.

The pair directed the candidates to share their views on crime, education, state budgets, water and mental health.

When asked about issues related to homelessness, Lujan Grisham shared a message of “tough love” on substance use, saying there should be more ways to make treatment mandatory for someone.

Lujan Grisham also laid out a 2023 legislative goal on this topic: statewide restrictions on panhandling and trespassing targeted toward the unhoused population.

This push to criminalize people without homes formed a bit of agreement between the two candidates. Ronchetti also spoke in support of treatment options, vowing more funding, and stuck to the point of vanishing people living in public spaces by saying, “New Mexico cannot be allowed to be someone’s campground, and we’ve seen it.”

In mid-August, Albuquerque city government shut down a longtime camp of people experiencing homelessness that had grown during the pandemic.

Lujan Grisham said the state needs to finish projects to build up to 600 transitional housing units, before reiterating her position that the state must create a better system to address root causes and create more mental health care access.

“Doing it better, doing it faster,” she said, “but I agree, tough love about what’s happening here and not allowing folks to simply reject treatment does have to end in the state of New Mexico,” she said.

Ronchetti affirmed that climate change is real, an inconsistent message since he left TV weather forecasting for GOP politics. His position is the topic of an attack ad in support of Lujan Grisham.

“Climate change is real,” Ronchetti said during a rebuttal. “I’ve said that. I’ve been clear on it. But we can address it without crashing our energy sector.”

The candidates shared similar gratitude for oil and gas money flowing through state programs but divergent ideas on how to spend the revenues that have grown more than $2 billion on state trust land alone in the last decade, according to a September report from the NM Land Office.

New Mexico uses this money to pay for state operations and education. Each candidate said they want to promote extraction activity and leave more money in savings.

Lujan Grisham could point to raises for all state employees as one example of how she spent the additional revenues from the recent oil and gas boom. But it’s unclear when that will happen again.

Ronchetti agreed on more spending in schools and public safety, then split with Lujan Grisham on regulating oil and gas. He disagreed with a position Lujan Grisham shared about concern for climate change, pollution and the effects of the industry.

“We’re going to work with all of the other states and the federal government to make sure that both surface and groundwater gets addressed for the state for the next hundreds of years,” she said.

Ronchetti said he supports state investments in desalination businesses to attract their commerce in New Mexico and partner on water projects, and he reiterated his idea that New Mexicans should get oil and gas royalty checks.

Since it was on a local TV news channel, crime, of course, led the debate.

Lujan Grisham touted her investment of millions into law enforcement, including raises for cops, and said she will be a champion for reform of the pre-trial detention system. “I’m gonna keep fighting until we get that over the finish line,” she said.

During the 2022 legislative session, multiple crime bills to create stricter pre-trial detention guidelines supported by Lujan Grisham failed in committees. Other efforts to increase maximum sentences for certain violent crimes also did not make it far in the Roundhouse.

Following a national trend, Ronchetti blamed the constitutional change that allows judges to determine whether someone should be incarcerated before a hearing, decreasing the number of people awaiting trial in jail. Bail reform was supported by 87% of New Mexico voters in 2016.

Reform would likely require legislative approval and another constitutional ballot question sent to New Mexico voters.

Speaking of the state constitution, people in N.M. casting ballots this election cycle can vote on Amendment 1, which calls for more money for public education from state reserves — the Land Grant Permanent Fund valued at around $35 billion.

Ronchetti said he opposes the measure. Lujan Grisham supports it and said it could sustain her commitment to fully fund early childhood education.

The candidate’s views on abortion took a chunk of the debate, but ultimately it affirmed their public positions on the topic.

Ronchetti floated his proposal to institute a ban on abortion services after 15 weeks of pregnancy through a constitutional amendment. Lujan Grisham argued against the idea, saying she is the person who can further protect reproductive rights just by being in office.

However she did not share any policy ideas to strengthen the legality of abortion in New Mexico and enshrine it in statute.

Candidates moved through questions well enough that much of the time restrictions — 90 seconds for introduction, 60 seconds to answer questions and 60 seconds rebuttal — set by the moderators went uninterrupted.

New Mexicans tuning into Friday night TV didn’t miss much of the “Law & Order” episode that aired directly after the debate.

New Mexico AG wants state's anti-corruption law strengthened - Associated Press

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is calling on lawmakers to strengthen the state's anti-corruption law.

A recent ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of criminal charges against four defendants, and Balderas told the Albuquerque Journal that the court "took away from citizens a very necessary tool to prosecute public officials who use their public office for their own personal gain."

The case dealt with the dismissal of ethics charges against a series of former public officials, including a former Doña Ana County treasurer, an ex-district attorney and a former taxation and revenue official.

The Journal reported that the state Supreme Court's unanimous opinion centered on the enforcement of three provisions in the Governmental Conduct Act — subsections that direct officials to treat their positions as a public trust, conduct themselves in a way that justifies the confidence placed in them by the people and disclose conflicts of interest.

The high court ruled the sections were never intended by legislators to be enforced as criminal statutes and the language doesn't "spell out what act or omission is required for its violation and does not establish criminal elements that could inform clear jury instructions."

The state Legislature is set to open a 60-day session in January when lawmakers may take up legislation revising ethics laws and other statutes, according to the Journal.

Balderas, a Democrat whose term ends this year, told the newspaper that he's urging lawmakers to work with the ethics agency to "strengthen these laws in order to build public trust with our community which has grown skeptical and tired of corruption."

US shift away from coal hits tribal community in New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The clamor of second graders breaking away from lessons to form lunch lines has gotten quieter in a rural New Mexico community, where families losing coal jobs have been forced to pack up and leave in search of work.

At Judy Nelson Elementary, 1 in 4 students have left in an exodus spurred by decisions made five years ago to shutter a coal-fired power plant and mine that sit just up the road from the school in a largely Navajo community. The plant and mine had provided electricity to millions of people across the southwestern U.S. for nearly a half-century.

The San Juan Generating Station burned its last bit of coal Thursday. The remaining workers will spend the coming weeks draining water from the plant, removing chemicals and preparing to tear down what has long been fixture on the high-desert horizon.

It's part of the latest wave of coal-burning units to be retired as New Mexico and other states try to fight climate change by requiring more carbon-free sources of electricity. President Joe Biden also has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

Just weeks ago, Hawaii's last coal-fired power plant closed after 30 years, and more retirements are scheduled around the U.S. over the next decade.

Realities of shuttering the San Juan plant are setting in for surrounding communities, including the Navajo Nation, where poverty and joblessness already are exponentially higher than national averages. Hundreds of jobs are evaporating along with tens of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue used to fund schools and a community college.

"A lot of the Native American families have multi-generations living in the home so it doesn't just affect the husband and wife. It affects their children and their grandchildren," said Arleen Franklin, who teaches second grade at Judy Nelson. Her husband purchases equipment for a coal mine that feeds another power plant scheduled to close in 2031.

Denise Pierro, a reading teacher at Judy Nelson, said it's stressful for parents to see a steady income erased. Pierro's husband, who served as the general manager of the mine for the San Juan plant, is among those forced into early retirement.

"They've taken the rug out from underneath our feet," she said.

Area power plants, mines and associated businesses represent 80% of property tax revenues that fund the Central Consolidated School District, which spans an area the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Almost 93% of the students are Navajo.

It's rural and remote. Some students ride a school bus for three hours round trip, arriving home well after sunset. Internet service is spotty or nonexistent, and many homes don't have electricity or indoor plumbing. The poverty rate within the district is four times the national level. The median annual household income is about $20,000, and the unemployment rate hovers around 70%.

New Mexico's Democratic leaders have celebrated the plant's closure while touting a landmark 2019 law that pushes for a renewable energy economy. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is running for reelection, has said the law represented a promise to future generations for a cleaner environment and new job opportunities.

Environmentalists have said the closure will reduce air and water pollution in a region that some have described as an industrial sacrifice zone. They argue that power plant emissions and methane from the oilfields have caused health problems for residents.

Joe Ramone, a 69-year-old pipe welder who worked at San Juan, lives in a Navajo community not far from the Four Corners plant. When the wind blows just right, he said his community is hit with ash and coal dust.

Still, he said his priority is making sure Navajos have work.

"I don't want to see anybody unemployed and I am in no way in favor of these companies being shut down. But there's room for improvement," he said, suggesting more investments could have been made.

The loss of the San Juan plant and the mine ripple through every facet of life, from fewer lunch orders at Kirtland's café to a dwindling ash supply for concrete manufacturers. Meanwhile, prices have skyrocketed for everything from the Navajo staple of mutton to the woven baskets and other materials needed for healing ceremonies.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico, which runs the plant, is providing $11 million in severance packages to help about 200 displaced workers. About 240 mine workers are getting severance payments worth $9 million. Another $3 million went to job training.

A state fund established by the energy law also includes $12 million for affected workers.

Solar and battery storage projects are meant to eventually replace the capacity lost with San Juan's shutdown and provide jobs during construction. But some of those projects have been delayed due to supply chain problems, and others are on hold indefinitely amid historic inflation and other economic constraints.

Fresh off a night shift as an electrician at the mine for the neighboring Four Corners Power Plant, Christine Aspaas, a Central Consolidated School Board member, said even if those "green" jobs existed now, they would be temporary. And to make up for lost property tax revenue, she said, some families will have to pay up to seven times more.

It's been heartbreaking for so many Navajos to consider leaving home, Aspaas said.

"That's what others don't understand," she said. "There's culture, there's traditions, and so it's not easy."

Sharon Clahchischilliage, once a teacher and a former New Mexico lawmaker, said people in her Navajo community near Shiprock are angry.

"One of them told me, 'I don't know who to be angry at for us having to do this. We don't have a family anymore,'" she said, referring to bonds broken as Navajos search for jobs elsewhere.

In the final days, the plant's spinning turbine sent vibrations through layers of concrete and passing work boots. Heat emanated from the boilers below.

In the dim control room, workers monitored screens displaying temperatures, pressure, turbine speeds and pollution control systems. Allen Palmer, 70, spent over half his life working his way up the ranks.

"I hate to see it close," he said.

Workers knew for years that the plant would be shuttered. It became more real as coal piles shrank each day — until there was nothing left. As the finish line approached, the company served workers green chile cheeseburgers as a morale booster alongside a big projection screen that read: "Thank you to all employees at San Juan for your years of dedicated service!"

The last few dozen employees will be laid off over the coming weeks. Some were ready to retire; in June, there were voluntary layoffs when the first of the last two generating units closed.

"There's lots of us who have worked 20-plus years and we all know each other and it's our family," said plant director Rodney Warner, who will oversee the decommissioning. "It's who we are."

December would have marked 10 years at the plant for Steven Sorrow, 32. He and his coworkers know there's a good chance they will have to uproot and possibly enter other fields. Some will head to Wyoming, Colorado or Utah, where there are other plants and mines.

"It's going to be an adjustment for sure," he said. "I feel like I've tried to prepare over the five years when they told us what we had left. Hopefully I've prepared well enough."

Aspaas said officials need to find ways to keep the workforce in New Mexico. She said the foundation of economic development is education but without economic development, education suffers.

"This whole transition, everything that's happening, the closures, that's what is threatening our ability to keep funding education," she said. "When you go down to what it impacts, it is the education of our people, of the Navajo people, our students."

Some New Mexico lawmakers debate higher tax rate for alcohol - Associated Press

New Mexico has the worst rate in the nation for alcohol-related deaths at nearly 2,000 people per year and some lawmakers are debating whether the state tax on booze should be higher.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee has chosen an alcohol tax increase as one of its top priorities for next year.

But some lawmakers don't know how much to increase the alcohol tax, whether to change how the taxes are levied and what to do with the revenues raised.

New Mexico taxes alcohol wholesalers a fixed amount per volume of beverage they sell to retailers, who raise prices on consumers to cover the upcharge.

Experts say higher taxes reduce some of alcohol's harmful impacts by making it more expensive to drink excessively.

Alcohol taxes also raise revenue that can fund prevention and treatment services.

But the New Mexican reports that the state's rates don't adjust as inflation pushes up alcohol's prices and legislators rarely tinker with them.

The current rates — 7 cents per drink for wine and spirits and 4 cents a drink for beer — are at historic lows, according to the newspaper.

The last time advocates in New Mexico attempted to raise alcohol taxes, they campaigned in 2017 for an across-the-board, quarter-a-drink increase and the bill flopped.

"Everyone needs to understand the landscape before we have a serious conversation about how it should be changed," Rep. Christine Chandler, who chairs the state legislature's Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee, told the New Mexican.

FBI: Jetliner evacuated in Albuquerque after security threat - Associated Press

An American Airlines flight from Texas to New Mexico was evacuated Sunday after landing at the Albuquerque airport because of a security threat, authorities said.

All 179 people aboard Flight 928 from Dallas-Fort Worth were taken off the jet in the morning at Albuquerque International Sunport and were bused to the terminal, airport officials said. No injuries were reported.

FBI officials in Albuquerque did not disclose the nature of the security threat but said that the matter was being investigated and that no other information was available.

American Airlines passengers flying out of the airport were expected to see flight delays while the episode is investigated, airport officials said.

Annual hot air balloon festival draws global audience to US - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Hundreds of hot air balloons lifted off Saturday morning, marking the start of an annual fiesta that has drawn pilots and spectators from across the globe to New Mexico's high desert for 50 years now.

As one of the most photographed events in the world, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta has become an economic driver for the state's largest city and a rare — and colorful — opportunity for enthusiasts to be within arm's reach as the giant balloons are unpacked and inflated.

Three of the original pilots who participated in the first fiesta in 1972 and the family members of others are among this year's attendees. That year, 13 balloons launched from an open lot near a shopping center on what was then the edge of Albuquerque. It has since grown into a multimillion-dollar production.

Pilot Gene Dennis, 78, remembers the snow storm that almost caused him to miss that first fiesta. He had to rearrange his flight plans from Michigan so he could make it to Albuquerque in time.

The weather was perfect when he got to New Mexico, said Dennis, who flew under the alias "Captain Phairweather." He was quoted at the time as saying he had brought good weather with him.

He was on the hook again, as pilots hope predictions for the rest of opening weekend are fair.

"Ballooning is infectious," Dennis said, describing being aloft like drifting in a dream, quietly observing the countryside below.

This year will mark Roman Müller's first time flying in the fiesta. He's piloting a special-shaped balloon that was modeled after a chalet at the top of a famous Swiss bobsled run. One of his goals will be flying over the Rio Grande and getting low enough to dip the gondola into the river.

"This is my plan," he said, with a wide smile while acknowledging that it's not always easy to fly a balloon.

One thing that helps, he said, is the phenomenon known as the Albuquerque box — when the wind blows in opposite directions at different elevations, allowing skillful pilots to bring a balloon back to near the point of takeoff.

Dennis said it took a few years of holding the fiesta to realize the predictability of the wind patterns allowed for balloons to remain close to the launch field, giving spectators quite a show.

Tens of thousands of people packed the field Saturday, wide-eyed with necks craned as they tried to soak in the spectacle.

Denise Wiederkehr McDonald was a passenger in her father's balloon during the first fiesta. She made the trip from Colorado to participate in a re-enactment of that 1972 flight on Friday. Her father, Matt Wiederkehr, was one of the first 10 hot air balloon pilots in the U.S. and held numerous world records for distance and duration and built a successful advertising business with his fleet of balloons.

Wiederkehr McDonald, who went on to set her own ballooning records before becoming a commercial airline pilot, was wearing one of her father's faded ballooning jackets and held a cardboard cutout of him as the balloon she was riding in lifted off.

She recalled a childhood full of experiences centered on ballooning.

"I remember the first time being down in the balloons with them all standing up and inflating and not being able to see the sky because it was all colored fabric. And then the other thing was the first balloon glow at night. Oh, my gosh," she said. "There were a lot of firsts that I took for granted back then but really look back and appreciate so much now."

The fiesta has grown to include a cadre of European ballooning professionals. More than 20 countries are represented this year, including Switzerland, Australia, Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Taiwan and Ukraine.

It also serves as the launching venue for the America's Challenge Gas Balloon Race, one of the world's premier distance races for gas balloons.

Growth in licensed products gives NMSU athletics an assist - By Algernon D'ammassa Las Cruces Sun-News

Pete's Most Wanted Salsa, a new product bearing the image of New Mexico State University mascot Pistol Pete, celebrated its launch Wednesday with a party at La Posta de Mesilla; and the university says more branded products will soon be joining a growing family of licensed NMSU merchandise.

"There's a realm of possibilities out there, and as long as it's a good quality product, I don't see why this thing won't keep expanding," NMSU athletics director Mario Moccia said in an interview.

Sales of NMSU-licensed beer, wine and whiskey are reportedly robust.

Precise data was unavailable, but non-apparel licensed products — including the alcoholic products but also its other consumable and non-consumable items such as lawn chairs and tents — totaled approximately $116,700 in the last fiscal year.

And the university's licensing company stated in a recent report that NMSU ranked second among college institutions with licensed alcoholic products, including the first collegiate-branded spirit, Pistol Pete's Six Shooter Rye Whiskey. Moreover, NMSU ranked fifth in sales of consumable licensed products among colleges and universities.

Those rankings were reported by the Collegiate Licensing Company/Learfield Licensing Partners, which licenses university-branded products, but the company declined to state which schools were top ranked in either category, NMSU spokesperson Justin Bannister said.

The department made its first venture beyond NMSU-branded sweatshirts and other apparel and gift items into consumables in 2017, with the introduction of Pistol Pete's 1888 Ale by Bosque Brewery. At the time, NMSU was an early entrant into the marketplace of college-branded beer.

Since then, Aggie Athletics has introduced the Crimson Legacy Wine, a cabernet from the Lescombes Family Vineyards, followed by the rye whiskey produced by Dry Point Distillers.

That's music to Moccia's ears. As long as the licensed products deliver a consistent stream of revenue, he said it will support higher budgets for sports and benefit student athletes.

"It doesn't go to coaches' salaries, it doesn't go into one specific sport," he said. "It doesn't go to build buildings or fix air conditioners or whatever. It just goes to sports budgets."

Other consumables bearing NMSU's brand include the "A" Mountain Roast Coffee (a product of Estas Manos Coffee Roasters) and Pistol Pete's "Smell of Victory" candle by Kreative Candle Co. There is also a line of bottled "Wobble on Water."

The new salsa, manufactured by Young Guns Chile in Hatch, uses Hatch green chiles in its recipe and was selected by the department following a taste-test competition.

"This isn't making millions," he said, "but six figures, to me, is significant."

Besides supporting athletics, Moccia said the products help connect the university with alumni through online sales and collaborations with local businesses, some of which are owned or led by graduates. The bottled water features a label designed by an alumna as well.

"The linchpin is that it has to be a good product," he continued. "That's why it's been sustainable. We're not just slapping our logo on anything. We want to make sure it's good quality so people will want to buy it, and not just for the novelty."

The partnerships also seem to work well for the companies that produce and package the products for market.

Lescombes Family Vineyards reported that since the Crimson Legacy wine launched in the fall of 2020, nearly 10,700 bottles have sold.

Dry Point Distillers is planning a celebration marking 10,000 sales of the bottled 6-Shooter Rye Whiskey. Founder Chris Schaefer said the whiskey is a "top moving product in my line," sold in more than 170 locations statewide.

"This has been a big player in the pandemic/post-pandemic success of my business," he continued, "and overall has increased the consumer visibility of my whole product line, not to mention over $35,000 in profit-sharing that has gone directly to Aggie Athletics."

Former NM college official guilty in embezzlement scheme - Associated Press

A former official at Northern New Mexico College has pleaded guilty in an embezzlement scheme she admitted to hatching more than a decade ago but will serve no jail time.

Instead, Henrietta Trujillo will be required to repay about $80,000 she stole from the college and spend two years on house arrest, followed by substantial community service and five years' probation, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

Trujillo was the financial services director at the college in Española when she admitted to taking the money and another $167,000 in checks that she never cashed. Investigators began the probe after the state Auditor's Office discovered about $200,000 was missing. Judges rejected plea agreements in 2019 and again 2020, saying they were too lenient.

Trujillo's lawyer told the New Mexican earlier this year that his client was infirm and said in recent court motions that her health was to fragile to handle a prison sentence. Trujillo is now 66 and lives in Corrales.

"I don't want going to jail to become a death sentence for her health-wise," attorney Ben Ortega told the newspaper in July.

District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said in an email to the newspaper after Thursday's court hearing in Tierra Amarilla where she entered the plea and was sentenced that the agreement requires Trujillo to get therapy for gambling addiction.