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FRI: Community Solar progresses despite setbacks, Navajo water rights headed to supreme court + More

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Regulators, intent on maintaining schedule for community solar, approve credit details - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

New Mexico homeowners, renters and businesses who participate in the state’s future community solar program could save more than half of their normal electric bill under credit rates after the state regulators approved some financial details this week.

WHAT’S COMMUNITY SOLAR?

The governor signed the Community Solar Act into law last year, which included the community solar program. This will allow multiple homes and businesses to get solar energy — almost a third of which is reserved for low-income communities — from a single solar facility.

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission voted Wednesday to approve solar bill credit rates for the community solar program, which will apply to participants’ monthly electric bills.

Many details of how the program will work, however, remain unresolved since the PRC has yet to approve utilities’ plans for instituting the system, repeatedly finding issues with how the energy companies want the program to work.

Investor-owned utilities operating in New Mexico — the Public Service Company of New Mexico, El Paso Electric and Southwestern Public Service — are required to enact community solar and had to submit drafts to the PRC that detail how the program will work almost two months ago, none of which have been fully approved.

And again at Wednesday’s PRC meeting, the plans didn’t completely get through. PRC economist Christopher Dunn said there could still be errors from all the utilities, so the drafts should be reviewed more thoroughly — something that could delay an already prolonged process.

“While staff believe that the filings don’t appear to directly violate any statute or commission rule, staff does believe that there are still issues that warrant further review,” he said.

However, PRC attorney Russell Fisk reminded commissioners about the timeline they’re trying to meet with the community solar program. Officials are trying to decide in March or April 2023 who will get to be part of the solar projects.

Fisk said the billing credits, more than anything else in the plans, need to be urgently approved, so people know if they want to participate or not.

Arthur O’Donnell, a solar innovator fellow with the U.S. Department of Energy, is advising the PRC on community solar and presented at Wednesday’s meeting as well. He said the credits in the three plans are consistent with others in the country, ranging from 8.5 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. And the exact amount of money can be adjusted if needed as time goes on, he pointed out.

HOW MUCH WOULD I SAVE WITH COMMUNITY SOLAR?

The average electric rate in the state cost 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to Energy Sage, meaning community solar participants could get credit for over half their monthly energy bill. With the average amount of electricity a New Mexican uses, the credits would amount to $80 to $95, compared to the full $141 that New Mexicans spend monthly on electricity.

So commissioners voted to enact the solar credit plans, one of the first approvals in what’s been a back-and-forth process to get the program ready to go in time. The rest of the details will continue to be hammered out between the utilities and PRC.

Southwestern Public Service protests credit rate approval

The now-approved credit plan for Southwestern Public Service isn’t what the company first submitted. The utility’s first draft would’ve given customers a lower credit amount so they — not the utility — would be covering the cost of energy transmission, which would be breaking program rules.

The PRC rejected that last month, and Southwestern Public Service had to turn in a new version. At the same time, the utility’s lawyers appealed the rejection with the state Supreme Court, hoping to keep the original credit plan alive.

The Supreme Court hasn’t released a decision on the appeal, something that could take months. While the court looks into the issue, Southwestern Public Service asked the Public Regulation Commission to hold off on enacting the new credit plan. Commissioners denied the request, so the lawyers went back to the Supreme Court, asking instead for the court to grant a temporary halt.

Fisk questioned the requests’ validity and said this may just be something the utility keeps doing while the PRC tries to roll out community solar. “They may file a motion to stay or vacate every order that the commission does from now on as part of implementing the program,” he said.

Since there hasn’t been a court response yet, the regulators moved forward in approving the new credit plan along with the other two utilities’ at Wednesday’s PRC meeting.

“There’s no stay, so the commission’s rules in place,” Fisk said. “The commission is going forward.”

OTHER ISSUES THE PRC IS TRYING TO WORK OUT

O’Donnell said the utilities have been meeting with PRC staff weekly to finalize details about electricity generated by community solar facilities. Those meetings will continue through the end of November, and if the groups don’t reach an agreement by then, there will be a hearing process, he said.

However, he said he thinks everyone “can come up with a more unified approach” that would avoid that lengthier process.

Not all of the disagreements can be resolved through informal resolutions, though. Financial charges called rate riders allow utilities to recover administrative costs of the program, and O’Donnell said it’s likely a full proceeding will be needed to finalize those costs. Figuring out the rates will likely be contentious, he said, but they don’t need to be fully in place until the projects are started.

PRC Vice Chair Joseph Maestas said he’s hopeful that everyone’s moving toward a resolution. At a meeting last month, he voiced frustration that the utilities just keep trying to “obstruct and delay community solar and the intent of the Legislature, to the detriment of our low-income communities.” But this solar credit approval now is a good step forward, he said.

“I know I had some critical words to say when we received those initial advice notices, but I’m very optimistic that we can work this out and continue with the implementation of community solar,” Maestas said, “and deal with these other issues as they come up without impacting the implementation schedule.”

All of the commissioners voted to pass the solar credits and keep working on the rest of the details in the utilities’ plans, even Commissioner Jefferson Byrd, who voted no on suspending and partially rejecting the drafts last time.

“I think that we have to keep our eyes on the prize,” Maestas said, “and that is a potential benefit for many New Mexicans when they have an opportunity to access cheaper solar energy through the community solar program.”

High court to hear water dispute between Navajo, government — Associated Press

The Supreme Court says it will hear a water dispute involving the U.S. government and the Navajo Nation.

The high court said Friday it would review a lower court ruling in favor of the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The government signed treaties with the Navajo Nation in 1849 and 1868 that established the reservation. It was later expanded westward to the Colorado River, which forms the reservation's western boundary. At issue in the case is water from the Colorado River, which itself is shrinking in part because of overuse and drought.

The case dates back to 2003, when the tribe sued, alleging that the federal government in its Colorado River projects had failed to consider or protect water rights of the tribe. Most recently, a trial court dismissed the case but a federal appeals court allowed it to proceed. The federal government is challenging that result.

The Supreme Court also agreed to hear two other cases. One is a patent case in which biotechnology company Amgen sued Sanofi and Regeneron for patent infringement. The other is a $90 million trademark dispute involving controls used to operate heavy equipment such as cranes.

UNM honors Muslim killing victim with posthumous scholarship — Associated Press

The University of New Mexico has established a scholarship in memory of a former graduate student who was one of four Muslim men gunned down in an Albuquerque killing spree.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Thursday that the scholarship in Muhammad Afzaal Hussain's name will be awarded to any incoming or current international students from the Middle East or South Asia.

Hussain's brother, Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain, said he was proud his brother would be remembered and that he accomplished so much as an immigrant from Pakistan.

Afzaal Hussain, 27, was Espanola's urban planning and land use director. He also had worked on the campaign of a New Mexico congresswoman. At UNM, he was president of the school's Graduate and Professional Student Association.

He was shot to death Aug. 1 while taking his evening walk.

Authorities say the killings began with the November 2021 slaying of 62-year-old Mohammad Ahmadi. The other two happened just days apart from Afzaal Hussain's. Naeem Hussain, 25, and Aftab Hussein, 41, were both from Pakistan. Hussein attended the same mosque as Afzaal Hussain.

Muhammad Syed, an Afghan refugee, has been charged in the shooting deaths of Afzaal Hussain and Hussein. He is suspected in the other two.

He has denied any involvement.

Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office to resume reality show — Associated Press

Bernalillo County officials are expected to sign off this week on the sheriff's office participating in a reality show.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Thursday the county never formally approved a contract despite sheriff's deputies being featured on "On Patrol: Live" since August.

The Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office became aware of the misstep last week and ceased involvement.

However, Tia Bland, a county spokeswoman, said the legal department is reviewing the contract and the county manager will likely sign off.

Jayme Fuller, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, says the agency plans to resume filming this weekend.

The program has drawn some controversy. A couple involved in a car crash complained that they did not want to be filmed.

Participation began after Sheriff Manuel Gonzales signed an agreement with the film company allowing them access to sheriff's office property and deputies.

The agency receives a $1,000 for every week of filming. County officials say the money goes to a general fund.

Cost-free COVID vaccine clinic in Albuquerque today - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

As the world enters its third pandemic winter with an expected surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, there are still free COVID vaccination clinics in New Mexico.

The Chamiza Parent Teacher Association is holding a COVID vaccine clinic Friday from 2 to 6 p.m. at Chamiza Elementary School at 5401 Homestead Circle NW in Albuquerque.

The event is meant “to help Albuquerque residents stay ahead of a potential winter COVID surge,” according to a news release. It is being organized as part of the federal Health and Human Services Department’s “We Can Do This” campaign.

You can find a calendar of other vaccination events in New Mexico here. Be sure to check the box labeled “accepts walk ins” in order to find an event that doesn’t require an appointment.

As of Nov. 2, 74.1% of New Mexicans have completed their primary series of vaccinations, but only 53.4% of those who got their primary series have gotten a booster shot, according to the CDC.

So far, 67.1% of Harding County residents have gotten their primary series and a booster, while only 37.2% of Curry County residents have done so.

In Bernalillo County, where Friday’s vaccine clinic will be held, 57% of residents have gotten their primary series and a booster.

City of Portales without water after leak found in main line - Associated Press

The city of Portales will be without water until a leak in the 24-inch main water line can be repaired, authorities said Thursday.

City crews found the leak overnight and were working to fix the problem, but officials said there was no immediate timetable for the repairs to be completed.

Portales officials said city offices and schools were closed Thursday along with Eastern New Mexico University.

Authorities said non-potable water was available at the Portales Fire Department Station 1.

They say people will need to bring their own container to fill up and each household was limited to five gallons.

Biden trying to save incumbent Democrats in campaign sprint - By Aamer Madhani And Chris Megerian Associated Press

President Joe Biden took off on a personal final-days campaign sprint Thursday that reflects the Democrats' major concerns before next week's midterm elections, appealing to New Mexico voters to defeat "reckless and irresponsible" Republicans and reelect Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

New Mexico is normally safe Democratic territory, but Lujan Grisham is facing a determined challenge from her Republican opponent, former television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti.

At a rally headlined by the president, she warned that Democrats in the state are "a little behind" but assured supporters "we catch up fast."

In fact, the headwinds facing Lujan Grisham are indicative of the difficulties for Democrats in many parts of the country as Biden set off on a multistate campaign swing largely focused on shoring up support in usual party strongholds.

"Remember this is not a referendum. This is a choice," he said, pointing to the stakes next Tuesday.

Biden said Republicans would follow through on proposals to slice healthcare and retirement benefits if they win control of Congress.

"They're just saying it," he said. "They're not even hiding it."

Biden's itinerary in the campaign's final days illustrates the limited political clout of a president who has been held at arm's length by some Democrats in tough races this cycle. It also suggests that the president, whose approval ratings remain underwater, has concluded that he can be most effective using the waning days before polls close to shore up support for Democratic candidates in areas that he easily won in 2020.

Biden' four-state, three-day trip includes California, Illinois and Pennsylvania, where Biden has deep roots.

"Democrats are clearly on the defensive and that's bearing out as the campaign comes to a close," said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. "Their chances for gains don't look realistic, so now you look to what you can preserve."

A president's party typically faces significant losses during midterm elections. Since 1934, only Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, Bill Clinton in 1998, and George W. Bush in 2002 saw their parties gain seats in the midterms.

Some recent presidents saw big losses in their first midterm races. Republicans under Donald Trump lost 40 House seats but gained two Senate seats in 2018; Democrats under Barack Obama lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010, and Democrats under Clinton lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats in 1994.

The decision to deploy Biden to areas where he won handily in 2020 was made in part because of concern about voter energy in races that Democrats view as must-win. Party officials are also concerned about some candidates who have seen their races tighten in the final days of the campaign.

Biden won New Mexico by nearly 11 percentage points in 2020, but Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is from the state, warned that this election would be close.

"Republicans are catching up to us," she said. "And we can't let that happen."

Fundraising by Ronchetti's campaign has surged amid visits from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Ronchetti also received a social media endorsement from Trump despite his acknowledgment that Biden won in 2020.

Before speaking at the political rally, Biden went to Central New Mexico Community College to tout his student debt relief program, calling it "a game changer for so many people."

Focusing on young voters whose support Democrats are energetically seeking, Biden said, "Your generation is not going to be ignored. You will not be shunned. You will not be silenced."

Nearly 26 million people have applied for student loan forgiveness, up 4 million from two weeks ago. About 16 million applications are expected to be approved by the week's end, but no debt can be forgiven until a legal fight over the program is resolved.

"Republican members of Congress and Republican governors are doing everything they can, including taking us to court, to deny relief, even to their own constituents," Biden said.

Later Thursday, Biden joined Rep. Mike Levin for a get-out-the vote event at a community college in Oceanside, California. Levin represents a district with a slight Democratic tilt that cuts through San Diego and Orange counties and that Biden carried by double digits in the 2020 presidential election. Republican nominee Brian Maryott has gone after Levin over inflation, gas prices and rising crime.

Levin defeated Maryott, a businessman and former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, by more than 6 percentage points in 2020, but Democrats are bracing for an even closer race in the rematch.

Biden plugged Levin as an important backer of his major legislative achievements, including the $1 trillion infrastructure bill and the $280 billion CHIPS and Science Act. He said having Levin on Capitol Hill was critical to him passing the Inflation Reduction Act.

The infrastructure legislation, which passed with only Democratic votes in Congress, was the most substantial federal investment in history to fight climate change — some $375 billion over a decade — and caps prescription drug costs at $2,000 out-of-pocket annually for Medicare recipients.

"This guy delivers," Biden said of Levin. "He stood up with me. This guy knows what he's doing."

Biden is to spend part of Friday and Saturday in the Chicago area, where two-term incumbent Rep. Sean Casten is facing a stiff challenge from Republican Keith Pekau as he tries to hang on to a suburban district that Biden won by a double-digit percentage in 2020. The White House has yet to announce Biden's plans for his time in Chicago.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Republican leaders, this week announced an $1.8 million ad buy to assist Pekau, the mayor of south suburban Orland Park. And Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, is due to campaign with Pekau in the district on Friday.

Casten's campaign, in a fundraising email Wednesday, called the crush of super PAC money a "last-ditch effort to buy this seat" and implored his supporters to send him contributions for the campaign's final stretch.

The president on Saturday will head to Pennsylvania to campaign with Obama for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro and Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman.

Pennsylvania Democrats are trying to keep control of the governor's office, which is being vacated by Tom Wolf as he finishes his second term. Fetterman is locked in a tight race with Republican Mehmet Oz, vying for the seat being vacated by the retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

New Mexico: What to expect on election night - Associated Press

Democrats have consolidated control over all three branches of state government since Lujan Grisham succeeded a termed-out Republican governor, including commanding majorities in the Legislature. Joe Biden won the state by 11 percentage points in 2020, but Republicans at the same time unseated a one-term Democratic congresswoman in a district along the U.S. border with Mexico.

New Mexico's top race pits incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham against former network television meteorologist Mark Ronchetti. Ronchetti ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2020 while coming within 6 percentage points of an experienced rival from a Democratic political dynasty. Lujan Grisham, a former congresswoman, won 57% of the vote for governor in 2018 — a margin of 14 percentage points. Republicans have poured money into the governor's race in the final months of 2022 campaigning, amid dueling attack ads from independent political committees.

Three first-term congresswomen are seeking reelection as New Mexico's House delegation in newly redrawn districts that divvy up the politically conservative southeastern corner of the state — a premier U.S. production zone for petroleum. Democratic incumbents are viewed as safe in the state's central and northern districts.

In the 2nd Congressional District, Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell is running on a conservative platform of strict border security and unfettered support for the oil industry against Democratic nominee Gabe Vasquez and his campaign for more equitable access to economic opportunity, a humanitarian approach to immigration and greater accountability for climate change. The district stretches from the U.S. border with Mexico across desert oilfields and portions of Albuquerque.

In an open race for attorney general, Democrats are backing the well-known district attorney from the state's largest city. Republicans have held the office only three times in the state's 110-year history. Incumbent Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is running against first-time candidate Audrey Trujillo, a Republican allied with a coalition that seeks large-scale changes to elections administration.

In the state House of Representatives, Democrats are defending a 45-24 majority as one unaffiliated legislator and the House speaker retire. Voters also are considering a constitutional amendment that could increase funding for early childhood and K-12 education by hundreds of millions of dollars if it is approved statewide referendum.

Here's a look at what to expect on election night:

ELECTION NIGHT

Polls close at 7 p.m. local time (9 p.m. ET).

HOW NEW MEXICO VOTES

Most of New Mexico votes prior to Election Day, either by voting early in-person at a vote center or by delivering an absentee ballot to the county elections office or polling place. Voters can cast a ballot in person on Election Day, though that is a minority of voters overall. In the 2020 general election, nearly 85% of voters cast ballots prior to Election Day.

Polls on Election Day close at 9 p.m. Eastern time, with the first results coming in by 9:30 p.m. ET. 90% of the vote was counted by 1:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday, with the remaining votes counted in 2020 by 7:30 p.m. ET. That speed comes, in part, because elections officials can start validating absentee ballots starting five days prior to Election Day. This means the elections officials make sure the ballot is cast legally. Absentee ballots are counted once polls close on Election Day.

The most populous counties in New Mexico are Bernalillo, Dona Ana, Santa Fe and Sandoval. Albuquerque is located in Bernalillo County. Democratic strongholds are in and around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, while much of the rest of the state favors Republicans.

DECISION NOTES

AP will tabulate and declare winners in 55 contested elections in New Mexico, including Governor, three U.S. House races, seven other statewide races and six statewide ballot issues. In the 2020 general election, AP first reported results just before 9:30 p.m. ET. By noon Wednesday, the day after Election Day, more than 98% of all votes were counted in 2020. All votes were tallied by 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

The AP does not make projections and will only declare a winner when it's determined there is no scenario that would allow the trailing candidates to close the gap.

Should a candidate declare victory or offer a concession before the AP calls a race, we will cover newsworthy developments in our reporting. In doing so, we will make clear that the AP has not declared a winner and explain why.

The AP may call a statewide or U.S. House race in which the margin between the top two candidates is 0.5% or less, if we determine the lead is too large for a recount to change the outcome.

The AP will not call down-ballot races on election night if the margin between the top two candidates is less than 2%. AP will revisit those races later in the week to confirm there aren't enough outstanding votes left to count that could change the outcome.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I KNOW?

Redistricting after the 2020 census has made U.S. House District 2 more competitive, by adding more Democrats to the district. The seat has flipped between parties in the last two elections.

We know that the next New Mexico treasurer will be named Montoya. We just don't know the first name. The race is between Democrat Laura Montoya and Republican Harry Montoya.

Q: WHAT'S CHANGED SINCE THE PANDEMIC ELECTION OF 2020?

A: State law now allows for same-day voter registration at a precinct once a voter affirms not having voted elsewhere. The law also creates automatic voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Q: WHAT DO TURNOUT AND ADVANCE VOTE LOOK LIKE?

A: As of Sept. 30, 2022, there were 1,358,032 registered voters in New Mexico, including 601,197 registered Democrats, 422,567 registered Republicans and 305,769 registered independents. As of Oct. 24, New Mexico voters have requested 94,524 absentee ballots and 23,450 have been returned. Additionally, 60,088 voters have cast early-in-person ballots.

New Mexico requires all absentee ballots, whether from voters in the U.S. or voters overseas, to be received by Election Day in order to be counted.

Q: HOW LONG DOES COUNTING USUALLY TAKE?

A: Counting is quick in New Mexico, with more than 98% of all votes counted by noon ET on the day after Election Day. The remaining votes, in 2020, were counted by 7:30 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Q: WHAT ARE THE PITFALLS WITH EARLY RETURNS?

A: There can be a slight shift in votes counted after noon ET on the day after Election Day. In 2018 and 2020, those votes after noon ET on Wednesday were slightly in favor of Democrats, but they shifted the vote totals by less than 1% of the vote. In most races, this is not enough of a shift to affect the outcome of a race, but in especially close races, this may cause AP to delay calling a winner in a particular race. Note as well that the vote shift is not uniform across all counties and all races. Some counties may have no shift toward one candidate or the other, while other counties can see shifts up to 10% of the vote.

Q: WHAT HAPPENS AFTER TUESDAY?

A: New Mexico law provides for mandatory recounts if the gap between the candidates is less than 0.25% for federal, statewide, judicial races and ballot questions. The official county tabulation starts on November 18 while the state tabulation starts on November 29. Candidates requesting a non-mandatory recount must request the recount within six days of the state or county tabulation being finished. The state or county must start the recount within ten days of the request.