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MON: NM Supreme Court denies challenge to voter-approved reforms of Public Regulation Commission, + More

Austin Fisher
Source New Mexico

New Mexico court denies challenge of regulatory reforms - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday denied a challenge to a voter-approved measure overhauling a powerful commission that oversees public utilities and determines how much customers can be charged to heat and cool their homes.

The court announced its decision after hearing oral arguments in a case that centered on whether voters understood they would be giving up their right to elect members to the Public Regulation Commission when they approved the constitutional amendment in 2020.

The amendment turns the commission into a three-person panel appointed by the governor with the consent of the state Senate. An independent nominating committee is supposed to vet candidates before the governor picks appointees.

The petition was filed earlier this year on behalf of Indigenous Lifeways, New Mexico Social Justice & Equity Institute and the Three Sisters Collective. The nonprofit groups work on environmental restoration projects on Native American lands in northwestern New Mexico.

Sarah Shore, an Albuquerque attorney who represents the groups, told the court that the question deserved special scrutiny since the amendment repealed the right of New Mexicans to elect representation to the commission.

"This case presents a unique circumstance where there's a real risk of abuse of power," she said. "There's a transfer away from the people who in their own constitution reserve rights to themselves to the political branches. This is not a circumstance where the Legislature is proposing to change rights that the people already delegated."

Attorneys for the state and the governor's office argued that the groups waited too long to raise their concerns and that the time to bring such a challenge would have been when the measure was debated and as the ballot language was crafted.

Shore argued that the amendment should be struck from the state constitution because it illegally rolled several reforms into one ballot question for voters to decide. She said most voters are neither lawyers nor lawmakers and were misled since the ballot measure did not reference the effect on the public's right to elect commission members.

The justices said they did not believe the measure amounted to logrolling and would outline the grounds for their decision in an upcoming written opinion.

The measure was approved by 56% of voters in 2020, with supporters arguing that establishing an independent nominating committee would boost the professionalism of the regulatory panel and remove membership from the political process.

However, opponents have said politics would still be at play given that commissioners would serve at the pleasure of the governor. Currently, Democrats hold the governor's office, control the state Supreme Court and make up the majority of the Legislature.

In recent years, the New Mexico Supreme Court has overruled PRC decisions related to the state's energy transition law and a proposed merger involving the largest electric provider in New Mexico.

Legislative analysts in outlining arguments for and against the ballot measure had previously noted that the amendment would not change how the commission actually functioned and there was no guarantee lawmakers would appropriately fund the agency.

There have been concerns over the years about a lack of money to attract and retain a professional staff of engineers, accountants, lawyers and others to draft rules and advise commissioners on complicated cases that range from customer rates to the future of renewable energy development in the state.

US rule would limit methane leaks from public lands drilling - By Matthew Daly Associated Press

The Interior Department on Monday proposed rules to limit methane leaks from oil and gas drilling on public lands, the latest action by the Biden administration to crack down on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming.

The proposal by Interior's Bureau of Land Management would tighten limits on gas flaring on federal land and require energy companies to better detect methane leaks that add to planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution.

The actions follow a more comprehensive methane-reduction plan announced by President Joe Biden earlier this month. The Nov. 11 proposal, announced as Biden attended a global climate conference in Egypt, targets the oil and gas industry for its role in global warming even as the president has pressed energy producers for more oil drilling to lower prices at the gasoline pump.

Oil and gas production is the nation's largest industrial source of methane, the primary component of natural gas, and is a key target for the Biden administration as it seeks to combat climate change.

The proposal announced Monday would prevent billions of cubic feet of natural gas from being wasted through venting, flaring and leaks, boosting efficiency while at the same time reducing pollution, administration officials said.

"This proposed rule will bring our regulations in line with technological advances that industry has made in the decades since the BLM's rules were first put in place, while providing a fair return to taxpayers," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

Venting and flaring activity from oil and gas production on public lands has significantly increased in recent decades. Between 2010 and 2020, total volumes of natural gas lost to venting and flaring on federal and tribal lands averaged about 86.8 billion cubic feet per year — enough to serve roughly 1.3 million homes, officials said. The figure represents a sharp increase from an annual average of 15 billion cubic feet lost to venting and flaring in the 1990s.

"No one likes to waste natural resources from our public lands,'' said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning. She called the draft rule a common-sense, environmentally responsible solution to address the damage that wasted natural gas causes. The rule "puts the American taxpayer first and ensures producers pay appropriate royalties," she said.

Interior had previously announced a rule to restrict methane emissions under former President Barack Obama. The plan was challenged in court and later weakened under former President Donald Trump. Competing court rulings blocked enforcement of the Trump and Obama-era rules, leading the agency to revert to rules developed more than 40 years ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency rule announced in Egypt targets emissions from existing oil and gas wells nationwide, including smaller drilling sites that now will be required to find and plug methane leaks.

The rule comes as Biden has accused oil companies of "war profiteering" and raised the possibility of imposing a windfall tax on energy companies if they don't boost domestic production.

Besides the EPA rule, a sprawling climate and health law approved by Congress in August would impose a fee on energy producers that exceed a certain level of methane emissions. The fee, set to rise to $1,500 per metric ton of methane, marks the first time the federal government has directly imposed a fee, or tax, on greenhouse gas emissions.

The law includes $1.5 billon in grants and other spending to improve monitoring and data collection of methane emissions, with the goal of finding and repairing natural gas leaks.

NM Supreme Court justice cites security concerns in pushing another exemption to public records law - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

A panel of lawmakers that weighs New Mexico’s court system between legislative sessions chose not to endorse a proposal to weaken the state’s sunshine law in order to protect judges from violence.

But the lawmaker who objected to the bill suggested that work could still be done to convince transparency advocates that it would be a good change.

New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon presented draft legislation to the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee on Tuesday on behalf of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

One of the bills she presented would add a seventh exemption to one of the state’s two main sunshine laws, the Inspection of Public Records Act.

“We think security systems, planning, schematics, for any state building, any government building, should be protected from IPRA requests,” she told the committee.

The draft of the bill presented to the committee would prohibit the public from seeing records “from the security system of a facility of the state or a political subdivision of the state” that could “expose vulnerabilities in security systems” to attack a government building.

“Political subdivisions” include things like city and county governments and state agencies.

The bill lists the following as falling under that category of security system records:

  • security camera video footage or images
  • control system records and information
  • alarm system records and information
  • security system technical specifications
  • security system operation records 
  • security system placement information

“We receive IPRA requests that are not nefarious necessarily but that will say, ‘Please give us the camera footage from X events in court,’” Bacon said. “We also have noted recently an uptick in people trying to kind of sus out what the security system is at the New Mexico Supreme Court, including a gentleman walking around our building, taking pictures of all of our cameras with an iPad.”
Local journalists routinely use security camera footage in their reporting, either from public buildings or obtained by police from private ones. In one case, a local newspaper in 2019 used security camera footage to substantiate allegations of theft by a city manager. (Disclosure: Austin Fisher edited that series of stories.)

Committee Chair Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) objected to the bill because the language as written is too broad.

“I’m going to lodge an objection, with all due respect, but simply not because of the concept. I liked the concept,” Cervantes said. “But I think we should probably spend some time defining clearly what we want to exempt from IPRA when we talk about security systems, because I think the way I read the bill, it’s essentially all records related to security systems.”

Cervantes said he is concerned about shielding from public view documents related to procurement, the process the New Mexico government must go through to fairly and transparently buy goods and services from private companies.

“I know you wouldn’t intend to do that, but I think this would exempt that,” Cervantes said. “We want to make sure that when people are bidding contracts, and buying the equipment and doing those kinds of things, that those records are not exempted from IPRA.”

Cervantes also said the measure’s sponsors should work hard to “bring in the predictable opposition” who have historically opposed the Legislature’s efforts to add more exemptions to IPRA, including the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and the Albuquerque Journal.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about whether to bring this bill or not, because we know that touching IPRA has always felt like the third rail,” Bacon said with a laugh. “But we really believe that there needs to be one modification” to IPRA.

Cervantes suggested they work with those transparency advocates and persuade them that “judges are at risk, judges are being assassinated, their families are being killed.”

There are already six exemptions prohibiting the public from seeing various kinds of records written into IPRA.

One of those carveouts has very similar language to the draft legislation, and already allows the government to withhold its “tactical response plans or procedures” that “could reveal specific vulnerabilities, risk assessments or tactical emergency security procedures that could be used to facilitate the planning or execution of a terrorist attack.”

Authorities: NM judge, husband die in likely murder-suicide - Associated Press

A municipal judge in New Mexico appears to have been fatally shot by her husband before he killed himself, authorities said.

Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies found the bodies of Diane Albert, 65, and Eric Pinkerton, 63, several dogs and a cat on Friday at their home in the Village of Los Ranchos, sheriff's spokeswoman Jayme Fuller said. She said Pinkerton apparently shot and killed them all before taking his own life.

Albert was a municipal judge for the Village of Los Ranchos, which borders Albuquerque, and was a former planning and zoning commissioner for the North Valley community. She also had served as a Los Alamos County commissioner and president of the Bike Coalition of New Mexico, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Fuller said a friend of the couple contacted the sheriff's office sometime before 4 p.m. on Friday "after receiving a troubling message" from Pinkerton. In the message, she said, Pinkerton stated that he had shot his wife and dogs and was going to kill himself.

The state auditor, Brian S. Colon, said in a Facebook post Saturday that Albert had been his friend for decades — "a kindhearted soul who always uplifted me and others." He said she "always entered our home with a smile and usually wearing her bicycle helmet."

"We are heartsick hearing the news of this senseless tragedy," Los Ranchos Administrator Ann Simon said. "Diane Albert, our elected municipal judge, was a longtime Los Ranchos resident, a brilliant mind, and a friend. We can't ignore that this happened on the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women."

Joe Craig, president of Friends of Los Ranchos, told the Journal he was shocked by the news. He and Albert were neighbors who worked together for several years on the planning and zoning commission.

"Just a nice, nice lady," Craig said. "I've never seen her with a mean bone in her body."

APS dips its toe into equitable grading —Esteban Candelaria, Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools will dip its toes into a new grading system meant to focus on students’ strengths, rather than their shortcomings.

TheAlbuquerque Journal reports the two-year pilot program was approved by the board last week and will provide training for teachers in “equitable grading.”

Chief of Schools, Chanelle Segura said the new approach to grading shifts the focus from averaged final grades more to tests the students can retake.

She said the approach would be more like training for a marathon, where only the final time for your marathon counts, not all the slower times from practice.

Segura said the approach also leans into students’ individual strengths and diverse learning experiences, allowing students to build upon early success.

The pilot is not being implemented districtwide.

Officials said they are looking for around 100 teachers and 20 administrators for the initial launch of the program, but welcome as many people as they can get who are "excited to try the program.”

Animal shelters continue to be in crisis in 2022 —Susan Dunlop, NM Political Report

Animal Shelters across the country are in crisis, filled to the brim with ever more pets while dealing with less options for adoption and fostering, and here in New Mexico, the story is no different.

TheAlbuquerque Journal reports Albuquerque’s Animal welfare department anticipates 21,500 pets will have come through the cities two shelters by the end of the year.

That is an increase of more than 25 percent from the roughly 17,000 pets the shelters would deal with before the COVID pandemic began.

Carolyn Ortega, director of animal welfare for Albuquerque, told the New Mexico Political Report both the increase in intakes and the decrease in adoptions and foster homes are caused in part by inflation and the economy.

Ortega said the shelters have seen an increase in the number of people surrendering pets because they simply cannot afford to keep an animal anymore, or because they are moving from a house into a smaller apartment, or even becoming homeless.

She said the Albuquerque shelter currently has more than 950 pets waiting to find homes.

3 Albuquerque officers on leave after fatal police shooting - Associated Press

Three Albuquerque police officers have been placed on administrative leave while an investigation continues after at least one officer shot and killed a person with a knife who was involved in a dispute with his parents.

Police Chief Harold Medina says the mother called for help after the father and son got into an argument Friday afternoon at their home in southwest Albuquerque.

He says officers tried to intervene but the son left the home armed with two knives. An altercation followed outside and officers deployed "less lethal" ammunition before one or more officers eventually shot and killed the son.

No names have been released.

Police said it's still not clear what caused the dispute in the first place, but it appears mental health issues were a factor. The multi-agency task force is investigating the shooting.

US nuclear waste repository begins filling new disposal area - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Workers at the nation's only underground nuclear waste repository have started using a newly mined disposal area at the underground facility in southern New Mexico.

Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant made the announcement this week, saying the first containers of waste to be entombed in the new area came from Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee — one of the many labs and government sites across the country that package up waste and ship it to WIPP.

Known as Panel 8, the new area consists of seven separate rooms for placing special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements.

Each room measures 33 feet wide, 16 feet high and runs the length of a football field minus the end zones.

Carved out of an ancient salt formation about half a mile deep, the subterranean landfill located outside of Carlsbad received its first shipment in 1999. The idea is that the shifting salt will eventually entomb the radioactive waste left from decades of bomb-making and nuclear weapons research.

In 2014, a fire and separate radiation release forced a nearly three-year closure of the repository and a costly overhaul of the policies and procedures that govern WIPP and the nation's multibillion-dollar cleanup program for Cold War-era waste.

Operations had to be reduced after the repository reopened because areas of the facility were contaminated and airflow needed for mining and disposal operations was limited. Now, a multimillion-dollar project is underway to install a new ventilation system, and state regulators are considering a permit change that some critics have said could lead to expanded operations.

The state Environment Department's Hazardous Waste Bureau issued a plan this month aimed at ensuring the public has opportunities to comment on modifications or permit renewal applications.

Sean Dunagan, president and project manager of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that manages the repository, said in a statement that operations have already become more efficient with the new panel.

Creating a panel requires mining nearly 160,000 tons of salt, and it takes about 2 1/2 years to fill it with waste. For example, Panel 7 is filled with 20,056 containers, with most of them being 55-gallon drums.