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TUES: New Mexico officials certify statewide election results, + More

2022 GE State Canvass Board.jpeg
Courtesy of the Secretary of State's Office
The State Canvassing Board, including Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon voted unanimously Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, to certify the state's midterm election results.

New Mexico officials certify statewide election results - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's state Canvassing Board certified results from the midterm election on Tuesday in a 3-0 vote amid praise for election administrators and poll workers.

The board meeting at the state Capitol building was the culmination a once-routine election certification process that in some locations has become a focal point for those voicing distrust in voting systems.

Election results have largely been certified without issue in jurisdictions across the country, though Republican officials in a rural Arizona county have so far refused to do so despite a lack of evidence of any problems with the count.

Canvassing boards in each of New Mexico's 33 counties certified results of the Nov. 8 election, in which Democrats maintained control of every statewide elected office and flipped a congressional seat.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver both won reelection to four-year terms. They serve on the state Canvassing Board along with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon.

"I'm really proud of the safety, engagement and professionalism at every polling location," Lujan Grisham said Tuesday.

In New Mexico, doubts about the 2020 election were fueled by a lawsuit from Donald Trump's campaign and a fake set of electors willing to certify him. This year, an assortment of local and out-of-state Trump allies held forums throughout the state promoting conspiracy theories about elections, including former White House strategist Steve Bannon, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and the Republican nominee for secretary of state, Audrey Trujillo.

In the state's June primary, the Otero County commission initially refused to certify results citing distrust of vote tallying systems — even though the county's top elections regulator said there were no problems. The commission reversed course on a 2-1 vote to certify the primary after Toulouse Oliver successfully petitioned the state Supreme Court to issue an order directing the local board to certify.

In Torrance County, commissioners took unusual steps to provide assurances, including a hand count of primary election ballots.

In other midterm results, Democratic challenger Gabe Vasquez won election to Congress in New Mexico's 2nd District, defeating incumbent Rep. Yvette Herrell in a majority-Hispanic district along the border with Mexico.

Republicans are challenging the new outline of the 2nd District under a redistricting plan from Democratic lawmakers that divvied up a politically conservative oilfield region among three congressional districts.

Statewide certification of the vote also initiated automatic recounts for two state House seats. Democrats won at least 44 seats out of 70, not including the contests subject to a recount.

Incumbent Democratic state Rep. Candie Sweetser is vying against Republican Jenifer Marie Jones in a district that extends across the "bootheel" of southwestern New Mexico, including the cities of Deming, Lordsburg and Columbus.

In the northwest reaches of Albuquerque, Republican Robert Henry Moss is competing for an open state House seat against Democrat Charlotte Little.

Opiate addiction experts call on lawmakers to remove a barrier to rural methadone treatment - Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

Advocates are optimistic the New Mexico Legislature will change a law during the upcoming legislative session to allow nurses to administer methadone, a barrier they say is making it harder to help those with opioid addictions, especially in rural areas.

State law allows only pharmacists to dispense “take-home” doses of methadone or buprenorphine, commonly known as Suboxone. But Eric Ketcham, a doctor and medical director of New Mexico Treatment Services in Farmington, said that law is getting in the way of addiction treatment in areas with high rates of addictions to opioids, particularly fentanyl.

“What we’ve seen in the last few years is an amazing, really horrifying, rate of increase in overdose mortality in several of our rural counties,” he told a group of lawmakers on the Legislature’s interim Health and Human Services Committee on Monday.

A map of Drug overdose deaths in New Mexico counties, per NMDOH.

Socorro County, for example, has seen a nearly five-fold increase in overdose death rates. It averaged nearly 100 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020 and 2021. It averaged about 20 between 2012 and 2018, according to state data Ketcham cited. San Miguel, Valencia, Torrance and Sierra Counties also saw huge increases.

The uptick in overdose deaths coincides with health care worker shortages, including of pharmacists.

Ketcham said pharmacies in Española, for example, sometimes close completely because no pharmacist is available.

Rio Arriba County, where Española sits, had the state’s highest rate of overdose deaths in 2020 and 2021, with almost 120 per 100,000 people. That’s a nearly 25% increase over the average between 2012 and 2018.

Methadone treatment is a critical tool in helping those with opioid addictions stay out of harm’s way and get onto the path toward recovery, Ketcham said. He cited multiple studies showing that patients who get onto medication for opioid use disorder commit fewer crimes, are incarcerated at lower rates and also overdose far less often than those who continue abusing opiates they bought on the street.

New Mexico is one of 15 states in the country that requires pharmacists to administer methadone, Ketcham said, and one of the only Western states. All of New Mexico’s neighbors — Colorado, Arizona and Texas — don’t impose the requirement, either, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Advocates have pushed lawmakers since at least 2019 to remove the requirement, including during a meeting in the lead-up to this year’s legislative session.

A bill stalled during the session, however, due to technical difficulties, advocates said. But they’re hoping it will sail through this year. The New Mexico Board of Pharmacy backs the change, Ketcham said, and it has support from several lawmakers.

NM High Court denies Indigenous groups’ attempt to block changes to PRC - Ryan Lowery, Source New Mexico 

The New Mexico Supreme Court on Monday denied a challenge made on behalf of Indigenous groups that sought to block a constitutional amendment set to take effect next year.

New Mexico voters approved a constitutional amendment during the November 2020 election that changed membership on the state’s utility regulatory body from being an elected position to one that’s appointed by the governor. It also shrinks the size of the board from five members to three.

The Public Regulation Commission Nominating Committee is slated to vote Friday, Dec. 2, on whether to approve a list of recommended applicants to be submitted to the governor.

A coalition of Indigenous groups asked the state’s highest court to block the change before it takes effect next year, arguing that the amendment’s ballot wording failed to meet accuracy and clarity requirements.

Justices heard oral arguments Monday morning from attorneys representing the Office of the Governor and the Office of the Attorney General, as well as Sarah Shore, an attorney who filed the petition on behalf of the Indigenous groups. The case centered on whether voters understood the wording of the ballot language, and whether they understood they’d be giving up the right to elect people to the Public Regulation Commission.

Shore argued on behalf of three Indigenous women’s groups — Indigenous Lifeways, New Mexico Social Justice & Equity Institute and Three Sisters Collective. She said that the ballot language was misleading and that because the amendment changes how commissioners are selected and also changes the size of the board, voters should have been allowed to decide each item separately.

Following arguments, the court recessed for about 30 minutes before denying Shore’s writ of mandamus, a court order that would have blocked the constitutional amendment.

“The court has concluded that it is appropriate to deny the writ,” Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon said. “An opinion will follow, explaining our rationale.”

Monday’s decision was delivered because of the time-sensitive nature of the matter, Bacon said. It could be weeks until the court’s written opinion is issued though.

New Mexico voters approved the amendment by a 56% to 44% margin in 2020. The amendment is set to take effect Jan. 1.

The groups represented by Shore expressed concerns that an appointed PRC board would favor the desires of energy companies over protecting sacred land and the Indigenous people who inhabit it, and that the ballot initiative is an attempt to silence Native people by giving energy companies unfettered influence over the PRC.

Shore said she was disappointed by the court’s ruling because it exposes Indigenous people to the potentially dire consequences of increased political and financial influence at the agency making decisions about essential services that every New Mexican depends on.

“We felt like we had really well-grounded legal arguments, and that the rights at stake were very important, so we were disappointed that the court didn’t take a closer look at this,” she said. “It puts my clients back in the place of having to advocate in the Legislature, even though we think, as a matter of law, the Legislature unconstitutionally removed these rights from them.”

Krystal Curley, executive director of Indigenous Lifeways, said it was disheartening to continue to hold this burden from generation to generation.

We will once again be forced to retraumatize ourselves over and over again, retelling the story of the abuse and despoilment of our health and our land by the extractive energy companies that have colonized our land for decades.

– Krystal Curley, executive director of Indigenous Lifeways

“What little representation we had was taken away from us in a deceptive manner,” she said.

The constitutional amendment began as bipartisan legislation in 2019 that was co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe. In an interview Monday, Wirth said he thought the Supreme Court made the right decision.

“Given how far down the road we are in the process, given the overwhelming support for this proposal initially in the Legislature and given that the voters adopted it, I think it’s the right decision made today,” he said.

Attorney Sarah Shore on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, makes the case against adopting the constitutional amendment that changes how commissioners get on the board that regulates the state's utilities.

Attorney Sarah Shore on Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, makes the case against adopting the constitutional amendment that changes how commissioners get on the board that regulates the state’s utilities. The state’s Supreme Court denied the motion after 30 minutes of deliberation. (Screenshot via the NM Supreme Court livestream)

Wirth said a key impetus behind the original legislation was to reduce attempts by outside groups to influence the commission by funding PRC commissioner’s campaigns.

“We’ve seen more and more outside money being poured into the PRC race, and so we tried to strike the right balance here,” he said.

Because serving on the PRC requires a certain level of technical expertise, Wirth said having the governor select candidates from a list of qualified people will strengthen the commission. And by having the positions appointed, he feels a bigger pool of well-qualified people will be willing to serve on the board.

“Politicians are good at getting elected, but that doesn’t translate, necessarily, into being the best regulator,” Wirth said. “The goal is to get the PRC out of the political process.”

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 44.2 billion cubic feet per year — enough to serve roughly 675,000 homes, Interior said. The figure represents a sharp increase from an annual average of 11 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'' for natural gas flaring, 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.

Jon Goldstein, an oil and gas expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, said new standards are needed to "end the waste of taxpayer-owned energy resources that has become far too routine on federal and tribal lands across the U.S."

He called BLM's proposal "an important first step, consistent with its long-standing authority to minimize waste."

The rule would impose monthly limits on flaring and charge fees for flaring that exceeds those limits.

Some conservation groups faulted the rule, saying it does not do enough to eliminate gas flaring. "BLM must go further to implement strong action to reduce methane waste and avoid creating what amounts to little more than a pay-to-pollute system,'' said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

"The climate crisis requires immediate and strong action to reduce emissions, especially when there are technologies available today to minimize methane emissions at the well,'' she said.

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.

The BLM will accept comments on the proposed rule through early February, with a final rule expected next year.

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.