WED: President Biden asks for almost $3 billion more for northern New Mexico wildfire victims, + More
President Biden asks for almost $3 billion more for northern New Mexico wildfire victims - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
President Joe Biden has asked Congress for another $2.9 billion for New Mexico to recover from a wildfire ignited by the United States Forest Service, the largest in the state’s recorded history. If passed, victims would be in line to receive more than $5 billion total in federal compensation.
Biden in late September signed a spending bill that included $2.5 billion for victims of the 340,000-acre fire in northern New Mexico. Members of Congress said at the time that the amount still might not be enough to fully compensate people for lost homes, burned businesses and properties, and many other types of damage in the aftermath.
“If we need to go back to our colleagues and future funding cycles, whether that’s at the end of the year, or in the coming appropriations bill, we’re not going to be shy about doing that,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, told reporters after the measure was passed. “But first and foremost, we need to get this set up well and get the money flowing into the community.”
The $2.5 billion was hailed as “historic.” Biden’s proposal more than doubles that. A total compensation package worth $5.4 billion equals nearly two-thirds of the entire New Mexico state budget.
The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) prepares proposals to send to Congress on the president’s behalf. In a document published on the office’s website, the Biden administration includes an additional $2.9 billion for New Mexico “to address outstanding claims for the Hermits Peak Fire.”
Two out-of-control prescribed burns started by the U.S. Forest Service merged in April and burned until late August, destroying more than 1,000 structures. Ensuing floods over charred land compounded the damage.
Today, many roads are impassable, much of the landscape destroyed, and many victims are in desperate need of help to return to their land and get their lives back together.
Federal estimates suggest $5.4 billion is really the amount the state is owed. An estimate from the OMB notes that though $2.5 billion was approved, the president’s budget proposal would create an “entitlement to compensation,” rather than compensation being based on a limited amount of money available through Congress at the time.
The OMB did not immediately respond to a request to elaborate on its proposal.
If this additional $2.9 billion were appropriated, a little over $1 billion of it would be spent in 2024, followed by almost $1.3 billion in 2025, $616 million in 2026 and $3 million in 2027, according to OMB estimates.
Like the money that’s already approved for New Mexico, this funding would go through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is currently accepting public comments about how it will administer the newly created Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Claims Office.
The agency is scrambling to get the office up and running as quickly as possible, having been given only 45 days to establish interim regulations for the program, officials said.
Some of the money will go to FEMA for administering the program, along with any contractors it hires to help run the office. The agency is exploring outsourcing much of the work, though it’s not yet clear what a private company would be paid.
Biden’s call for additional recovery money for New Mexico isn’t a sure thing. Congress will consider the request along with others from the administration for disaster relief around the country.
Congress will likely weigh the funding next month, when members would have to pass spending legislation before a stopgap government funding bill expires on Dec. 16, shutting down some of the U.S. government.
Whether they will do it remains to be seen, and Republicans could hold out on major funding decisions until their party takes control of the House in January.
In the funding request for natural disasters across the nation, the Biden administration wrote that the federal government needs “to help our communities recover and rebuild from extreme weather events …”
“That’s why we are requesting $37.3 billion to fund critical disaster response and rebuilding efforts in Florida, Puerto Rico, and other communities across America that have faced severe flooding, wildfires, drought and extreme heat over the past year.”
NMSU coach offers condolences to family of slain UNM student - Associated Press
New Mexico State basketball coach Greg Heiar says he feels responsible for a fatal shooting that involved one of his players and has offered condolences to the family and friends of the deceased University of New Mexico student.
Heiar gave a news conference Tuesday and commented for the first time about the Nov. 19 shooting on the UNM campus in Albuquerque.
State police investigators said 19-year-old Brandon Travis conspired with two other students and a teenage girl to lure New Mexico State University forward Mike Peake onto campus, leading to a shootout that left the student dead and the 21-year-old player wounded.
Peake and his Aggies teammates were in Albuquerque to play their archrivals and the shooting resulted in the cancellation of the two NMSU men's basketball games against UNM this season.
"I'm apologetic about what happened. I take full responsibility for what happened," Heiar said. "We are going to continue to get better as a basketball team and put a great product on the court. I take full responsibility. I can't say anything more than that."
Heiar deferred to the school administration's statements last week regarding discipline for players who have been identified as participating in an Oct. 15 brawl at the UNM-NMSU football game in Las Cruces that police now say was the precursor to the revenge plot.
The coach didn't say how many players also broke curfew in Albuquerque in the hours before the shooting or identify them.
"I will say we found out we had multiple players out of their rooms that night and we are now confident that each of our players fully understand what is expected of them moving forward," Heiar said.
Heiar said the decisions Peake made "resulted in consequences that he will have to live with for the rest of his life."
But Heiar added that Peake is "still part of our family" and "right now, he needs us more than ever."
Heiar said Peake is recovering after being wounded in the shootout.
Peake has posted on social media that he has had three surgeries.
US agencies sued over fate of rare Rio Grande minnow - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Environmentalists on Wednesday accused the U.S. government of not doing enough to ensure the survival of the Rio Grande silvery minnow as drought tightens its grip on one of the longest rivers in the West.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court, the group WildEarth Guardians asked a judge to force the Bureau of Reclamation and the Fish and Wildlife Service to reassess the effects of water management activities on the endangered fish.
They also want federal officials to develop enforceable measures to keep dams and diversions along the river's stretch through New Mexico's most populated region from jeopardizing the minnow.
The tiny fish was declared endangered nearly 30 years ago and has been the subject of much litigation over the decades. The challenges have only mounted in recent years as demands on the Rio Grande have escalated due to climate change, with snowpack melting sooner and strong winds further drying thirsty soil and limiting the amount of spring runoff that reaches the river.
Like the Colorado River and other western waterways, record-low flows are becoming normal for the Rio Grande.
Parts of the Rio Grande on the southern end of Albuquerque went completely dry earlier this year — something that hasn't happened in more than 30 years. Teams of biologists scrambled to scoop up minnows from puddles in the riverbed before they dried up.
"It comes as little surprise that silvery minnow populations remain in crisis," said Daniel Timmons with WildEarth Guardians. "It is time to move beyond Band-Aid solutions for the Middle Rio Grande and think holistically about how to save a living river and all the native species that call the river home."
Timmons said the status quo is a recipe for extinction for the minnow.
The Fish and Wildlife Service declined Wednesday to comment on the pending litigation. The Bureau of Reclamation did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Management of the Rio Grande is based on decades-old water sharing agreements that also involve Colorado, Texas and Mexico. Irrigation districts that provide water to thousands of farmers up and down the river valley also are part of an equation that includes the paramount water rights of Native American communities situated along the river and Hispanic enclaves that irrigate crops through traditional canals called acequias.
In some cases, changing the dynamics of the Rio Grande's management would take congressional action.
The Bureau of Reclamation for years has worked closely with irrigation districts, tribes, the city of Albuquerque and other water rights holders to release water for the fish when the river was in danger of going dry or to mimmick spring flows and encourage spawning.
This year there was no extra water.
WildEarth Guardians in their complaint blame "a century of unsustainable water uses and mismanage of the Grande" for conditions that barely allow the minnow and other protected species to survive. The group contends the Rio Grande has been turned into conduit rather than a "living river" that has variable yet persistent flows.
The environmentalists challenge the findings of a 2016 biological opinion adopted by the agencies that stated water operations in the Middle Rio Grande were not likely to jeopardize endangered species or negatively affect their habitat.
At about 3 inches long, the silvery minnow historically was one of the most abundant and widespread aquatic species in the Rio Grande, occurring from Espanola downstream nearly 1,000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Biologists say it has disappeared from more than 95% of its historical range.
There have been only three times in the past 26 years — in 1995, 2005 and 2017 — that population densities in the Middle Rio Grande have exceeded the density at the time the minnow was listed in 1994.
The Fish and Wildlife Service had set a goal of having at least 5 fish per 100 square meters. That has been met in two consecutive years only twice. In October 2022, the density was 0.17 fish per 100 square meters.
The lawsuit states that with respect to climate change, scientists predict that Rio Grande flows will decline by at least one-third and likely by half by the end of the century due to increased temperatures, significantly impacting the silvery minnow and its habitat.
The complaint also notes the effects of river management on the Southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo.
Biden pledges new commitments, respect for tribal nations - By Fatima Hussein And Felicia Fonseca Associated Press
President Joe Biden on Wednesday pledged to give Native Americans a stronger voice in federal affairs, promising at the first in-person summit on tribal affairs in six years that he will bolster tribal consultations, inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in decision-making and funding for communities struggling with the impacts of climate change.
Biden spoke on the opening day of the two-day White House Tribal Nations Summit to representatives from hundreds of Native American and Alaska Native tribes, reiterating and announcing a series of new commitments. The summit coincides with National Native American Heritage Month, which is celebrated in November.
The Biden administration said its goal is to build on previous progress and create opportunities for lasting change in Indian Country, which isn't guaranteed without codified laws and regulations.
"Administrations can bring in their priorities, but they shouldn't be telling us who have lived here since the beginning of time how to manage our resources, which resources we can even access," said Richard Peterson, president of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. "These are things that are inherent in our sovereignty."
Among the pledges from the Biden administration is to establish uniform standards for federal agencies to consult with tribes and go beyond a "check the box" exercise, finalize a 10-year plan to revitalize Native languages and strengthen tribal rights like hunting and fishing that are outlined in existing treaties.
Biden also said he intends to designate Avi Kwa Ame, a desert mountain near Laughlin, Nevada, that's considered sacred to Native Americans, as a new national monument. Last year, he restored the boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
On climate change, Biden said $135 million in federal money is going to 11 tribal communities in Alaska, Arizona, California, Louisiana, Maine and Washington to help plan for and relocate to safe ground because of climate-related environmental threats.
"There are tribal communities at risk of being washed away," he told summit participants. "It's devastating."
A 2020 study from the Interior Department found that $5 billion would be needed over the next 50 years to relocate tribal communities and Alaska Native villages at risk of severe infrastructure damage due to coastal erosion and extreme weather events.
On health care, Biden reiterated a commitment for $9.1 billion for the Indian Health Service, which provides health care for federally recognized tribes, and make the funding mandatory.
Whether Congress will act on that and other tribal issues is another matter.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez said he's been advocating for a speedier process to get infrastructure projects approved on the reservation that stretches 27,000 square miles into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. He said it requires constant advocacy.
"Even when it's legislated, it takes a significant effort especially when, at times, tribal issues take the back seat to larger, national issues," he told The Associated Press.
Thomas Lozano, chair of the National American Indian Housing Council, wants to see a federal grant program for housing in tribal communities reauthorized and a boost in funding that takes into account inflation and supply chain costs. Housing ensures tribal elders who are historians and children who will be future leaders are safe, he said.
"It's important to keep a roof over their heads and not just in substandard living, but in comfortable living that every family deserves," said Lozano, who is from the Enterprise Rancheria tribe in California.
Federal agencies in the Biden administration have been creating tribal advisory councils and reimaging tribal consultation policies with a goal of garnering consensus among tribes. Some of the more significant commitments from the Biden administration involve incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices into decision-making and federal research.
The Commerce Department is the latest federal agency to sign on to an effort to work with tribes to co-manage publish resources, such as water and fisheries. The Agriculture Department and the Interior Department have signed 20 co-stewardship agreements with tribes, and an additional 60 are under review, the administration said.
The tribal nations summit wasn't held during then-President Donald Trump's administration. The Biden administration held one virtually last year as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the U.S. and highlighted deepening and long-standing inequities in tribal communities.
Both administrations signed off on legislation that infused much-needed funding into Indian Country to help address health care, lost revenue, housing, internet access and other needs. The 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. received a combined $20 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money under the Biden administration.
Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which provided $8 billion to tribes and Alaska Native corporations but had more rigid guidelines on how it could be spent. The Treasury Department was sued over how that funding was allocated and faced harsh criticism for the time it took to get the money to tribes.
Biden's Treasury Department said it prioritized tribal engagement and feedback in distributing funding from the latest aid package. A report released Wednesday by the administration outlines how tribes spent the money on more than 3,000 projects and services.
The Karuk Tribe in northwestern California, for example, used some of the aid for permanent and temporary housing after a wildfire that burned 200 homes in the Klamath Mountains displaced tribal members.
The Native Village of Deering and other tribal governments in Alaska pooled funds to ensure access to preschool and free meals, along with extra servings in an area where food has been scarce.
Other tribal communities across the U.S. have spent the money on housing for tribal members, transportation to veterans hospitals, after-school facilities, language and culture programs, emergency services and health care facilities.
Biden promised to make official presidential visits to Indian Country, saying "the United States owes a solemn trust and treaty obligation that we haven't always lived up to. I will do so in the enduring spirit of our nation-to-nation relationship, the spirit of friendship, stewardship, and respect."
He stressed the need for "respect for tribes as nations and treaties as law, ... respect for Indigenous knowledge and tribal consultations as a key part of federal agency decision making. "
Paid family and medical leave proposal returning to Legislature - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico
When New Mexicans face the life circumstances that make it impossible for them to work, there’s no guarantee that their boss will keep paying them or that they can keep their job.
A proposal to change that — which lawmakers have been talking about for decades — will return in January in the upcoming legislative session in Santa Fe.
“It’s been in the works, studied and deliberated upon in New Mexico for 20 years now,” Tracy McDaniel told a panel of state lawmakers Monday.
The federal Family Medical Leave Act already protects a worker from losing their job while they are away, but that leave is unpaid, said McDaniel, policy advocate for the Southwest Women’s Law Center
And most workers in New Mexico can’t even apply for federal leave anyway. The federal law only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees, McDaniel said, which is only 4% of all businesses in the state.
State Rep. Linda Serrato (D-Santa Fe) said the lack of protections affects new mothers, too.
“For years, we have just been expecting New Mexican parents, especially moms, to just piece together family care in those first three months of life and return to work within days of giving birth,” Serrato said at a meeting of the Legislature’s interim Economic Development and Policy Committee. “This is not sustainable, and this does not grow a healthy economy that we want to see in New Mexico that our workers and our small businesses deserve.”
HOW IT WORKS
The legislation they’re championing would allow a worker to take leave and still receive part of their income, McDaniel said. They could take up to 12 weeks of leave per year, she said.
For a worker making the state minimum wage of $11.50 per hour, they would still get 100% of the wages they would have made, McDaniel said. Anyone making more than that would receive 67% of the wages they would have made, she said.
Regardless of whether a worker has a full-time or part-time position, they would still get paid leave, said Suzan Reagan, senior program manager of the Data Bank at the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research.
A worker or an employer would apply to the N.M. Department of Workforce Solutions to make a claim to receive the money, Reagan said.
McDaniel added that someone would have to work for the company for 90 days before they would get job protection from the state under the proposal.
The program would complement New Mexico’s existing paid sick leave program, she said, in cases where a worker needs to take more extended periods of time away from work for health reasons — cancer, for example.
DATA FROM OTHER STATES
Eleven states and the District of Columbia have programs that allow workers to take paid leave to deal with domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, bereavement and active duty military service or deployment, McDaniel said.
If lawmakers approve this proposal for New Mexico, workers here could take leave for those reasons, too.
States that have paid family and medical leave programs saw significant health, social and economic benefits, she said.
Access to paid leave in the postpartum period immediately following childbirth, McDaniel said, is associated with fewer child hospitalizations, more vaccinations and breastfeeding, better parental mental health, and less use of public assistance and food benefits, McDaniel said.
Workers who have job-protected leave can stay on their employer’s health insurance plan, she argued, which lowers the use of Medicaid.
When people have family members taking care of them, they’re often able to leave hospitals more quickly, and the use of emergency rooms drops, McDaniel said. Fewer elderly people end up going into nursing homes, too, she added.
“When people take leave and manage health conditions earlier in a disease progression, they’re much less likely to need to take permanent disability later down the road,” McDaniel said.
States that had these programs at the beginning of the pandemic “responded better,” she said, relieving the strain on unemployment offices, so people who needed to use those systems were in less precarity and paid more quickly.
HOW IT WOULD BE COVERED
The proposal would create a trust fund to be handled by the Department of Workforce Solutions, McDaniel said. It would be separate from the state’s General Fund.
The money would come from contributions by employers and workers. For every $1,000 in wages that a New Mexican worker earns, they would pay $5 into the fund to cover leave.
For example, a worker making the state minimum wage would pay $119.60 per year, McDaniel explained, and their boss would pay $95.16 per year.
The Department of Workforce Solutions estimates that it would cost the state $36.5 million in the first year to implement the program, with most of that money going to create the user interface for workers and employers to make claims.
The department estimates it would need $45 million in the second year to hire and train permanent program staff, develop the claim forms, and to educate workers and businesses.
MOST BUSINESSES WOULD NOT PAY, BUT ALL WORKERS WOULD BENEFIT
A task force created by the Legislature met between June and September creating recommendations for how the state could offer family and medical leave.
Among the recommendations: Businesses with five or fewer employees should not have to contribute to the trust fund, even though they could still use it.
“That exempts nearly seven out of 10 New Mexico businesses from contributing into the trust fund,” Serrato said.
The rest would be chipping in $4 for every $1,000 in wages they pay, McDaniel said.
Serrato said the trust fund “would actually pay for itself within the decade, and pay back what it took from our extra funds at this moment.”
If the Legislature passes a bill that adheres to this proposal and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs it into law, the Department of Workforce Solutions would begin hiring the staff to oversee the program and write rules for it between July 2023 and July 2024.
Businesses and workers would start contributing to the fund in January 2025, and then workers would start receiving the paid leave one year later.
That year of contributions before any payouts would ensure that the fund would have enough money to break even, McDaniel said.
US Medal of Honor recipient Hiroshi Miyamura dies at 97 - Associated Press
Hiroshi "Hershey" Miyamura, the son of Japanese immigrants who was awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor for holding off an attack to allow an American squad to withdraw during the Korean War, has died.
The Congressional Medal of Honor Society announced that Miyamura died Tuesday at his home in Phoenix. He was 97.
Born in Gallup, New Mexico, Miyamura's parents operated a 24-hour diner near the Navajo Nation where the family interacted with the diverse population of miners and travelers who passed along Route 66.
Miyamura's mother died when he was 11 and his father never talked about Japan, Miyamura said in later interviews. He would earn the nickname "Hershey" because a teacher couldn't pronounce his first name.
Miyamura worked as an auto mechanic during high school. He joined the U.S. Army late in World War II after the federal government lifted restrictions on Japanese Americans serving. Miyamura was allowed to join the 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed almost entirely of "nisei" — those born in the U.S. to parents who were Japanese immigrants.
After the war, Miyamura met Terry Tsuchimori, a woman from a family who had been forced to live at the Poston internment camp in southwestern Arizona following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They married in 1948 and had three children.
Miyamura continued to serve in the Army Reserves and was called into action during the Korean War.
On the night of April 24, 1951, near Taejon-ni, Miyamura's company came under attack by an invading Chinese force. Miyamura ordered his squad to retreat while he stayed behind and continued to fight, giving his men enough time to evacuate.
Miyamura and fellow squad leader Joseph Lawrence Annello, of Castle Rock, Colorado, were captured. Though wounded, Miyamura carried the injured Annello for miles until Chinese soldiers ordered him at gunpoint to leave Annello by the side of a road. Miyamura refused the orders until Annello convinced him to put him down.
Annello was later picked up by another Chinese unit and taken to a POW camp, from which he escaped.
Miyamura was held as a prisoner for two years and four months.
Upon his release, he was presented the Medal of Honor by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It had been awarded in secret while he was still a prisoner of war.
"I never ever thought I would receive the Medal of Honor for doing my duty, which I thought that's all I was doing, was my duty," Miyamura said in the 2018 Netflix documentary "Medal of Honor."
Miyamura and Annello later met up and remained lifelong friends. Annello died in 2018.
After the Korean War, Miyamura returned to Gallup as a hero. More than 5,000 people came to meet his train. He spent much of the rest of his life working in town as an auto mechanic.
In his Living History documentary in the Congressional Medal of Honor Society library, Miyamura reflected on the soldiers who deserved recognition but never received it.
"There are so many Americans who don't know what the Medal represents or what any soldier or servicewoman or man does for his country. And I believe one of these days — I hope one of these days — they will learn of the sacrifices that a lot of the men and women have made for this country," he said.
Miyamura remained active in veterans' issues and gave annual summer lectures to military members in Gallup, New Mexico. The talks drew hundreds of servicemen and servicewomen over the years.
In 2019, an aide announced that Miyamura had likely given his last public talk due to declining health.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer both called Miyamura a hero, saying he will be missed by many who are forever grateful for his service.
Miyamura is survived by numerous family members. Funeral arrangements are pending.
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 an unofficial hand recount 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.
New Mexico sues tobacco companies over settlement payments - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
New Mexico is suing more than a dozen tobacco companies, accusing them of conspiracy and breach of contract.
Attorney General Hector Balderas announced the legal challenge Tuesday, claiming that the companies have been withholding portions of annual payments that are due under a multi-state tobacco settlement that ended dozens of lawsuits that sought reimbursement for health care costs associated with smoking-related illnesses.
New Mexico's complaint centers on a specific provision of the 1998 settlement, saying abuse of that clause by the companies has resulted in the state losing out on more than $84 million over the last 14 years.
"There is no end to these baseless delay tactics, and it is time to force the tobacco companies to pay New Mexico what they owe for damages — funding much-needed health initiatives," Balderas said in a statement.
The companies did not immediately return messages seeking comment on New Mexico's lawsuit.
Under the settlement, each company is obligated to make a payment to New Mexico each year. Instead, the attorney general's office says the companies file disputes every year that result in a percentage of the payment being withheld, triggering an arbitration process that can span years.
For example, the arbitration over 2004 payments wrapped up last month and arbitration concerning 2005-2007 payments has just begun.
With average annual payments ranging between $30 million and $40 million, state officials said that covers less than 5% of the New Mexico health care costs that are directly attributable to smoking. They estimated the price tag of smoking-related health care costs in 2021 at more than $980 million.
Montana mounted a similar legal challenge in 2020. It was successful in recovering more than $49 million in payments and interest wrongly withheld by tobacco companies and reached an agreement with the companies to not challenge that state's annual payments for another decade.
In New Mexico, officials say the amount of settlement payments withheld grows each year.
According to the complaint, the defendants — which include tobacco giants Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds — do not disclose to New Mexico exactly how much they are withholding or where the withheld funds are held. Withholding practices also can change from year to year.
State prosecutors say with this lack of transparency, New Mexico's best estimate is that defendants withhold between $6 million and $9 million each year.
"This conspiracy is a calculated strategy to permanently and fraudulently decrease defendants' contractual payments under the (settlement agreement) and to frustrate the purposes of the (settlement agreement)," the complaint reads.
The attorney general's office said many states have renegotiated with the tobacco companies over the years to avoid continued arbitration over annual payments, giving way to more favorable terms for the companies.
Only eight states continue to pursue full payment of what they are due under the settlement, New Mexico officials said.
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.