MON: New Mexico state government reaps budget windfall from oil, + More
New Mexico state government reaps budget windfall from oil - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
The state of New Mexico is likely to inherit a new, multibillion-dollar financial windfall largely from surging oil production and robust energy prices in the era of war between Ukraine and Russia, economists told a panel of leading legislators on Monday.
Economists from four state agencies revised upward estimates of government income that are the basis for budget negotiations by lawmakers when the legislature convenes in January 2023.
They estimate state government income of nearly $12 billion for the fiscal year running from July 2023 to June 2024. That revenue would exceed current annual general fund spending obligations by $3.6 billion — or 43%.
The forecast enhances the potential spending authority of newly reelected Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and members of the Democratic-led Legislature.
Democratic state Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup said the state has a unique opportunity to make investments that expand economic opportunity and rein in dependence on petroleum production in the future.
"No one in this state's history has ever had this opportunity," said Muñoz, vice chairman of the legislature's lead budget writing committee. "We can really set this state up to not be dependent on oil and gas."
He also highlighted efforts to improve public education in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and aggressive health restrictions that shut down classroom teaching for roughly a year.
Lujan Grisham last week outlined new goals for combatting childhood poverty by expanding daycare subsidies and providing meals at schools free of charge. Her administration also is proposing an expansion of minimum instructional time at schools and increases in school salaries and benefits.
Public schools in New Mexico operate primarily on money from the state general fund and investment income from New Mexico's $26 billion land grant permanent fund.
Voters in November approved an increase in annual withdrawals from the land grant trust to boost spending on K-12 schools and early childhood education, though congressional approval is still required and pending.
If Monday's state income forecast comes to fruition, billions of dollars will automatically flow to a new investment fund designed to underwrite early childhood education initiatives. The balance could reach $8 billion as soon at 2024.
Money is pouring into government accounts from a variety taxes and fees. Much of it can be traced to oil and natural gas development in New Mexico's portion of the Permian Basin that stretches across the southeast corner of the state and western Texas.
New Mexico in 2021 became the No. 2 oil producer in the nation behind Texas and continued to set local production records as recently as September.
The Legislature's budget and accountability office said state government is relying increasingly on income from the fossil fuel industry that could falter suddenly with an economic downturn. Oil production has expanded far beyond pre-pandemic levels and shifted toward public lands overseen by the U.S. government, providing New Mexico with a boost in royalty payments to its state general fund.
"It's really staggering," said Ismael Torres, chief economist at the budget and accountability office. "You can see that New Mexico is really powering the U.S. oil production growth."
Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Deborah Romero, who retires later this month without a named replacement, encouraged legislators to consider one-time investments in infrastructure for water and communications and cautioned against expanding permanent programs too much.
Environmentalists want jaguars reintroduced to US Southwest - By Anita Snow Associated Press
An environmental group on Monday petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help reintroduce the jaguar to the Southwest, where it roamed for hundreds of thousands of years before being whittled down to just one of the big cats known to survive in the region.
The male jaguar, named Sombra — shadow in Spanish — has been seen in southern Arizona several times since first captured on a wildlife camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains in 2016, including a 2017 video by the Center for Biological Diversity. There are a handful of jaguars known to be living across the border in the Mexican state of Sonora.
The center wants the federal agency to help expand critical habitat for jaguars in remote areas and launch an experimental population in New Mexico's Gila National Forest along the border with Arizona.
"Over 50 years since the jaguar was placed on the endangered species list, we should not be facing the realistic prospect that this sole jaguar in Arizona will be the last," Michael J. Robinson, senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote to Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
"This could be an amazing opportunity for us to restore a native species that was here for hundreds of thousands of years and deserves to come back," Robinson said in an interview.
Jaguars ranged throughout North America before they were killed to the point of extinction for their stunning spotted pelts and to protect livestock.
Robinson said failure to do something could also affect efforts to save the dwindling jaguar population in Mexico that needs the kind of genetic diversity possible through mating with a new group of big cats to the north.
Jaguar populations in many places from Mexico to South America are shrinking as well. They are being reintroduced to their historic range in Argentina through a program in which they are bred in captivity and released.
The center was among environmental groups involved in successful efforts to launch the recovery of the gray wolf population that dropped to near extinction a half century ago.
Like jaguars, gray wolves once ranged most of the U.S. but were wiped out in most places by the 1930s under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns.
A remnant population in the western Great Lakes region has since expanded to some 4,400 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. And more than 2,000 wolves occupy six states in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest.
The rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America, the Mexican wolf, was listed as endangered in the 1970s and a U.S.-Mexico captive breeding program was started with the seven wolves then in existence.
The results of the latest annual survey of the Mexican gray wolves released in March showed at least 196 in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona — the sixth straight year that the wolf population has increased.
Robinson said efforts to protect the jaguar never enjoyed the momentum of the gray wolf campaign.
"People forget or don't know that the jaguar actually evolved in North America, ranging from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and then spread to the south," he said.
Concerns about the jaguar's future were mentioned in a letter the center sent Oct. 19 to Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, giving his administration a 60-day notice of its intent to file a lawsuit to halt the ongoing placement of shipping containers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The letter says the San Rafael Valley in southeastern Arizona is among the last established corridors for jaguars and ocelots between the two countries.
New Mexicans voted for more public education money. But Congress has to allow it first. - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
New Mexico voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment in November that would allocate more funding for public schools.
But that money is waiting for federal lawmakers to pass a bill that will guarantee voters’ demands for greater school funding are met, prompting state lawmakers to wonder if they’ll have this money to budget during the 60-day legislative session beginning Jan. 17.
With 70% in support, New Mexicans overwhelmingly voted yes on Constitutional Amendment 1 during the General Election in November. This means the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, made up of revenue from state land usage, will raise its annual contribution to public education by 1.25%. That could amount to about $250 million in the next fiscal year for early childhood and K-12 education — but only if Congress acts.
Since the federal government created the Land Grant Permanent Fund, meeting the will of New Mexico’s voters and moving more money out of it requires federal approval. Although many state and federal officials have said the bill is likely to pass, there’s a sense of urgency to get it done before 2023.
Sen. Martin Heinrich and Rep. Melanie Stansbury are trying to meet that requirement by driving the N.M. Education Enhancement Act in the House and Senate. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández are also original cosponsors of the legislation.
Staffers from both Heinrich and Stansbury’s offices said the lawmakers’ top priorities are getting this federal bill passed before the end of the year. It got through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously in July and is currently waiting for consideration in the Senate.
“There’s no greater investment that we can make in the future of our state than in our children,” Heinrich said in a written statement. “When we improve our education and childcare system, we also make our state a better place to raise a family, to start or expand a business, to find a good-paying job, and to hire the best and brightest employees.”
CAN IT PASS BEFORE THE END OF THE YEAR?
One of the reasons to get this done quickly is that a government shutdown is looming, although there’s work to prevent that from happening before Dec. 17. If the bill doesn’t pass this year, it’ll have to be reintroduced to a new Congress in 2023, this time with Republicans in control of the House.
Stansbury’s spokesperson Julia Friedmanm said the New Mexico’s federal delegation would reintroduce it in Congress if it doesn’t pass before adjournment. Friedmann said they are “exploring every avenue to pass this legislation before the end of the year.”
“New Mexicans have spoken, and they have decided to invest in our kids,” Stansbury said in a written statement. “I am working hard to ensure that every single member of Congress hears the voices of New Mexicans so we can invest in our children, our education system, and our future.”
At a state Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Task Force meeting on Friday, Dec. 9, Rep. Tara Lujan (D-Santa Fe) said passage in the new makeup of Congress could be a challenge.
“It looks like it could be really difficult if it doesn’t get through by the end of the year, and we’re already having difficulties meeting what Congress needs to get done by this fiscal year,” she said.
Democrats have already asked outgoing Republican Rep. Yvette Herrell to talk to her party’s colleagues about pushing the bill through, but there hasn’t been confirmation on whether she’ll do it or not.
Herrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. We’ll update this article if she responds.
Even if it does pass, the president would need to sign it before any new money is taken from the permanent fund.
The bill doesn’t have to stand alone, and could potentially be part of a broader legislative package for an easier route to the president’s desk. Friedmann said the New Mexico delegation members are trying to get this legislation included in a “must-pass end-of-year spending bill.”
The state legislature begins Jan. 17, and state lawmakers have questioned during multiple legislative education meetings if public education will get the Land Grant money during the 60-day session. They can’t plan details of where it could go until it’s approved at a federal level.
“We think that’s going to happen before the end of the year, according to Sen. Heinrich, but that could delay it if it gets bound up at the federal level as to when we actually see it,” Sen. William Soules (D-Las Cruces) said.
Some lawmakers disagreed about having to get federal approval at all in the first place, according to the Albuquerque Journal, but that’s the phrasing that made it into the final version of the amendment approved by voters.
More than 200 guns collected at buyback event in Albuquerque - Associated Press
Community organizers in Albuquerque say they have collected more than 200 unwanted guns at the latest buyback event.
It was the event's 17th year and organizers said their goal is to help curb gun violence across the metro.
Of the guns collected Saturday, 18 were semi-automatic rifles.
People traded in guns for a gift card.
"We ran out of cards after the first two hours. We went through $26,000 worth of cards," Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, told Albuquerque TV station KOB. "We ran out and people were still showing up with guns and they say, 'I don't care about the gift card. I just don't want to have this gun in my home anymore."
Organizers said they plan to donate the dismantled guns to a Albuquerque charter school where students will learn how to forge the parts into gardening tools.
NM Sen. Ivey-Soto likely to be removed from prominent committee when 2023 Legislature begins - By Megan Gleason,Source New Mexico
Almost a year after New Mexico Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto was accused of sexual harassment, he’s set to lose his position on the Senate Rules Committee when the 2023 Legislature begins Jan. 17.
On Thursday, the Senate Committees’ Committee did something unusual — it met outside of the regular Legislature calendar to quickly rearrange legislators’ positions on various standing committees.
This meeting came about 10 months after a lobbyist filed accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) back in February. Multiple other women came forward with similar stories in the months following.
Final conclusions for the investigation into the accusations against Ivey-Soto were kept private, though a leaked copy of the report verified that at least two instances of his conduct broke the anti-harassment policy.
He’s fallen from positions of power as a lawmaker since and continues to be moved around, with this most recent move to get him off the influential Rules Committee — a committee he used to chair.
The Committees’ Committee passed an approval for Ivey-Soto to be removed from his Rules seat, an important commission that decides priority and scheduling aspects of bills during the legislative session, and moved him to the Indian, Rural and Cultural Affairs Committee.
The Committees’ Committee only has three Republican members, and two of them objected to Ivey-Soto’s removal — Gregory Baca (R-Belen) and Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho).
The Senate will need to pass this again when the session starts in January for it to immediately take effect.
Senate Pro Tem Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) said the meeting was convened in order to get organized and prepare to hire new staff in time for the Legislature. In an interview with Source NM afterward, she said that removing Ivey-Soto from the Rules Commission and general meeting overall doesn’t have a direct connection with the misconduct accusations.
“We already dealt with that. We dealt with that weeks ago. We were going to have a Committees’ Committee to remove him, but he resigned himself,” she said. “So that’s already been done. That’s not why this committee met today.”
Stewart said that at her request, Ivey-Soto’s already stepped down as chair of the Senate Rules Committee and chair of the interim New Mexico Finance Authority committee.
Now to serve on the Rules Committee, if approved in January, are Sen. Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) as chair, Sen. Brenda McKenna (D-Corrales) and Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos). Sen. Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) will be removed along with Ivey-Soto.
There have also been public calls to remove Ivey-Soto from the Senate altogether. Stewart declined to comment on that topic.
Mario Jimenez is the director of New Mexico’s Common Cause division, a voting rights organization that sends lobbyists to the Roundhouse. He pointed out that Ivey-Soto is still a state senator with constituents to serve and said he hopes Ivey-Soto’s good faith efforts, like the previous resignations, continue.
“I think it’s pretty clear that he too would like to see a resolution,” he said.
UPDATING THE ANTI-HARASSMENT POLICY
Ivey-Soto’s harassment investigation seemingly prompted an initiative to update the Legislature’s anti-harassment policy, though there have been some delays. Stewart said lawmakers will attempt to amend the policy on Monday, Dec. 12 at the Legislative Council meeting.
Rep. Daymon Ely (D-Corrales) drafted additional details about lodging complaints against members of the Legislature, which is what the lawmakers will be reviewing and deciding on.
The proposed changes would help decide on tied votes by adding more voting members to different committees. It would also add a timeline to the process, ensuring that investigative reports are submitted within 45 days to lawmakers and special counsel, who would determine if there’s probable cause behind complaints.
If there’s no probable cause on a complaint, it would be dropped and a public report would be published. If there is, a formal hearing would convene within 45 days and an ethics subcommittee would make a decision.
THE POTENTIAL CHANGES
The drafted policy, if adopted, would add a few new rules to the procedures that would occur if anyone in the Legislature is accused of violations of the anti-harassment policy. The changes are:
- Special outside counsel — experienced in discrimination law, not just employee law — and legislative leaders would determine if a complaint needs to be looked into by an investigative subcommittee
- An independent, licensed attorney with experience in harassment claims would become chair and a voting member of the investigative subcommittee
- Special counsel investigating the complaint would submit a report to the investigative subcommittee within 45 days of being hired. If that’s not possible, the counsel would keep all parties informed of how much more time is needed with updates every 15 days
- The investigation would be closed if the ethics subcommittee decides there’s no probable cause, and an interim ethics committee would publish a public report on the decision within 10 days
- If the ethics subcommittee decides there is probable cause, the standing committee would decide on the matter during the Legislature. Otherwise, an interim committee would set a formal hearing within 45 days, unless there’s evidence showing the need to extend that. An independent attorney, retired judge or justice would serve as chair and a voting member of the hearing committee
- Any ethics committees still have to follow the rules of the respective legislative standing committees
These changes are something that will affect both the state House and Senate, Jimenez said, and legislators need to rebuild trust with the public.
Jimenez said future investigations need to be more transparent. But still, the newly drafted rules wouldn’t require any public disclosure unless a case is closed with no probable cause.
“Whenever meetings are being held behind closed doors, in secret, it leads to questions and quite often leads to assumptions,” he said, “and, as a result, a loss of trust in those who are making these calls and these important decisions that are going to be affecting the general public.”
Lawsuit: Governor threatened retaliation for records request - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
A former state senator says he was threatened by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham through an emissary with "escalating consequences" if he did not withdraw a request by his law firm for public records concerning the administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
Attorney and former legislator Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque filed the complaint with a state District Court in Albuquerque, renewing a 2020 request for email correspondence among advisors to the governor, Lujan's travel records and more under provisions of the state Inspection of Public Records Act.
The lawsuit alleges that Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe visited Candelaria's office in Dec. 10, 2020, and told Candelaria that Lujan Grisham said there would be escalating consequences if the public records request was not rescinded.
Maddy Hayden, communications director at the governor's office, called the allegations "wholly baseless and without merit," in an email. Wirth declined to comment on the matter.
Contacted Friday, Candelaria said he rescinded the public records request in 2020 out of concern that possible retaliation might disrupt his work in the Legislature on behalf of political constituents or even affect his husband's employment at a state-run hospital.
The 35-year-old former lawmaker said the lawsuit aims to ensure the governor can't sidestep any eligible requests for public documents or inquiries into her administration's response to the pandemic.
"Where she crossed the line is in saying, 'Withdraw this or else,'" Candelaria said.
Candelaria teamed up with Republican lawmakers to successfully challenge the governor and defend the Legislature's authority over spending priorities for more than $1 billion in federal pandemic aid, arguing the case before the state Supreme Court in 2021.
Candelaria ended his affiliation with the Democratic Party a year ago and stepped down from his Senate seat in October, roughly halfway through a four-year term in office, to devote more time to starting a family.
NM water experts: Upcoming legislative session ‘existentially important’ - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
A group of local experts says the upcoming legislative session represents a crucial pivot point for the state’s water future.
The New Mexico Water Ambassadors, a group convened at the direction of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, has met since June to come up with recommendations to handle the state’s water crisis.
Mike Hamman recently left the Interstate Stream Commission to become the State Engineer. He leads the task force that will call on the Legislature to, among other things, boost capacity and authority for the state’s water agencies and also revamp its planning strategy for water resiliency, which the group said is still based in the 1930s.
“I think it’s existentially important that we make these changes,” said Norm Gaume, president of Middle Rio Grande Water Advocates and task force member, testified during a meeting last week. “It will be the governor and the 2023 legislature that we’re depending on to actually make the pivot.”
The Southwestern climate is increasingly arid due to human-caused climate change. Projections by leading experts anticipate a 25% reduction in the available water supply due to climate change.
Meanwhile, the state is embroiled in a water lawsuit with Texas. Local experts said last legislative session that lawsuits over water rights will only increase as supply shrinks.
The group publicly described some of what they hope the New Mexico Legislature will enact to adapt to an increasingly arid climate. The group has yet to release its full list of recommendations. A spokesperson said they should be made public in about two weeks. But Gaume summarized them
He said the Office of the State Engineer and Interstate Stream Commission need better technology, more staff and greater reach to monitor and enforce water usage and quality.
John D’ Antonio, resigned as State Engineer post in November 2021 due to a lack of staffing, he told the Albuquerque Journal at the time.
And Gaume said the office has been desperately understaffed since positions were cut during the Gov. Susana Martinez administration.
“The agencies need more staff and they need the resources,” he said. “They can’t even utilize the existing statutory tools that the legislature has passed over the last several years.”
The incoming Legislature will have “copious” infrastructure money, he said, and has allocated money for numerous local water infrastructure projects. But he said rural areas in particular need more technical help in getting the projects done.
“Rural and smaller communities just don’t have the resources to take complex water projects from an idea through planning and design and into construction,” he said. “So they may have the money but they don’t have the other resources that’s needed to put projects on the ground.”
Gaume’s comments came during the first of three meetings of the Water Policy and Infrastructure Task Force, a 29-person group of academics, state officials, lawmakers and others.
It will present again virtually today at 6:30 p.m. State Engineer Mike Hamman will be the first panelist. Those interested in attending can register here.
New Mexico AG inks $235,000 salary as new college president - Associated Press
Outgoing New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas will earn nearly triple his current salary as the next president at Northern New Mexico College.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Thursday that contract negotiations have culminated in Balderas signing on for three and a half years and will be paid $232,500 annually.
He receives $95,000 a year as attorney general.
"I'm honored that the regents, faculty and staff will collaborate with me as we take on Northern New Mexico College into the future, building on student success and institutional development," Balderas said in a statement.
The school's board of regents unanimously approved his appointment last month. Balderas was among four finalists for the position following a months-long national search.
Dr. Bárbara M. Medina had been serving as interim president.
Balderas will be wrapping up his second term as the state's top prosecutor at the end of the year. He was ineligible to run for re-election because of term limits.
Carlsbad father gets life for 8-year-old daughter's death - Associated Press
A Carlsbad man will stay in prison for the rest of his life for fatally beating his 8-year-old daughter and then hiding her body.
The Carlsbad Current-Argus reported Friday that Juan Lerma was sentenced to life last week for abuse a child resulting in death, evidence tampering and witness bribery.
A jury convicted Lerma last month.
The 35-year-old father was arrested in 2020 after Samantha Rubino's body was discovered wrapped in bags in a trash can on his property.
A state medical examiner determined the girl died of trauma to her head caused by a brain bleed.
The charge of bribery of a witness was later dropped.
Lerma denied killing his daughter. He said during trial that he disposed of her body out of panic.
But his 11-year-old son testified that Lerma began beating and abusing both children once they came to live with him in 2020 after their mother's death. Furthermore, he beat Samantha the day of her death.
Suspect arrested in death of teen hit by SUV in Las Cruces - Associated Press
Las Cruces police have arrested an 18-year-old suspect in the death of a teenage boy who was killed by an SUV investigators say veered off a Highway 70 frontage road and struck him while he was walking on the sidewalk.
Isaiah Angel Anthony Gutierrez of Las Cruces was being held Saturday in the Dona Ana County Detention Center where he was booked on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter in the death of the 16-year-old boy on Friday.
The victim was a student at Organ Mountain High School, police said. His name has not been released.
Police say they found the boy dead when they responded to a report of a vehicle-pedestrian crash on Bataan Memorial East just east of Mesa Grande Boulevard at about 4 p.m. Friday.
Investigators believe he was walking along the sidewalk that parallels the road when he was truck by an eastbound Chevrolet Tahoe, police said in a statement Friday.
Gutierrez remained on the scene of the accident and was booked into the jail late Friday night, police said. Jail records don't list a lawyer for him.
Preliminary information indicates excessive speed may have been a contributing factor in the crash. Alcohol does not appear to have been involved, police said Saturday.