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TUES: Sam Bregman picked to finish Torrez's term as Second Judicial District attorney, + More

FILE - Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez speaks to a panel of New Mexico lawmakers during a meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., Sept. 27, 2017. Torrez is running against State Auditor Brian Colón for the Democratic endorsement to succeed termed-out Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas. Absentee and early in-person vote were underway Thursday, June 2, 2022, in advance of Election Day next Tuesday. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)
Susan Montoya Bryan
Raul Torrez, who was elected in November to be the state's new attorney general. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Attorney Sam Bregman Tuesday to finish the last two years of Torrez's term.

Sam Bregman picked as Second Judicial District attorney – Associated Press

Longtime New Mexico attorney Sam Bregman has been appointed as the top prosecutor in the Albuquerque-based Second Judicial District to fill a vacancy created by the election of Raúl Torrez as the state's new attorney general.

The appointment was made by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who on Tuesday cited Bregman's extensive experience as a litigator and said he will bring fresh perspective to the job.

Bregman previously worked as an assistant prosecutor in the Second Judicial District and served on the Albuquerque City Council and New Mexico Racing Commission.

Bregman will serve the last two years of Torrez's term.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said Bregman is committed to fixing the broken criminal justice system. "We are making changes at APD to build the strongest criminal cases possible so the district attorney can effectively prosecute offenders," Medina said. "I look forward to a strong partnership."

Judge orders proposed Rio Grande decree to be made public - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A U.S. judge serving as special master in the legal battle over management of the Rio Grande, one of North America's longest rivers, has cleared the way for a proposed settlement to be made public.

The federal government had sought to keep details of the agreement reached by Texas, New Mexico and Colorado sealed, but the judge rejected that request. Under an order issued Friday, the proposal and associated briefs and exhibits will be made public next week as the states and federal attorneys prepare for an upcoming hearing on the merits of the proposal.

The case has been pending before the U.S. Supreme Court for nearly a decade, and the stakes are escalating as much of the West grapples with persistent drought.

The states in October announced they had brokered a deal following months of negotiations. New Mexico's attorney general at the time cited extreme drought and erratic climate events, saying it was imperative that the states work together to protect the river.

Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice and irrigation districts that serve farmers downstream of Elephant Butte reservoir, however, argued that the proposal would not be a workable solution.

The river, which flows from the mountains in southern Colorado to Mexico, is managed through a system of federal dams and canals under provisions of a decades-old water-sharing agreement.

Texas has argued that groundwater pumping in southern New Mexico has reduced river flows, limiting how much water makes it across the border. New Mexico maintains that it has been shorted on its share of the river. Colorado also has rights to the river.

The battle over the Rio Grande has become a multimillion-dollar case in a region where water supplies are dwindling due to increased demand along with drought and warmer temperatures brought on by climate change.

Some of the river's stretches in New Mexico marked record low flows in 2022, resulting in some farmers voluntarily fallowing fields to help the state meet downstream water-sharing obligations.

Judge Michael Melloy noted in his order that teams of negotiators that included engineers, hydrologists and others had worked collaboratively throughout much of 2022 to develop formulas, limits and potential remedial steps as possible paths to settling the litigation.

Justice Department attorneys sought to keep the information sealed, saying making it public would violate a confidentiality agreement. But the order noted all parties had conceded that the underlying data used to derive the formulas and deviation limits were publicly available and part of the water management toolbox commonly in use throughout the country.

"Here there is simply no colorable claim of ownership over the broad ideas, public data, and common techniques expressed in the decree," Melloy wrote.

He said it wasn't possible to look at the proposed agreement and know what the federal government was or was not willing to admit, forgo or compromise in an effort to settle the claims.

Melloy has scheduled a hearing in early February on the merits of the proposed decree.

Many fall short of high bar for cannabis microbusiness loans - Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News 

While the bar may be fairly low to obtain a license for a cannabis microbusiness in New Mexico, the bar’s quite high to get a state loan to support it — and maybe too high.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the New Mexico Finance Authority piloted a $5 million loan program for cannabis microbusiness owners. But — while it launched back in April — the state has only approved six loans, distributing less than 2% of the available funds.

The reason? Too many applicants fall short of the criteria to qualify.

The agency’s Policy and Capital Strategist Ryan Decker told the New Mexican that applicants must have 90% collateral — and many don’t.

Decker says the loan program began when the Cannabis Control Division reached out to the Finance Authority with concerns over the accessibility of the industry for small operators.

However, with 200-plant limits associated with the license, many struggle to have the start-up funds to qualify for the state assistance meant to help launch their small businesses.

Decker says, despite this, her agency is set to grant more microbusiness loans for local cannabis producers in the coming weeks.

Flu, RSV and COVID are wreaking havoc — but sick teachers don’t feel like they can stay home - Shefali Luthra, The 19th via Source New Mexico

Flu case counts are at their highest level for early December in a decade. COVID-19 is spiking once again. Surging diagnoses of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are resulting in overcrowded pediatric emergency rooms.

And still, research shows, teachers may not be staying home when they’re sick.

With public health experts worried about a brutal winter of sickness, elementary schools in particular — which are notorious hotbeds of germs — are being stretched thin. Waves of infection are forcing some districts to temporarily adopt remote learning until enough students and teachers are well enough to return to the classroom. The COVID-specific extra sick leave many teachers received at the height of the pandemic is no longer available in many places.

But survey data shared with The 19th from the Education Week Research Center, which studies national education policy, shows that even with viruses spreading through the classroom, teachers — and particularly elementary school teachers — are largely coming into work even when ill. Many say staying out of the classroom is just too difficult.

“There’s a lot of virus circulating, and therefore there’s going to be more people at risk,” said Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president and global health expert at the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. “Removing yourself from the situation is really important from a public health perspective — we know that and we know that more than we ever have. What’s challenging is there’s a lot of real and perceived barriers to doing that.”

Teachers, who are mostly women, are more likely than the general population to have paid sick leave benefits. But, the data suggests, that isn’t sufficient on its own.

“I try not to use sick days unless I’m on my deathbed,” wrote an elementary school teacher from Wisconsin, according to the survey responses. “It is more work to be out than to be at school. Plus I get pulled to fill in when others are out sick.”

“I try to avoid taking the day off, unless it’s COVID-19 or I’m really sick and unable to move because I don’t want my students to get out of routines at school,” wrote another elementary school teacher in Texas who works in special education.

“We don’t have money for subs, so teachers come in even when they’re sick,” wrote an elementary teacher from Washington.

And from an elementary school teacher in New Mexico: “I always hate taking sick days because it takes too much work to be out.”

Across grade levels, only 1 in 4 teachers reported taking a sick day if they felt ill, per the national survey conducted in late October and early November by the Education Week Research Center. Meanwhile, 35 percent of teachers said they try to avoid taking a day off unless they have COVID-19 or “can’t get out of bed.” And elementary school teachers were even less likely to stay home, per the data. About 49 percent said they avoided taking a sick day unless absolutely necessary.

The data isn’t surprising, said Holly Kurtz, who directs the Education Week Research Center. People were generally encouraged to stay home if they tested positive for COVID-19. But that message doesn’t appear to have been repurposed to address how people navigate other viral infections such as the flu or RSV.

Meanwhile, the pressures on teachers remain acute. Substitute teachers have been in short supply for years, a concern amplified by the pandemic. And full-time teachers, burned out from teaching through the health crisis, have quit in increasing numbers. With elementary school in particular, students are often too young to work without active instructor supervision.

“Even if they have paid sick leave, [teachers] worry about students falling behind and worry about burdening their colleagues,” Kurtz said.

The implications are significant not only for teachers, but also parents, noted Kates, who has an elementary school-aged son. If school employees aren’t able to use their sick leave, it increases the likelihood that viruses spread further. If her son falls sick at school, she can work from home and take care of him. But, she added, not all parents have that same flexibility.

“This is a challenge that as a society we haven’t figured out,” she said.

Rachel Thomas, a middle school English teacher in Washington, D.C., hasn’t fallen ill yet this year. Since noticing her colleagues get sick, and more students staying home with illnesses, she’s resumed wearing a mask inside her school building, an older facility where she worries about the ventilation.

If she does fall ill, she said, she would stay home from work until feeling better, an approach that her school’s leaders encourage. But she recalled working in other schools where, even if teachers had paid sick leave, they were generally likely to come into work anyway.

“That’s a culture in education, because we do understand there’s limited substitutes,” she said. ”You just have to tough it out.”

This story was originally published by The 19th. It is republished here with permission.

City officials to disclose more about family finances this year - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

Albuquerque residents will learn more about the personal finances of their elected officials this year.

The Albuquerque Journal reports legislation — passed unanimously by the City Council and signed by Mayor Tim Keller last month — updated the City Charter’s Code of Ethics and goes into effect in 2023. It mandates the mayor and city councilors disclose more financial information than previously required.

The new transparency rules are the strictest in the state, according to City Clerk Ethan Watson. He says similar rules were proposed for state lawmakers but never approved.

Elected officials in the state’s largest city must now disclose information about their entire immediate family, including spouses and dependents.

The information will include earned and unearned income, assets worth $50-thousand dollars or more, debts over $5-thousand dollars and any payments made on them, along with gifts over $50 dollars in value. Officials must also now report if their family owns any properties or businesses, among other things.

A new financial disclosure form in the works will replace a one-pager that required less information — and only on the officials themselves.

The Journal reports that Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission Jeremy Farris spoke in favor of the legislation at a recent Council meeting, noting that its approval makes the city a “model in the area of financial disclosure law.”

Lujan Grisham begins second term as New Mexico governor - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham officially started her second term as New Mexico governor on New Year's Day with promises of "launching the state into the future" by building on the work her administration has done over the past four years.

"Progress — not paralysis — is in fact our destiny," Lujan Grisham said shortly after taking the oath of office during a public ceremony Sunday afternoon. "We will move forward into the unknown with malice toward none and with charity for all, and with the conviction that hard work on behalf of New Mexicans will always win the day."

The day's festivities in the capital city of Santa Fe included performances by Native American dancers and a mariachi band. The governor's ball was scheduled for the evening, with tickets going for $1,000 per person.

In her remarks, Lujan Grisham ran down a list of the primary issues she plans to tackle. They included early childhood education, affordable housing, opioid addiction and codifying abortion rights.

She also announced plans to establish the New Mexico Healthcare Authority, "a comprehensive entity that will expand access to services and cut through the red tape that keeps New Mexicans from getting the high quality healthcare they need."

Lujan Grisham won a hard-fought and costly race for reelection against Republican Mark Ronchetti, with outside groups spending heavily on the campaigns.

Lujan Grisham and the Democrat-controlled Legislature are expected to take advantage of a more than favorable financial forecast as they set spending priorities during the upcoming session. Among the top orders of business will be addressing public safety concerns and the state's dismal educational outcomes.

Citing billions of dollars in new money, the governor said in a recent social media post that New Mexico has an opportunity to reach new heights.

"We will double down on the investments we know are working and explore innovative new strategies through investments in key areas like housing, healthcare, education and public safety," she said.

The Legislature has increased recurring appropriations for public schools by more than $1 billion since 2018. While some progress has been made, legislative analysts in a September briefing last year outlined numerous recommendations for making sure the investments actually pay off.

New Mexico continues to rank at the bottom of many lists that gauge educational success, even four years after landmark litigation that resulted in a district court determining the state was falling short of its constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate education to all students.

The case predated Lujan Grisham's first term. Despite her effort to get the case dismissed, a judge ruled the court would maintain its jurisdiction until there were long-term comprehensive reforms implemented.

The state Public Education Department earlier this year released a draft plan for dealing with the shortcomings highlighted by the case but a final version has yet to be made public.

Results from the latest standardized tests also show just 26% of students in grades three to eight were proficient in math while 34% were proficient in reading, putting New Mexico further behind other states even when considering the widespread challenges across the U.S. that were brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The nonprofit group Think New Mexico has published recommendations ranging from increasing learning time to keeping class sizes small and shifting money from administration to the classroom as ways to turn things around.

"Improving New Mexico's public schools is the most pressing need facing our state," said Fred Nathan, the group's founder and executive director.

He pointed to more time in the classroom as an evidence-based reform and the importance of maximizing the amount of the education budget that is spent in classrooms. The goal, he said, is ensuring the state's investments will "yield the largest return for students."

One immediate change the governor is banking on to make a difference in 2023 is the availability of free virtual tutoring in math, language arts and science for many pre-K through eighth grade students. The program was announced in December.

NMSU, Los Alamos unite on research of migratory bird die-off - Associated Press

Two years after New Mexico saw migratory birds literally falling from the sky, New Mexico State University and Los Alamos National Laboratory have announced plans to establish a research program on bird die-off.

the two entities will collaborate with the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies to recruit and train students to study "disaster ecology," the Santa Fe New Mexican reported Saturday.

A $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture combined with other funding sources will cover the cost for 24 students—graduate and undergraduate—to join the four-year program.

The students will examine how a changing climate is impacting migratory birds and leading to a die-off like one seen in the fall of 2020.

Sightings of groups of dead birds were reported by residents in the Taos area and at Valles Caldera National Preserve in the north to the cottonwood forest along the Rio Grande to southern New Mexico, including at White Sands Missile Range.

Biologists from several agencies collected hundreds of samples of dead warblers, swallows and other birds to the USGS' National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for analysis.

The results showed starvation and unexpected weather were behind the die-off. Researchers at the time said many of the birds were severely emaciated. An unusual storm likely caused them to be disoriented and fly into objects or buildings.

They ruled out disease and poisoning.

Tim Wright, a NMSU biology professor, leads the school's aviation migration program.

"These birds are literally the canaries in a coal mine for how human activities are impacting the natural world," he said.

Tribes get advisory role in New Mexico utility regulation - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed a former state lawmaker and two energy policy experts on Friday to a powerful regulatory commission whose decisions have direct economic and environmental consequences for the state's utility customers.

Brian Moore, Patrick O'Connell and Gabriel Aguilera start work Jan. 1 on the Public Regulation Commission under a voter-approved overhaul that changed the commission from a five-member elected body to one appointed by the governor after a monthslong nominating process.

The New Mexico Senate will confirm the governor's choices during the upcoming legislative session.

"These appointees are experienced professionals who have the skills needed to oversee an energy transition that is affordable, effective and equitable for every New Mexico community," said Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is embarking on her second term following a hard-fought reelection bid.

A nominating committee had sent Lujan Grisham a list of nine finalists, most of whom were from New Mexico's most populated areas. That prompted criticism from some lawmakers and advocacy groups about the lack of representation for Native Americans and northwestern New Mexico, where one coal-fired power plant and an adjacent mine were recently shuttered, taking with them hundreds of jobs and tax revenue.

Seeking to address the concerns, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order Friday creating a Tribal Advisory Council to provide input to the commission. It will be made up of one representative from the eight northern pueblos, one from the 10 southern pueblos, one from the Apache tribes and one from the Navajo Nation.

In the executive order, the governor encourages the PRC to meet with the advisory council on a regular basis and consult with its leadership at commission meetings.

"It's extremely important that we ensure tribal voices are heard on issues before the PRC, regardless of who is appointed to the commission now and into the future," Lujan Grisham said. She noted that regulators will have more important decisions to make as the state continues to implement the 2019 Energy Transition Act.

The commission will play a role in ensuring new renewable energy resources and battery storage projects being brought online can meet customer demands as more coal-fired plants close in the coming years. They also will be tasked with keeping rates affordable in a state where many families are at or near the poverty line.

The commissioners also must decide a billion-dollar rate case involving New Mexico's largest electric provider — Public Service Co. of New Mexico, and they may have to revisit a contested merger between PNM and Avangrid, a U.S. subsidiary of global energy giant Iberdrola.

O'Connell, an engineer with more than two decades of experience, previously worked for PNM as the utility's director of planning and resources before becoming the interim clean energy director at Western Resource Advocates. His term on the commission will be six years.

O'Connell has said that he applied to be a commissioner because he thinks he can continue to make a difference in the fight against climate change while regulating essential services that New Mexicans use every day.

Western Resources Advocates, the state attorney general's office and others were among those who supported the proposed PNM-Avangrid merger when it came before the commission in 2021. The companies filed an appeal with the New Mexico Supreme Court after the elected commissioners decided the deal did not offer adequate protections for customers.

Moore, a Republican, represented several eastern New Mexico counties during his term as a state lawmaker and is now president and CEO of Ranch Market supermarket in Clayton. He previously served as the legislative team leader for the New Mexico Association of Counties and was on the Renewable Energy Transmission Authority board.

Moore also was a member of Lujan Grisham's Economic Recovery Council. His appointment will last two years.

A graduate of New Mexico State University, Aguilera has worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission since 2007. He most recently served as a senior policy advisor for FERC's Office of Energy Market Regulation. His appointment is for four years.