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WED: Return to office for state workers delayed until Feb. 2, + More

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Return to office for New Mexico workers delayed until Feb. 2 - Associated Press

The scheduled return to the office for all state workers who have been working remotely has been delayed until next month, according to New Mexico officials.

All exempt employees, managers, supervisors and directors were instructed Friday to report back to the office Tuesday while other employees who have been working remotely will be able to continue to do so until Feb. 2.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Wednesday that the delayed implementation of a return to in-person work comes after the State Personnel Office informed employees last month it was rescinding a telework policy and everyone would have to report back to the office at the first of the year.

The decision has sparked pushback from labor groups that have described the directive as unnecessary and warned it could result in even higher vacancy rates in state government, especially among employees who have to commute, don't have access to childcare or are dealing with other circumstances that would make going back to the office difficult, according to the newspaper.

Gov. Lujan Grisham to ask Legislature to create new health agency - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

As she was sworn in to a second term, New Mexico’s head of state announced she wants to create a new state health agency with the goal of getting more people insured.

Details are still sparse about the function of the New Mexico Health Care Authority, an initiative announced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in her 2023 inaugural address on Sunday at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe.

“This authority will streamline the government’s efforts to support families and their health care needs while more effectively holding insurers accountable,” she said.

At its core, the proposal seeks to make it easier for hundreds of thousands of uninsured New Mexicans to get access to health insurance plans. Creation of the agency requires approval by the Legislature.

Lawmakers will also have to determine what the Health Care Authority could do that can’t already be done by New Mexico’s existing health agencies, and it’s still unclear which state lawmaker will sponsor the proposal at the Roundhouse. The measure getting announced during inauguration festivities signals this is a priority for the Democratic governor, whose party also controls both chambers in the Roundhouse.

The Health Care Authority would be “a comprehensive entity that will expand access to services and cut through the red tape that keeps too many New Mexicans from getting the affordable, high-quality care they need,” Lujan Grisham said.

Delaney Corcoran, spokesperson for Lujan Grisham’s campaign, referred all questions about the proposal to Press Secretary Nora Meyers Sackett. So did Jodi McGinnis Porter, spokesperson for the state Department of Health.

The Health Authority would buy and oversee health insurance “with the goal to provide high quality, affordable health care by leveraging agency programs under one authority,” Meyers Sackett said in an emailed statement.

There are about 215,000 New Mexicans who are uninsured, according to Health Action New Mexico. Another 100,000 are expected to be kicked off Medicaid once the U.S. government declares the end of the public health emergency for COVID.

The proposal has not yet been presented as actual legislation, said Barbara Weber, executive director of Health Action New Mexico.

“We were glad to hear that something is being proposed, and we want to see what it is,” Weber said in an interview on Tuesday. “The devil will be in the details, I think.”

More information will come as plans are finalized ahead of the upcoming legislative session, Meyers Sackett said. Tuesday was the first day bills could be pre-filed. The session’s opening day is Jan. 17.

There is no single model for a health care authority, Weber said. She pointed to examples of health authorities in Oregon, Washington, and Oklahoma.

“It’s very dependent on what the particular interests are in terms of looking at the system and challenges for that particular state,” she said.

Lujan Grisham on Dec. 30 appointed Patrick M. Allen as New Mexico’s newest health secretary. Allen resigned from his post at the Oregon Health Authority one month after the Willamette Week reported that all three candidates for that state’s governor agreed the Oregon Health Authority was the state agency most in need of additional oversight.

Lujan Grisham announced the proposal for a New Mexico Authority right after saying in her speech that every New Mexican is entitled to “achieve freedom from addiction and mental illness” and that “we should treat high-quality health care as a fundamental right.”

New Mexico’s behavioral health care system still has not recovered after former Gov. Susana Martinez caused many providers to shut down a decade ago.

“We will approach opioid addiction as the epidemic it is, fighting tooth and nail to provide life-saving services to victims and families who have been torn apart by this horrific disease,” Lujan Grisham said. “We must approach the expansion of behavioral health care — including substance abuse treatment — as an urgent moral priority.”

The governor’s address also touched on better health outcomes expected as a result of the state’s investments in free universal child care and pre-kindergarten education.

She said she will also ask state lawmakers to “increase our public school budget this year to cover all health care premium costs for all educators and school workers.”

New Mexico to get final settlement dollars for Gold King Mine spill - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico 

It’s been more than seven years since the Animas and San Juan Rivers turned various shades of yellow from toxic waste runoff in the Gold King Mine that was released by federal contractors into the streams.

In that time, New Mexico has won in court about $48 million in damages from companies and the federal government responsible for the spill. That includes a recent $5 million settlement with the contractors hired to do mine clean up in the area, who sparked a chain of events that led to bedrock collapse in 2015, spilling 3 million gallons of mine wastewater and toxic metals.

The final agreement went into effect Dec. 21 between the New Mexico attorney general, N.M. Office of Natural Resources Trustee and the contractors, Environmental Restoration LLC and Weston Solutions. It ends the state’s yearslong litigation efforts seeking compensation for damage from the pollution.

While the state awaits a court order to receive this new round of money, the settlement shuts down any further legal action or lawsuits the state could’ve taken against the contractors.

The agreement also covers any potential future harm or damage caused by the spill that the state could find in the future.

This latest settlement comes after New Mexico agencies reached a $32 million settlement with the federal government in early 2022, and another $11 million settlement with mining companies in late 2021.

After the spill contaminated drinking water, halted irrigation and decreased recreational activity in northwestern New Mexico, the state’s Environment Department and Attorney General’s Office sued the EPA, specific mine owners and contractors in 2016.

Some repair work is already underway with the older settlement dollars. For instance, former Attorney General Hector Balderas awarded nearly $4.3 million in grant funding in December for natural resource recovery, and the Office of Natural Resources Trustee has committed $1 million to farming and outdoor recreation projects in northwestern New Mexico.

In the most recent settlement, the contractors will give $3 million to New Mexico’s AG’s Office. Attorney General Raúl Torrez will be responsible for allocating the money to communities recovering from damage, according to a December news release. The release says the funding will also go toward boosting law enforcement that prevents environmental contamination or prosecutes those responsible.

The settlement dollars will cover legal costs that the state has accumulated in its litigation efforts related to the spill, too, according to the release.

Office of Natural Resources Trustee Maggie Hart Stebbins will oversee the other $2 million, which will be used to restore or replace damaged natural resources, such as rivers and watersheds.

Natural Resources staff are also going through 17 project proposals seeking funding from the $10 million EPA settlement pot allocated to the office in 2022. A plan should be available for public comment by March, according to the news release.

“There is more work to be done, and we will continue to seek public input so that funding decisions reflect the needs of residents along the San Juan and Animas Rivers,” Hart Stebbins said in a statement.

New Mexico lawmakers have voiced concern that none of this money is going straight to the individuals affected by the spill. Allocating dollars to them would’ve previously violated the state’s anti-donation clause, but voters passed a constitutional amendment that now allows the state to invest in essential services like water.

AG spokesperson Lauren Rodriguez said the settlement funding will still indirectly help individuals, though she didn’t say that any of the funds would be given head-on to them.

“The settlement restricts those funds to be used in the area of the spill,” she said.

Biden intends to make his first visit to US-Mexico border - By Seung Min Kim And Colleen Long Associated Press

President Joe Biden said Wednesday he intends to visit the U.S.-Mexico border — his first since taking office — in connection with his meeting next week in Mexico City with the leaders of Mexico and Canada.

"That's my intention, we're working out the details now," Biden told reporters during a trip to Kentucky.

Biden said upon his return to the White House that he hoped to see "what's going on" at the border and also planned to make remarks about border security on Thursday.

There have been large increases in the number of migrants at the border even as a U.S. public health law remains in place that allows American authorities to turn away many people seeking asylum in the United States. Republican leaders have criticized the president for policies that they say are ineffective on border security and they have questioned why he has not made a trip there yet.

Immigration will be among the top talking points at the summit Monday and Tuesday when Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are hosted by Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Early in his presidency, Biden put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of the White House effort to tackle the migration challenge at the border and work with Central American nations to address central causes of the problem. She visited El Paso, Texas, in June 2021 and was criticized for choosing a location too far from the epicenter of border crossings that straining federal resources.

For now, the Supreme Court has for now kept in place Trump-era restrictions, often known as Title 42 in reference to a 1944 public health law, after Biden acted to end them and Republicans sued in response. Title 42 was invoked to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but there always has been criticism that the restrictions were used as a pretext by then-President Donald Trump to seal off the border.

The Biden administration has yet to lay out any systemic changes to manage an expected surge of migrants should the restrictions end. In Congress, a bipartisan immigration bill was buried shortly before Republicans assumed control of the House.

Biden made his comment about the upcoming visit during a stop in Kentucky at a highway bridge that is receiving federal dollars under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Trump visited the U.S. side of the border as president several times times, including one trip to McAllen, Texas, where he claimed Mexico would pay for the border wall.

American taxpayers ended up covering the costs. Mexican leaders had flatly rejected the idea when Trump pressed them early on. "NO," Enrique Peña Nieto, then Mexico's president, tweeted in May 2018. "Mexico will NEVER pay for a wall. Not now, not ever. Sincerely, Mexico (all of us)."

Fresno State edges last unbeaten team in No. 21 New Mexico - Associated Press

Isaih Moore scored 16 points and Fresno State beat the last unbeaten team in the nation, topping No. 21 New Mexico 71-67 on Tuesday night.

Isaiah Hill added 14 points, making three free throws in the final seconds to wrap up the victory for the Bulldogs (6-8, 2-1 Mountain West).

"It's definitely a physical fight tonight," Hill said. "It came down to some free throws, and we had to make them."

Jemarl Baker added 13 points and five assists, and 6-foot-11 Eduardo Andre, averaging just over four points a game, scored a career-high 12 and had eight rebounds.

"This group has been working really hard, and they stick with it, and that's what it's about, right?" Fresno State coach Justin Hutson said. " To continue to stick with it, stick through the good times and bad times. We've had some defeats that we didn't like."

After sitting out for over nine minutes of the second half with four fouls, Andre returned with 20 seconds left and the Bulldogs leading 70-67. He blocked a layup by Jamal Mashburn Jr. and grabbed the rebound, leading to Hill's final free throws.

The Lobos came in as the last remaining unbeaten Division I team after No. 1 Purdue's loss to Rutgers on Monday. The 14-0 start was their best since a school-record 17-0 in 1967-68.

"I told the team we have to keep it in perspective," Lobos coach Richard Pitino said. "We are 14-1. It's been an unbelievable run to go two months without a loss. It is tough to win on the road, especially in conference. We will try not to get too emotional about this, but just get back home and learn from it."

Mashburn finished with 22 points for New Mexico (14-1, 2-1). Morris Udeze added 18 and Jaelen House had 15.

"It kind of went the other way than some of those close games that we won at the end," Pitino said. "They made one or two plays more than us, one or two more free throws than us. The game went the way I thought it would go. They slowed down the pace."

There were 19 lead changes and 13 ties in a game in which neither team led by more than eight. Moore made the go-ahead basket with 1:30 to go after Josiah Allick had given the Lobos their final lead on two free throws. The Lobos didn't have a field goal over the final 4:30.

Fresno State led 36-32 at halftime but the Lobos quickly overtook the Bulldogs in the opening minutes of the second half. The Bulldogs regained the lead with eight minutes left and the game went back-and-forth from there.

Fresno State snapped a 28-game losing streak to teams in The Associated Press Top 25, the last victory coming over No. 14 Oklahoma State on Feb. 10, 2002.

The Bulldogs have won the last seven meetings with the Lobos and the eight straight on their home court.

HOUSE-FUL OF SCORERS

House became the fourth member of his extended family to score 1,000 career points. His father, Eddie, had 2,044 career points from 1997-00 at Arizona State; grandfather Henry Bibby scored 1,293 points from 1970-72 at UCLA and uncle Mike Bibby scored 1,061 points at Arizona (1997-98).

UP NEXT

New Mexico: Hosts UNLV on Saturday night.

Fresno State: At Colorado State on Saturday.

Official: Driver in crash that killed 2 was above DUI limit - By Ken Ritter Associated Press

A Las Vegas woman had a blood-alcohol level nearly twice Nevada's legal limit when her SUV struck and killed a New Mexico couple crossing a busy street last week near downtown Las Vegas casinos, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Mykael Lanice-Lynn Terrell, 28, was arrested at her apartment shortly after the Dec. 28 crash that killed William Clayton Baxter Jr. and Kristie Eileen Baxter of Hobbs, New Mexico. Police said in an arrest report that Terrell "denied drinking any alcohol or using any marijuana products."

However, a blood sample obtained a short time later showed Terrell's blood-alcohol percent was 0.15%, prosecutor Eric Bauman told The Associated Press. Bauman did not immediately say if Terrell was believed to have used marijuana.

Terrell is free on $100,000 bond. She made a brief appearance Wednesday before a Las Vegas judge who assigned a deputy public defender to her case and warned Terrell not to violate strict terms of release, including a ban on driving and electronic location monitoring.

The public defender, Talia Walkenshaw, did not immediately respond later to a message from the AP.

Terrell faces six felony charges, including two counts of driving under the influence causing death that each carry a mandatory minimum sentence of two to 20 years in state prison. The other charges are reckless driving causing death and failure to stop at the scene of a fatal crash.

She was not asked Wednesday to enter a plea. Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure set her next court date for Jan. 18.

In the police arrest report, an emergency medical technician told investigators he was parked with a police officer in a DUI response van about a block south of the crash scene at 4th and Fremont streets when he saw a red SUV later linked to Terrell driving "at a high rate of speed" up 4th Street, passing a car and nearly hitting another pedestrian moments before the Baxters were struck.

Police said the couple was crossing 4th Street against a "don't walk" signal. The intersection, with a marked walkway beneath traffic signals, is often crowded with people making their way among casinos, stores, kiosks, bars and restaurants beneath a four-block-long lighted video canopy.

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.

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."

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.

New Mexico governor will undergo knee replacement surgery - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will travel to Washington to undergo knee replacement surgery, her office announced Tuesday.

Lujan Grisham was scheduled to depart Tuesday and return next week after the replacement of her right knee with an artificial joint.

She consulted with an orthopedic surgeon in September after aggravating a previous injury.

The 63-year-old Democrat started her second term Sunday at an inauguration ceremony.

The knee condition hasn't stopped the Lujan Grisham from walking at routine public events and delivering public addresses while standing in recent months, though she was seated during at least one televised campaign debate.

The Legislature convenes on Jan. 17 at noon for a 60 day session. The governor typically delivers a State of the State address to inaugurate the annual legislative session.

The governor says she hopes to advance initiatives during her second term on childhood education, affordable housing and opioid addiction, while codifying rights to abortion access.