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FRI: No mask or vax needed for roundhouse, Leg aims to end abortion bans, + More

The New Mexico Capitol will be open to the public and exhibits, performance, and tours will be allowed. Those activities were prohibited in the last session.
Shaun Griswold
Source New Mexico
The New Mexico Capitol will be open to the public and exhibits, performance, and tours will be allowed. Those activities were prohibited in the last session.

Health and safety measures to expect at the Roundhouse in 2023 - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico 

During the 2023 legislative session, it’s looking like there will be no requirement for vaccination against COVID-19 to enter the Roundhouse, nor any requirement to wear masks.

Rules specific to the two legislative chambers around COVID safety from previous sessions will not carry over into this year’s 60-day session beginning Jan. 17, according to the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

The Roundhouse will be open to the public and exhibits, performance, and tours will be allowed, said Camille Ward, spokesperson for House Democrats. Those activities were prohibited in the last session, she said.

In the first week of January, 2,700 people died from COVID in the U.S. As many as 23 million are suffering from Long COVID, with 45% of COVID cases – including in children – leading to lingering symptoms.

Chris Nordstrum, spokesperson for the Senate Majority Office, said any COVID-related rules in that chamber will have to be newly adopted by lawmakers very early on, likely during the first day.

Those rules were still being drafted and discussed as of Thursday, he said. The same is true for the House of Representatives, Ward said.

Staff and some lawmakers will be wearing masks, said Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service.

“I would encourage people to wear masks, but I understand that some do not like to wear them for any number of reasons,” he said.

Consideration for others will need to be weighed by anyone walking into the Roundhouse.

One might want to wear a mask when walking into the office of someone who is already wearing one, Burciaga said.

Committee meetings will be public, meet in person, and also webcast.

Committee chairs will have discretion over procedures for remote participation, Nordstrum said.

“The intent will be to allow any senator who tests positive to participate remotely while they isolate per CDC guidelines,” he said.

Burciaga said the Roundhouse’s HVAC system is “fairly sophisticated,” with ultraviolet light that kills bacteria and viruses in the air coming in from the outside. He did not know whether the HVAC system filters the air, or the minimum efficiency reporting value of any filters that might be used.


After a string of shootings at politicians’ homes and offices in Albuquerque over the last month, contact info for legislators — home phone numbers and work addresses — were scrubbed from the Roundhouse’s website. But additional security measures during the coming session that starts on Tuesday aren’t in play.

As things stand, lawmakers in November 2021 banned the public and themselves from carrying firearms into the Roundhouse, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. All entrances have also had metal detectors since then, Burciaga said.

For any joint meeting of the House and Senate, staff will scan people for weapons, he said. Like every session, the New Mexico State Police will be there, too.

New Mexico lawmakers seek to prohibit local abortion bans — Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Local governments across New Mexico would be prohibited from placing restrictions on abortion access under initiatives outlined by Democratic state legislators Friday.

A companion initiative aims to protect doctors who perform abortion and patients from harassment and investigations by out-of-state interests.

The two legislative proposals, still in the drafting stage, would shore up abortion rights across the Democratic-led state in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year that overturned Roe v. Wade and left legalization up to the states.

In 2021, New Mexico lawmakers repealed a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures. But the city of Hobbs in the state's southeast has adopted an ordinance designed to block abortion clinics from operating, and at least one nearby county has approved an anti-abortion resolution.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said the initiatives outlined Friday are a direct response.

The aim is to "prohibit public bodies, including local municipalities, from denying, restricting or discriminating against an individual's right to use or refuse reproductive health care, or health care related to gender," Wirth said.

State Sen. Linda Lopez said in a statement that she will sponsor a bill that would provide accountability for organizations that share personal medical information related to reproductive health care.

That builds on an executive order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham barring cooperation with other states that might interfere with abortion access in New Mexico, including any possible arrest warrants or requests for assistance and information in seeking sanctions against local abortion providers.

Lujan Grisham won reelection in November while casting herself as a staunch defender of abortion access and vowing to channel $10 million in public funding toward the construction of a reproductive health care clinic in southern New Mexico that will offer the procedure.

Republicans in New Mexico's legislative minority have characterized as extremist state laws that protect access to abortion at all stages of pregnancy.

Tiger cub found in crate to stay at ABQ BioPark for 30 days — Associated Press

A Bengal tiger cub found by Albuquerque police in a dog crate is being cared for by the ABQ BioPark zoo, but only for the next month.

Zoo officials tell KOAT-TV the animal, which is estimated to be 3 months old, is very "people-oriented."

"It's not something like a tiger that we want for us," said Lynn Tupa, zoo manager.

Furthermore, the 20-pound cub will eventually grow to be 400 pounds with long claws that can easily kill.

All new animals at the zoo have to undergo a 30-day quarantine period. Meanwhile, Tupa says the zoo is committed to working with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to find the tiger a permanent home.

Officers served search warrants Tuesday on two residences in response to tips that a tiger was being illegally held at one of them.

Police said a man was found at a mobile home with a gunshot wound on one of his legs and may have been struck by a stray bullet.

Officers spotted a blood trail and followed it to an unlocked trailer and that's where the tiger was found inside the dog crate.

New Mexico bans residents from keeping tigers as pets and federal law now prohibits private owners from keeping tigers as pets or for breeding purposes.

It is not the same animal sought since least year.

The department sought the public's help to find a young tiger that had been whisked away last summer from an Albuquerque-area house where police reported finding drugs, guns, cash and a 3-foot alligator.

Authorities say the tiger from August is believed to be more than a year old and likely weighs 50-90 pounds.

New Mexico lawmakers seek preschool expansion with oil money - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Leading New Mexico legislators recommended a billion-dollar increase Thursday in annual state spending to expand preschool access and increase mandatory classroom instruction time at K-12 public schools.

The budget proposal would increase general fund spending by 12%, or just over $1 billion, to $9.4 billion for the fiscal year that runs from July 2023 to June 2024.

That tally hews closely to a budget plan from Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at the start of her second term in office. The Legislature convenes Tuesday to craft the state's annual budget during a 60-day legislative session.

The Legislature's proposal, announced at a news conference, suggests a slightly higher, 5% increase in public-sector salaries for state employees and educators. The governor is seeking 4% raises and wants to state to pay for individual health insurance premiums for teachers.

New Mexico's government expects a windfall in revenue tied closely to surging oil and natural gas production. Government economists anticipate the state will take in $12 billion during the coming fiscal year.

Annual spending on prekindergarten would increase by nearly $110 million, with an additional $8 million dedicated to home visits and counseling for parents of infants to improve early childhood well-being.

"We really recognize how important it is to invest in our children in New Mexico, especially in those early years when so much brain development occurs," said Democratic state Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City. "That really sets the foundation for children for the rest of their lives."

Lawmakers are wary of spending commitments that would turn into liabilities when energy prices falter. An industry downturn in 2016 prompted the Legislature to slash funding to state universities and increase entrance fees at public museums. State government income has nearly doubled since then, propelled by record-setting oil production.

New Mexico already is scheduled to set aside more than $3 billion in surplus oil- and gas-related income this fiscal year in a recently created trust to underwrite early childhood education. Legislators say they want to replicate that model — using investment earnings to underwrite state spending — for other government priorities related to public health, infrastructure and more.

"You're going to hear a lot of different funds," said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat. "Park money, do a spinoff on an annual basis, and all of a sudden you've got something that's really sustainable."

At the same time, lawmakers are under pressure from voters and a court order to spend more on public education. The latest standardized test results showed just 26% of students in third through eighth grades were proficient in math and only 34% were proficient in reading.

Voters in November approved a constitutional amendment to increase annual withdrawals from a $26 billion state trust for public education that predates the early childhood education fund.

General fund spending on Medicaid would increase by $258 million — or nearly 22% — under the Legislature's budget outline, as the federal government phases out extra payments liked the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legislators hope to devote at least $76 million to increasing payment rates for medical care providers under Medicaid insurance.

"We've got doctors leaving the state," said Republican state Rep. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena. "Increasing the Medicaid reimbursement rate is at the top of our priority list."

Proposed spending increases on public safety include 18 new staff positions to bolster police training and oversight, including personnel for a new Law Enforcement Certification Board created under 2022 legislation.

Legislators also are suggesting at least $1 billion in tax relief through a combination of cash rebates and changes to tax rates.

Lujan Grisham is recommending $1 billion in tax rebates of up to $750 per individual and companion tax cuts.

US nuclear agency falls short on scheduling, cost estimates - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The U.S. agency in charge of jumpstarting the production of key components for the nation's nuclear arsenal is falling short when it comes to having a comprehensive schedule for the multibillion-dollar project.

The Government Accountability Office said in a report released Thursday that plans by the National Nuclear Security Administration for reestablishing plutonium pit production do not follow best practices and run the risk of delays and cost overruns.

The federal government has not manufactured plutonium cores regularly in more than 30 years and faces a congressionally mandated deadline of turning out at least 80 per year by 2030.

The GAO describes the modernization effort as the agency's largest investment in weapons production infrastructure to date, noting that plutonium is a dangerous material and making the weapon cores is difficult and time consuming.

"NNSA lacks both a comprehensive cost estimate and a schedule outlining all activities it needs to achieve this capability," the reports states.

Nuclear watchdog groups have been voicing similar concerns since the federal government first announced plans in 2018 to restart production by splitting the work between Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

At stake are billions of dollars in funding for improving infrastructure at the two locations and thousands of jobs.

Democratic members of New Mexico's congressional delegation have fought to ensure Los Alamos — a once secret city that helped develop the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project — would be among the benefactors of the lucrative mission.

Using documents prepared by the nuclear agency for justifying its fiscal year 2023 budget, the GAO identified at least $18 billion to $24 billion in potential costs to build up production capacity.

However, the GAO, other independent analysts and officials in the U.S. Defense Department all have testified in recent years that NNSA would miss the 2030 deadline, no matter how much funding was funneled toward the project.

The NNSA said in a statement Thursday that it agreed with the GAO's recommendations and that some of the work to implement best practices was underway.

"Both the lifecycle cost estimate data and (integrated master schedule) will be updated as needed to reflect the most up-to-date information as the projects and program work progress," the agency said.

More specifically, the agency said in a letter to the GAO that it planned to complete the cost estimate for the overall project by September 2025 and that the schedule would "continue to mature over time."

Greg Mello, director of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, said Thursday that not having a comprehensive schedule or cost estimate means NNSA does not know what it's doing and has little likelihood of success.

"How can NNSA produce the required number of pits on schedule or on budget, when NNSA has no schedule or budget?" he asked. "These are elementary, normal components in any program or project. After more than two decades of preparation, NNSA doesn't have them."

Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, pointed to some of the price tags associated with the project having doubled over the last four years. He said production overall at the two sites could cost at least $60 billion over 30 years with radioactive waste disposal and other environmental and public health concerns adding to the bill.

Until Congress and the New Mexican delegation demand credible cost estimates and schedules, Coghlan said lawmakers "should stop rewarding the guilty with yet more money."

"That is simple good governance that could help slow our sleepwalk into the new and unpredictable nuclear arms race," he said.

Mello agreed, saying the mission needs to be widely debated in Congress, not just discussed behind closed doors or by those lawmakers who sit on defense committees.

In its report, the GAO outlined the process for making plutonium pits along with a history of how and where the work was done during the Cold War. The long-shuttered Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was capable of producing more than 1,000 war reserve pits annually before work stopped in 1989 due to environmental and regulatory concerns.

With a long history of leaks, fires and other violations, Rocky Flats underwent a $7 billion cleanup that was finished in 2005.

During the Obama administration, a council made up of defense and energy officials told Congress the nation needed to produce between 50 and 80 pits per year. Congress included a legal mandate for production in a 2015 defense measure that was subsequently approved and signed by the president.

That mandate was later amended to call for the 80 pits in 2030. According to the GAO, some of the construction projects and upgrades needed for the work at Los Alamos won't be finished for several years.

US renames 5 places that used racist slur for a Native woman - By Trisha Ahmed Associated Press/Report For America

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced Thursday that it has given new names to five places that previously included a racist term for a Native American woman.

The renamed sites are in California, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas, completing a yearlong process to remove the historically offensive word "squaw" from geographic names across the country.

"Words matter, particularly in our work to ensure our nation's public lands and waters are accessible and welcoming to people of all backgrounds," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. She called the word "harmful."

Haaland, who took office in 2021, is the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

In September, the Interior Department announced its final vote on proposals to change the names of nearly 650 sites that contained the word. The agency conducted an additional review of seven locations, all of which were considered unincorporated populated places. Five of those were changed in Thursday's announcement.

In western North Dakota, the new name Homesteaders Gap was selected by members of a small community as a nod to their local history.

Mark Fox, tribal chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, welcomed the change, telling The Bismarck Tribune that the slur "really causes serious and strong emotions and resistance to that term." In a statement to The Associated Press, he said it was long overdue, and "we are pleased that the racially insensitive and offensive name has been removed."

But Joel Brown, a member of the McKenzie County Board of Commissioners, said many residents in the area "felt very strongly" in opposition to the switch. Brown, who is white, said he and others prefer as little interference from the federal government as possible because "generally we find they're disconnected from what the culture and economy are out here."

Two other newly named places are the California Central Valley communities of Loybas Hill, which translates to "Young Lady," proposed by the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians; and Yokuts Valley.

The others are Partridgeberry, Tennessee, and Lynn Creek, Texas.

The decision has long precedent. The Interior Department ordered the renaming of places with derogatory terms for Black and Japanese people in 1962 and 1974, respectively.

Last year alone, authorities renamed 28 Wisconsin sites to remove a racist word, a panel recommended the name change of a Colorado mountain tied to a massacre, and the federal government renamed hundreds of peaks, lakes, streams and other geographical features with racist and misogynistic terms.

Lujan Grisham appoints new secretary for veteran’s services — Albuquerque Journal/ KUNM News

The Governor appointed a retired army colonel Thursday to head the state’s Department of Veteran Services.

TheAlbuquerque Journal reports Donnie Quintana served as deputy secretary, and has already run the department since his predecessor, Sonya Smith, left the position late last year.

He has also served the state in the Economic Development, and Finance and Administration departments.

During the war in Afghanistan, he served as a senior mentor to the Afghan National Army, and he spent time as brigade commander in the New Mexico National Guard.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said his extensive and varied experience, and his expertise as both a Native New Mexican and military veteran make him an excellent candidate.

Though, as he takes over job duties immediately, he does still have to run through state senate confirmation along with the governor’s other new appointees.

US launches online system to seek asylum on Mexican border - By Elliot Spagat Associated Press

The Biden administration on Thursday launched an online appointment system as the only way for migrants to get exceptions from pandemic-era limits on asylum — the U.S. government's latest major step in eight days to overhaul border enforcement.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection began allowing migrants to make appointments up to two weeks out using its website and through CBPOne, a mobile app that the agency has used in limited ways since 2020. CBPOne is replacing an opaque, bewildering patchwork of exemptions to a public health order known as Title 42 under which the government has denied migrants' U.S. and international rights to claim asylum since March 2020.

Until now, CBP has arranged exemptions through advocates, churches, attorneys and migrant shelters, without publicly identifying them or saying how many slots were available. The advocates have chosen who gets in, with CBP having final say.

Under the new system, migrants apply directly to the agency and a government official will determine who gets in. Their appointments will be at one of eight crossings — at Brownsville, El Paso, Hidalgo and Laredo in Texas; Nogales, Arizona; and Calexico and San Diego in California.

Exemptions for Title 42 are meant to go to the most vulnerable migrants.

Thursday's rollout is separate from measures announced last week to expel migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to Mexico under Title 42 and — at the same time — allow up to 30,000 migrants from those four countries to be admitted to the United States every month under humanitarian parole for two years if they apply online, pay their airfare and provide a financial sponsor.

While the administration previously signaled that it would introduce CBPOne for people seeking asylum at land border crossings with Mexico, the speed of change caught advocates off-guard.

"Utter and complete confusion," said Priscilla Orta, an attorney at Lawyers For Good Government's Project Corazon in Texas' Rio Grande Valley.

U.S. officials told advocates Friday they expected the app to be ready in a month, Orta said. Then on Monday, advocates were informed the rollout had been moved up to this week.

Under Title 42, the U.S. has expelled migrants 2.5 million times since March 2020 on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. To qualify for an exemption under CBPOne, migrants must have a physical or mental illness, disability, pregnancy, lack housing, face a threat of harm, or must be under 21 years old or over 70.

The government's app is currently available only in English and Spanish and requires access to a smartphone, email and reliable internet.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, a Florida Democrat and Haitian American, expressed concern that the app wasn't available in Haiti's primary languages, Creole and French. Officials say a Creole version will be added soon.

The Homeland Security Department said the app will be available to migrants in central and northern Mexico. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement that it allows people "to seek protection in a safe, orderly, and humane manner and to strengthen the security of our borders."

It's the administration's latest attempt to address extraordinarily high numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, many of whom are fleeing inequality and violence at home. U.S. authorities stopped migrants 2.38 million times in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up 37% from 1.73 million times during an unusually busy 2021.

Savitri Arvey, a senior policy adviser at the Women's Refugee Commission, said she struggled to explain all the recent policy changes to migrants during a visit to Monterrey, Mexico.

"It was just impossible in (migrant) shelters," she said Thursday. "'There's this option for you, Venezuelans but not for you, Central Americans,'" she said.

Some advocates welcomed the new system for seeking exemptions, saying it the old one was rife with favoritism and prone to corruption. CBP began working with advocacy groups to select people who are exempt from Title 42 during President Joe Biden's first year in office.

Albert Rivera, director of the Agape Mision Mundial shelter in Tijuana, said he previously didn't have the connections to help migrants get exemptions, but on Thursday a Mexican woman at his shelter was able to sign up for an online appointment.

"We feel excited," said Rivera said. "Everything was a monopoly."

Last month, The Associated Press reported that Calvary Church in the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista was getting 40 exemptions a day and doling them out to people who paid $1,800 each or $3,500 for a married couple. Asylum is supposed to be free and intended for those most in need. About a week after the AP story ran, the church-linked group that facilitated exemptions, Most V USA, said CBP decided to stop working with it.

CBP has been giving 180 exemptions a day in San Diego, Enrique Lucero, director of migrant affairs for Tijuana, Mexico, said this week. El Paso, Texas, was said to be getting 70 exemptions a day.

New Mexico lawmakers aim to attract hydrogen investments - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico state lawmakers will consider public incentives aimed at attracting investments in hydrogen production and distribution as a potential new source of industrial employment and an alternative for vehicles and factories that rely on climate-warming fossil fuels, as the legislature convenes next week.

Democratic state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, the lead House budget negotiator, said Wednesday she will introduce a bill in coming weeks aimed at setting aside money for public-private partnerships for hydrogen projects.

New Mexico has teamed up with Wyoming, Utah and Colorado to vie for a slice of federal funds set aside to support regional hydrogen hubs that would step up hydrogen production and distribution. State cabinet secretaries provided an update to a legislative panel Wednesday at the state Capitol.

Lundstrom says her initiative is aimed at giving New Mexico a competitive edge in its bid to attract federal and private investments.

"State government would put money into a pot that can be used in conjunction with private sector projects for buildout," Lundstrom said. "We see (hydrogen) as a bridge fuel to meet our renewable energy standards."

A similar proposal from Lundstrom last year stalled amid withering criticism from environmentalists who are wary of the impacts of producing hydrogen from natural gas, a process that creates greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide. They say hydrogen production can prolong dependence on fossil fuels and worry about plans to store carbon pollution underground.

Democratic state State Rep. Nathan Small of Las Cruces and state environmental regulators emphasized that recent federal legislation gives preference to cleaner methods of hydrogen projects. He said federal hydrogen production incentives will vastly overshadow anything New Mexico can contribute.

Climate legislation signed last year by President Joe Biden offers a tax credit intended to make clean hydrogen more competitive. The 2021 federal infrastructure law included $8 billion for the U.S. Department of Energy to fund the regional hubs.

Legislators are desperately searching for new sources of employment as New Mexico reels from the recent retirement of coal-fired power plants, amid efforts to fight climate change by requiring more carbon-free sources of electricity.

Hydrogen could theoretically reduce greenhouse emissions and air pollution, depending on how it's obtained.

Most commercially produced hydrogen in the U.S. comes from natural gas, which emits greenhouse pollutants carbon dioxide and methane.

Hydrogen also can be derived using electric currents from wind, solar or other means that produce few if any emissions contributing to global warming. Such "clean hydrogen" releases only water as a byproduct when used in a fuel cell.