THURS: New Mexicans warned that extra federal food aid will end, + More
New Mexicans warned that extra federal food aid will end - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
More than half a million New Mexicans will see the amount of money they have to spend on groceries each month shrink significantly when the U.S. government cuts off extra aid that had been doled out during the coronavirus pandemic.
Top public health officials in the poverty-stricken state issued the warning Thursday, saying it will take a mix of short- and long-term efforts to fill the gaps that will be created when the extra food assistance ends after next month.
New Mexico has one of the highest rates in the nation for food insecurity among children, putting the state at the top of the list when it comes to the percentage of residents and families who receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
That means there will be more pressure on food banks that already are dealing with long lines, fewer donations and higher prices due to inflation, officials and advocates said.
"We're doing what we can in the face of the short notice of the feds cutting this emergency benefit. We didn't think it would come this soon, but it has," said Dr. David Scrase, head of the New Mexico Human Services Department.
Scrase said some of the longer term solutions to strengthen the safety net would involve funneling more money toward school meals, making food accessible to children during the summer months and bolstering access for low-income families to fruits and vegetables at local farmers' markets.
Karmela Martinez, director of the agency's income support division, said it's a problem that not just one agency or one food pantry can solve.
Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot in Santa Fe, also raised concerns that the federal government will be curbing funding that supports The Emergency Food Assistance Program, another key emergency food assistance program that New Mexicans rely on.
That program was responsible for distributing more than 11.6 million pounds of food to 385,000 families for the year ending June 2022, she said.
State officials provided some examples of how much of a decrease families and individuals could see following the final distribution of extra benefits in February. Two parents and a child could see their allotment drop from $740 per month to $335, but officials stressed it will depend on the size of the family and their income.
The advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children is pushing for lawmakers to increase by nearly four-fold an existing state $175 child tax credit, saying that would help to offset the loss of the extra federal benefits and address the continued financial fallout from the pandemic for low-income families.
The legislative session began Tuesday. In her address to lawmakers, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would pursue funding to eliminate the cost of school meals for every child in the state, another step that officials in her administration said would help fill the gap.
New Mexico shooting case revives pretrial detention debate - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
A felon and failed political candidate suspected of orchestrating a series of drive-by shootings at the homes of four elected Democrat officials in New Mexico will be due in court next week for a detention hearing.
Solomon Peña remains in custody pending a Jan. 23 hearing at which prosecutors will argue that he is a danger to the community and that no conditions of release would be enough to ensure public safety given the allegations outlined in a criminal complaint.
Prosecutors in a motion filed Wednesday said Peña's actions "show what lengths he is willing to go when he is dissatisfied with reality."
Peña was unsuccessful in his GOP bid for the New Mexico statehouse in November. He had claimed the election was rigged despite the district being a longtime Democratic stronghold.
Authorities arrested Peña on Monday, accusing the political newcomer of paying for a father and son and two other unidentified men to shoot at the officials' homes between early December and early January. No one was hurt, although bullets went through the bedroom of a state senator's 10-year-old daughter.
Police also confirmed Thursday they are investigating contributions made to Peña's campaign by one of the men accused of conspiring with Pena and that man's mother.
Detectives said they learned through witness interviews that Peña allegedly identified individuals to funnel contributions from an unknown source to his campaign, and they are trying to determine whether the money was generated from drug trafficking.
Peña appeared via video shackled for an initial court appearance Wednesday on multiple counts that include shooting at a home, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Roberta Yurcic, a defense attorney assigned to the case, has not returned messages seeking comment. She is expected to seek conditions for Peña's release during the upcoming hearing.
While an assessment based on multiple factors recommends Peña be released, it will be up a judge to decide.
The risk assessment tool has been the focus of much criticism as the public has pushed for Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to consider reforms amid Albuquerque's ongoing struggle to combat persistent violent crime and what many perceive as a "revolving door" in the criminal justice system.
Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina on Wednesday reiterated his complaints that the system is broken and the assessment tool is flawed.
"How can we require judges to use this broken tool? We need to fix this process so the public will have faith that we are keeping the community safe from dangerous criminals," the chief said in a statement.
Top court administrators in New Mexico have defended the tool, which was developed by the Arnold Foundation and is used in dozens of jurisdictions around the U.S.
Authorities identified Peña as the key suspect using a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, bullet casings collected near the officials' homes and information from a confidential witness.
Police said Peña had previously shown up uninvited at the homes of elected officials with what he claimed were documents proving that he had won his race. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, or any irregularity involving enough votes to change a result in New Mexico in 2020 or 2022.
Court records show Peña was incarcerated for several years after being arrested in 2007 in connection with what authorities described as a smash-and-grab burglary scheme that targeted retail stores. His voting rights were restored after he completed probation in 2021.
Alec Baldwin to be charged with manslaughter in set shooting - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
Actor Alec Baldwin and a weapons specialist will be charged with involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on a New Mexico movie set, prosecutors announced Thursday, citing a "criminal disregard for safety."
Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies issued a statement announcing the charges against Baldwin and Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who supervised weapons on the set of the Western "Rust."
Halyna Hutchins died shortly after being wounded during rehearsals at a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe on Oct. 21, 2021. Baldwin was pointing a pistol at Hutchins when the gun went off, killing her and wounding the director, Joel Souza.
Assistant director David Halls, who handed Baldwin the gun, has signed an agreement to plead guilty to negligent use of a deadly weapon, the district attorney's office said.
The decision to charge Baldwin marked a stunning fall for an A-list actor whose 40-year career included the early blockbuster "The Hunt for Red October" and a starring role in the sitcom "30 Rock," as well as iconic appearances in Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and a film adaptation of David Mamet's "Glengary Glen Ross." In recent years, he was known for his impression of former President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live."
Involuntary manslaughter can involve a killing that happens while a defendant is doing something that is lawful but dangerous and is acting negligently or without caution.
The charge is a fourth-degree felony, punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine under New Mexico law. The charges also include a provision that could result in a mandatory five years in prison because the offense was committed with a gun.
Carmack-Altwies said charges will be filed by the end of January, and that Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed will be issued a summons to appear in court. She said prosecutors will forgo a grand jury and rely on a judge to determine if there is probable cause to move toward trial.
Andrea Reeb, a special prosecutor on the case, cited a "pattern of criminal disregard for safety" on the set.
"If any one of these three people — Alec Baldwin, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed or David Halls — had done their job, Halyna Hutchins would be alive today. It's that simple," said Reeb, also a newly sworn Republican state legislator.
Baldwin's attorney said the charges represented "a terrible miscarriage of justice."
The actor "had no reason to believe there was a live bullet in the gun — or anywhere on the movie set. He relied on the professionals with whom he worked, who assured him the gun did not have live rounds. We will fight these charges, and we will win," Luke Nikas said in a statement.
An attorney for Gutierrez-Reed said the charges were "the result of a very flawed investigation and an inaccurate understanding of the full facts."
"We intend to bring the full truth to light and believe Hannah will be exonerated of wrongdoing by a jury," Jason Bowles said.
It was unclear when Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed might be required to appear in court in Santa Fe once charges are filed. Defendants can participate remotely in many initial court proceedings or seek to have their first appearance waived.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza, who led the initial investigation into Hutchins' death, has described "a degree of neglect" on the film set. But he left decisions about potential criminal charges to prosecutors after delivering the results of a yearlong investigation in October. That report did not specify how live ammunition wound up on the film set.
Baldwin has described the killing as a "tragic accident."
He sought to clear his name by suing people involved in handling and supplying the loaded gun. Baldwin, also a co-producer on "Rust," said he was told the gun was safe.
In his lawsuit, Baldwin said that while working on camera angles with Hutchins, he pointed the gun in her direction and pulled back and released the hammer of the weapon, which discharged.
New Mexico's Office of the Medical Investigator determined the shooting was an accident following the completion of an autopsy and a review of law enforcement reports.
New Mexico's Occupational Health and Safety Bureau levied the maximum fine against Rust Movie Productions, based on a scathing narrative of safety failures, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires of blank ammunition on the set prior to the fatal shooting.
Rust Movie Productions continues to challenge the basis of a $137,000 fine by regulators who say production managers on the set failed to follow standard industry protocols for gun safety.
The armorer who oversaw firearms on the set, Gutierrez-Reed, has been the subject of much of the scrutiny in the case, along with an independent ammunition supplier. An attorney for Gutierrez-Reed has said she did not put a live round in the gun that killed Hutchins, and she believes she was the victim of sabotage. Authorities said they found no evidence of that.
Investigators initially found 500 rounds of ammunition at the movie set — a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and what appeared to be live rounds. Industry experts have said live rounds should never be on set.
Hutchins' family — widower Matthew Hutchins and son Andros — settled a lawsuit against producers under an agreement that aims to restart filming with Matthew Hutchins serving as executive producer.
In a statement issued by their attorney, relatives thanked authorities for seeking the charges. "It is a comfort to the family that, in New Mexico, no one is above the law," they said.
"Rust" was beset by disputes from the start in early October 2021. Seven crew members walked off the set just hours before the shooting amid discord over working conditions.
Criminal charges have rarely been filed in connection with deaths on film sets.
A district attorney in North Carolina cited negligence as a factor but decided against charges in the 1993 death of Brandon Lee while filming a scene in the movie "The Crow." The son of martial-arts legend Bruce Lee was hit by a .44-caliber slug from a gun that was supposed to have fired a blank.
More recently, film director Randall Miller pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing in the death of assistant camera operator Sarah Jones, who was hit by a train in the 2014 filming of "Midnight Rider" in rural Georgia. The production did not have permission to be on the train tracks, and Miller served half of a two-year sentence.
Hutchins' death already has influenced negotiations over safety provisions in union film crew contracts with Hollywood producers. The shooting also spurred other filmmakers to minimize risks by using computer-generated imagery of gunfire rather than real weapons with blank ammunition.
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya in Albuquerque, N.M, and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Final decision on Albuquerque’s free bus fare program on hold, again - By Ryan Lowery, Source New Mexico
The fate of Albuquerque’s Zero Fares program, which allows anyone to board a bus without paying or showing a pass, will be decided at a future City Council meeting after councilors agreed Wednesday to delay a vote until next month’s meeting. This marks the fourth time the Council has deferred a vote on the matter.
Wednesday’s deferment followed a decision by the Council to combine elements of multiple bills dealing with transit services into one bill that counselors can vote on at a later date.
The combined elements of the merged legislation include provisions for things like increased security on buses and at stops, along with $1 million for security costs. It also includes plans to convert the role of transit security guards into certified law enforcement officers in order to give them more authority to enforce transit laws and policies, and to make arrests in cases where crimes have been committed. Another aim of the combined bill is to streamline access to the city’s Sun Vans, an ADA-compliant alternative to fixed-route buses.
If passed by the Council, the merged bill would essentially create a new pilot program, and at the conclusion, a study would be conducted to determine the effectiveness of the changes made to the program.
Councilors have been debating for months whether to make the Zero Fares Pilot Program permanent, issue additional stipulations or scrap it altogether. Before the launch of Zero Fares, city buses cost $1 per trip, or $2 for a day pass. Monthly passes were also available, starting around $30.
While passengers currently do not have to pay a fare or show a pass to ride a city bus, Councilors Dan Lewis and Klarissa Peña previously introduced a plan that would keep the bus free, but require a pass in order to board. Under the proposal, riders would have to complete an application and show photo identification to obtain the pass.
Opponents of requiring such a pass expressed concerns that these kinds of requirements could create barriers for people who rely on the bus for transportation.
For many, like Ivey McClelland, city buses are the most affordable way to get to work or medical appointments. McClelland lives in Albuquerque’s International District and uses the bus almost daily to get to her job in Uptown. Though the city’s buses are her main form of transportation, she occasionally uses taxis and ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, particularly on weekends when bus service is limited or unavailable. However, those are expensive alternatives to public transportation, McClelland said, often costing her more than $25 for a three-mile ride to work.
McClelland had been riding the bus for free before Zero Fares took effect through the city’s senior services, which allowed anyone 60 and older to ride for free. However, she said the Zero Fares program was still a welcomed change because her younger brother lives with her and, prior to the program, he still had to pay to ride.
“I think it’s a good thing,” she said. “I’d like to see them extend the program, because if you go back having passes, and making people pay a dollar, it inconveniences too many people, especially us seniors.”
Security on buses and at stops remains a top issue for riders and bus drivers alike, Councilor Louie Sanchez said during Wednesday’s meeting. He said he spoke with a driver who told him that during his morning route, he picks up 13 people that are headed to work, while many others use the bus for shelter. Sanchez argued that removing the $1 fare has created an increased need for security.
“We already had security in terms of having a fare,” he said. “Now that we don’t have a fare, we need to concentrate on security.”
Councilor Lewis, one of the proponents of requiring a pass for free rides, recounted a recent and widely publicized bus ride he took where he said he witnessed two people using fentanyl on the bus during his first ride in 20 years.
“I just don’t want people to get the idea somehow that our bus system is clean, and safe, and ridership is up, bus drivers are happy and everything is wonderful, because that just could not be further from the truth right now,” Lewis said.
McClelland said that personal safety is a growing concern for her, and though she used to have reservations about riding city buses at night, in recent months, at times, she’s felt unsafe even during the day.
“The thing (my brother and I) don’t like about it is all the riff-raff — the ‘entertainment,’ as we call it,” she said with a chuckle. “And I see security guards on the buses, but they’re unarmed. They’re basically just Paul Blart — observe and report.”
Still, McClelland supports the Zero Fares program and doesn’t want to see any sort of pass requirement implemented because she feels it would be too inconvenient, particularly to seniors or the disabled.
“But if they’re going to issue passes, have them at the libraries, because the library is a lot easier for people to get to,” she said.
Until the Council makes a final decision on the Zero Fares program, city buses remain free to ride, without any kind of pass or ID needed to board.
The Council will take up the issue once again during its Feb. 6 meeting.
Debate reignites as lone Mexican gray wolf roams New Mexico - Associated Press
A female Mexican gray wolf has roamed beyond the endangered species' recovery area into the more northern reaches of New Mexico, according to authorities.
That has reignited a debate over whether the predators should be confined to a certain stretch of the southwestern U.S. as wildlife managers work to boost the population.
Conservation advocates on Thursday asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to allow the wolf to continue on her journey beyond the arbitrary Interstate 40 boundary that currently limits the species' recovery.
Authorities said a recent map showed the wolf near Taos and south of the Colorado border.
The wolf, from the Rocky Prairie Pack of Arizona, has been named "Asha" by schoolchildren.
"This wolf's name, Asha, means 'hope' in Sanskrit," Mary Katherine Ray, Wildlife Chair for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. "What could be more fitting for a wolf exploring and surviving the big wide world on her own as wolves historically once did throughout the southwest?"
Wolf-livestock conflicts have been a major challenge of the reintroduction program over the past two decades, with ranchers saying the killing of livestock by wolves remains a threat to their livelihood despite efforts by wildlife managers to scare the wolves away and reimburse some of the losses.
Collared wolves have trekked north of I-40 only a handful of times since 2015, when the Mexican Wolf Experimental Population Area was established, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Environmentalists have been fighting in federal court to overturn a requirement that the Fish and Wildlife Service capture wolves that roam north of I-40.
The Mexican wolf is the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America. According to the most recent survey released in early 2022, there were at least 196 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona. It marked the sixth straight year the population had increased.
Feds send $930 million to curb 'crisis' of US West wildfires - By Matthew Brown Associated Press
The U.S. is directing $930 million toward reducing wildfire dangers in 10 western states by clearing trees and underbrush from national forests, the Biden administration announced Thursday, as officials struggle to protect communities from destructive infernos being made worse by climate change.
Under a strategy now entering its second year, the U.S. Forest Service is trying to prevent out-of-control fires that start on public lands from raging through communities. But in an interview with The Associated Press, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged that the shortage of workers that's been plaguing other sectors of the economy is hindering the agency's wildfire efforts.
He warned that "draconian" budget cuts floated by some Republicans, who control the U.S. House, could also undermine the Democratic administration's plans. Its goal is to lower wildfire risks across almost 80,000 square miles of public and private lands over the next decade.
The work is projected to cost up to $50 billion. Last year's climate and infrastructure bills combined directed about $5 billion to the effort.
"There's one big 'if,'" Vilsack said. "We need to have a good partner in Congress."
He added that fires on public lands will continue to threaten the West, after burning some 115,000 square miles over the past decade — an area larger than Arizona — and destroying about 80,000 houses, businesses and other structures, according to government statistics and the nonpartisan research group Headwaters Economics.
Almost 19,000 of those structures were torched in the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, Calif.
"It's not a matter of whether or not these forests will burn," Vilsack said. "The crisis is upon us."
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman said he was glad to see the Biden administration taking "long-overdue action" and streamlining forest management rules. But Westerman questioned why considerably more money will be spent this year even as new projects include fewer acres compared with last year, according to administration documents.
"The Forest Service is still recklessly spending valuable taxpayer dollars with little to no accountability," the Arkansas Republican said in a statement.
The sites targeted for spending in 2023 cover much of Southern California, home to 25 million people; the Klamath River Basin on the Oregon-California border; San Carlos Apache Reservation lands in Arizona; and the Wasatch area of northern Utah, a tourist draw with seven ski resorts. Other sites are in Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Washington state, Colorado, New Mexico and Montana.
The idea is to remove many trees and other flammable material from "hotspots" that make up only a small portion of fire-prone areas but account for about 80% of risk to communities.
Some critics said the administration remained overly focused on stopping fires — a near-impossible goal — with not enough money and resources going to communities and people at risk, including the elderly and people with medical conditions or disabilities.
"Given the scale of how much needs to be done, we are just skimming the surface," said Headwaters Economics researcher Kimiko Barrett. "Risks are increasing at a scale and magnitude that we haven't seen historically. You're seeing entire neighborhoods devastated."
Vilsack said the projects announced so far will help reduce wildfire risk to around 200 communities in the western U.S.
Warming temperatures have dried out the region's landscape and driven insect outbreaks that have killed millions of trees — ideal conditions for massive wildfires.
The impacts stretch across North America, with smoke plumes at the height of wildfire season in the U.S. and Canada sometimes causing unhealthy pollution thousands of miles away on the East Coast.
Last year's work by the Forest Service included tree thinning and controlled burns across 5,000 square miles of forest nationwide, Vilsack said.
"We're very targeted in saying, 'Here's where we need to go to reduce the risk,'" Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French told the AP.
But a key piece of the administration's strategy — intentionally setting small fires to reduce the amount of vegetation available to burn in a major blaze — already has encountered problems: The program was suspended three months last spring after a devastating wildfire sparked by the federal government near Las Vegas, New Mexico, burned across more than 500 square miles in the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains.
It was the state's largest fire on record, and several hundred homes were destroyed. Experts have said the environmental damage will linger generations.
Congress has approved nearly $4 billion in assistance for the fire's victims, including $1.5 billion in the massive spending bill passed last month.
"If you're a community, you're going to have to worry about not just nature's fires, but the government's fires, too," said Andy Stahl, executive director of the advocacy group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "New Mexico taught us that."
Proposed legislation would dramatically alter New Mexico’s principal oil and gas law - Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main via Source New Mexico
Three bills proposed for the New Mexico legislative session would shift the state’s focus on the oil and gas industry by emphasizing public safety and environmental protections, denying permits and increasing penalties for companies in violation of the law, and making it easier for citizen groups to sue scofflaw operators.
The measures would dramatically redirect the Oil and Gas Act, which was written to protect oil and gas resources for the state’s benefit, to include protecting the environment and the public — particularly marginalized communities.
The legislation could be the largest change to the act since it was written in 1935.
Lawyers from the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), Earthworks, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC) and the Coalition for Clean, Affordable Energy are still finalizing drafts of the three bills: the Oil and Gas Justice and Reform Act, a citizens’ suit bill and a bad actor bill. (The last two are not yet named.)
“These three proposals combined represent a paradigm shift and long overdue modernization of the act,” said Tannis Fox, senior attorney at WELC and a bill author. She has worked on environmental law in New Mexico for 20 years and says that as far as she knows, the three bills would constitute the most significant change in the act’s history.
The three cover very different aspects of oil and gas regulation and enforcement.
The Legislature passed a bad actor bill amending New Mexico’s Air Quality Control Act in 2021, and this new bill would amend the Oil and Gas Act to increase the insurance and financial requirements for receiving new operating permits. It also enumerates eight ways that the Oil Conservation Division can “deny, revoke or suspend permits due to poor performance history.”
Infractions include lying on permit applications; felony environmental crime convictions; price fixing, bribery or fraud convictions; operating oil or gas facilities without a permit; lack of compliance with rules, permits or orders under the Oil and Gas Act; having had a permit revoked for breaking environmental laws in any of the United States; an inability to prove adequate environmental insurance; or an inability to prove fiscal solvency.
Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson, a senior manager for state legislative and regulatory affairs at Earthworks and another author on the bill, noted the 2021 air quality regulation and said, “We are simply carrying this forward to OCD as well to make sure that all of the relevant agencies permitting oil and gas have the same ability to review the compliance history of operators.”
The citizens’ suit bill is similar to the citizen suit provision of the federal Clean Air Act and would allow private groups to sue companies for oilfield violations — something normally left to state or federal agencies. Last year, Oxy USA agreed to pay more than $5 million in fines and upgrades to its natural gas pumping stations in New Mexico’s portion of the Permian Basin after WildEarth Guardians brought suit under the Clean Air Act’s citizen suit provision in the wake of Oxy’s repeated violations of their state-issued excess emissions permits.
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director at WildEarth Guardians, said that his group undertook the suit because New Mexico has environmental laws and reporting requirements, but doesn’t have the staff to prosecute violations. Plus, “We kind of had them dead to rights,” he said.
“No one thinks that the division [OCD] doesn’t want to do this work,” said Forkes-Gudmundson. “It’s a question of capacity.”
“It’s no secret that they’re under-resourced,” Fox said.
In the past two years, OCD and the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) implemented a pair of historic rule sets aimed at dramatically reducing greenhouse gas and ozone-causing emissions from oil and gas facilities across the state. They were a key push of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first term.
Yet her administration continues a winding path between courting the oil and gas industry (with her continuing fight for a hydrogen hub), prosecuting oil and gas companies that pollute New Mexico’s landscape (with those two rules), and fighting climate change (she attended both COP 26 and 27), caused in large part by the country’s unabated love affair with oil and gas.
Lujan Grisham’s latest budget recommendations, released last week, don’t mention “climate” in her introduction or goals. It shows up just once across 159 pages of spending hopes, when requesting funding for a Climate Change Bureau at NMED. “The governor remains supportive of efforts to codify her 2019 Executive Order on climate change, as well as the state’s target to reach net-zero by 2050,” said Nora Sackett, Lujan Grisham’s deputy communications director.
After setting up two of the strongest fossil fuel regulation programs in the country, Lujan Grisham sent a budget to the New Mexico Legislature last year asking for the funds and people so OCD and NMED could enforce the new rules and make a significant dent in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The Legislature didn’t give them the people and only a bit of the money.
Again this year, Lujan Grisham asked for more money and people for both agencies to enforce the new rules, but in its own budget recommendations released last week, the LFC again doesn’t recommend funding the positions and offers only a fraction of the money requested for enforcement.
“In an entirely ideal world, OCD would have capacity to rigorously enforce their own rules and they wouldn’t have to rely on … citizen supervision,” Forkes-Gudmundson said.
Finally, the Oil and Gas Justice and Reform Act is the biggest of the three upcoming bills and constitutes changes small and large, from increasing bonding requirements for well site remediation to changing the eligibility requirements for the OCD director and members of the Oil Conservation Commission and removing penalty caps on companies found guilty of violating the Oil and Gas Act.
Furthermore, the Reform Act empowers the OCD to make new rules imposing setbacks when siting new wells near homes, schools and businesses. Lastly, it would require OCC and OCD to incorporate protections for the environment, public health and safety and “communities of color, low-income communities, and tribal and indigenous communities” when developing new rules.
“The Oil and Gas Act, as it stands now, doesn’t prioritize public health and communities,” said Mara Yarbrough, staff attorney at NMELC. “Rather, it prioritizes protecting the oil and gas industry and protecting the resource from being wasted.”
“It’s not a keep-it-in-the-ground bill, it’s not an anti-oil-and-gas bill,” Fox said. “It’s a ‘Let’s take account of the public interest and the world today, that did not exist in 1935,’ kind of bill.”
She said that the act needs to account for the oil and gas industry’s contributions to climate change and public health problems, as well as its detrimental effects on low income communities, communities of color and indigenous communities across the state.
“It’s a paradigm change,” Fox said, “but one needed to balance modern public interests with a law originally written in 1935.”
“If oil and gas operators are following the law, they have nothing to worry about,” said Eric Jantz, the senior staff attorney at NMELC, and another author on the bills. “There will be no flood of lawsuits. There will be no frivolous lawsuits … The argument to the contrary that there’s going to be this flood of lawsuits is, essentially, the industry conceding that they aren’t following the law right now. And that’s problematic.”
Prosecutors: New Mexico candidate is a danger to community - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Prosecutors say a failed GOP candidate accused of orchestrating a series of drive-by shootings at the homes of Democratic elected officials in New Mexico's largest city is a danger to the community and should be detained pending trial.
They filed a motion Wednesday, asking that Solomon Peña be held without bond. He appeared via video shackled for an initial court appearance as a judge explained that he would remain in custody pending a detention hearing scheduled for next month.
Defense attorney Roberta Yurcic said she would request conditions be set so her client can be released as his case proceeds through state district court. But prosecutors argued in the motion that no conditions would ensure the community's safety.
"The defendant's actions show what lengths he is willing to go when he is dissatisfied with reality," the motion states. "He arranged multiple shootings of multiple homes, and he personally participated in at least one of the shootings. There is no reason to believe that someone so unwilling to accept reality will give any credence to court ordered conditions of release."
Peña is charged with multiple counts stemming from shootings that started in early December and continued in January. The charges include shooting at a home, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Authorities identified the 39-year-old felon as the key suspect using a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, bullet casings collected near the officials' homes and information from a confidential witness.
Peña had posted on social media after the November election that it was "rigged" and he would not concede despite losing his bid for the statehouse in a district that has been held by Democrats for years.
According to a criminal complaint, the political newcomer allegedly paid for four men to shoot at Democratic officials' homes, including one house where a 10-year-old girl was asleep.
The case of Peña, who had posted photos of himself online with Donald Trump campaign material, is one of dozens across the United States where people have threatened, and in some cases attempted to carry out, violence against members of Congress, school board members and other election officials.
A self-proclaimed "MAGA king," Peña expressed discontent with the election and the certification of the results in a text message sent to one of his alleged coconspirators in November.
Other messages included the addresses of the officials that were targeted.
A SWAT team arrested Peña on Monday.
Peña spent nine years behind bars after his arrest in April 2007 for stealing electronics and other goods from retail stores as part of what authorities described as a burglary crew. He was released from prison in March 2016, and he had his voting rights restored after completing five years of probation in April 2021, corrections officials said.
Peña ran unsuccessfully in November against incumbent state Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, the longtime Democrat representing House District 14 in the South Valley. Peña got 26% of the vote.
On Nov. 15, he posted an image of himself in a "Make America Great Again" hoodie, saying "Trump just announced for 2024. I stand with him. I never conceded my HD 14 race. Now researching my options."
No one was wounded in the drive-by shootings, and elected leaders on both sides of the aisle have condemned such violence, saying it has no place in the political process.
Police said Peña had previously shown up uninvited at the homes of two elected officials with what he claimed were documents proving that he had won his race. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, or any irregularity involving enough votes to change a result, in New Mexico in 2020 or 2022.
The criminal complaint says that Peña hired a father and son with criminal histories of their own as well as two brothers whom authorities have yet to identify. Albuquerque police said they expect to make more arrests.
According to the complaint, a witness told investigators that one of the men told the shooters to aim above the homes' windows to avoid striking anyone inside.
The witness said Peña wanted them to shoot lower and that his insistence that the men be more aggressive made the other participants uneasy.
Peña is accused of participating in the final shooting — the one that targeted the home of state Sen. Linda Lopez. The witness said Peña's gun jammed and did not fire correctly but one of the other men fired multiple rounds from a Glock pistol into the home, where Lopez's daughter was sleeping.
New Mexico shootings follow two years of election assaults - By Christina A. Cassidy Associated Press
Two years since the attack on the U.S. Capitol, a series of drive-by shootings targeting Democrats in New Mexico is a violent reminder that the false claims about a stolen election persist in posing a danger to public officials and the country's democratic institutions.
While no one was hurt in the Albuquerque attacks, this latest outburst of political violence underscores how election denialism has become deeply embedded across much of the country and how it is driving grievance-filled anger over the nation's politics and officeholders.
Over the past year, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was seriously injured in an attack in his home by an assailant who said he was sick of the "lies coming out of Washington D.C.," election workers were intimidated and harassed, and prosecutors won convictions in a plot to kidnap Michigan's governor.
Further sign of the unrelenting threat came this week when authorities arrested a Republican candidate for the New Mexico House who had refused to accept his loss in last fall's election. Police said Solomon Peña hired four people to shoot at the homes of four Democratic lawmakers.
"I think we are really entering a new era where political rhetoric has gotten so heated and people with mental health issues or extreme conspiratorial viewpoints on the world have resorted to political violence," New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez, who took office Jan. 1, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
He wants the Legislature to address political violence and said he plans to talk with the secretary of state's office about ways to shield some information about elected officials or candidates from public disclosure.
Torrez noted that other countries have become destabilized when extremists use threats and intimidation rather than work through the institutions of government. He said such violence is destabilizing and needs to be dealt with forcefully.
"It is a threat to the very fabric and foundation of a democratic republic," he said.
Lies by former President Donald Trump and his allies about the 2020 presidential election led to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as well as threats and harassment against state and local election officials. The insurrection in Washington also contributed to a drop in confidence in election results among Republicans.
Some election deniers ran last year for offices that oversee elections, as well as for governor and attorney general — all losing in battleground states. The turn to violence in New Mexico suggests the lasting impact of the campaign by Trump and his allies to discredit the 2020 race he lost and sow doubt about how elections are run.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called the allegations "horrifying and shocking," adding the Biden administration has "emphasized the dangerous ways in which conspiracy theories and disinformation can lead some individuals to violence."
A large segment of Republicans, 58%, still believe Democrat Joe Biden's victory in 2020 was not legitimate, according to an October poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Peña, a 39-year-old felon and self-proclaimed "MAGA king," faces multiple charges in the Albuquerque-area attacks on the homes of two state lawmakers and two county officials, including one house where a 10-year-old girl was asleep. Peña had refused to accept his landslide loss in November when he won just 26% of the vote in a state House race in Albuquerque against the longtime Democratic incumbent, Rep. Miguel P. Garcia.
Peña parroted Trump's rhetoric, claiming without evidence that the House race had been "rigged" against him. There has been no evidence of fraud or widespread problems in New Mexico's election.
Peña, who is being held without bond, appeared briefly in court Wednesday on charges that include multiple counts of shooting at a home, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He spent nine years behind bars after his arrest in April 2007 for stealing electronics and other goods from several retail stores as part of what authorities described as a burglary crew. He was released from prison in 2016, and had his voting rights restored after completing five years probation in April 2021, corrections officials said.
Peña did not speak at the hearing, and a message to his attorney was not immediately returned.
The New Mexico Republican Party said in a statement that Peña should be prosecuted "to the full extent of the law" if he is found guilty.
There also was no evidence of widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines in the 2020 election, and Biden's win was affirmed after exhaustive reviews in the states where Trump disputed his loss. Dozens of judges — including some appointed by Trump — rejected lawsuits by Trump and his allies challenging the outcome, and Trump's own attorney general, William Barr, said the fraud claims were bogus.
Despite that, the conspiracy theories surrounding the presidential election have prompted a surge in threats and harassment of state and local election officials.
Cases like the one in New Mexico might seem random but are not, said John Farmer Jr., director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a former New Jersey attorney general.
"They are the logical endpoint of this culture of challenging the legitimacy of our democratic processes," he said.
Farmer said curbing that kind of political violence depends in part on filing the most serious charges possible and aggressively prosecuting cases.
David Levine, a fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former elections official in Idaho, said extremism fueled by anti-democratic figures and conspiracy theories is an acute threat. He advocated for better information-sharing among intelligence and law enforcement agencies as well as changes to state laws to remove provisions that could be exploited by those seeking to spread election misinformation.
Congressional proposals to increase penalties for threatening election officials failed to advance last year, leaving state officials looking to their legislatures for support. Seven bills have been introduced so far in five states to protect election workers and their staff, according to the Voting Rights Lab, which tracks voting-related legislation in the states.
In Michigan, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Democratic legislative leaders announced plans this week for several election-related bills, including ones to increase penalties for threatening, harassing or revealing private information about election workers and for pressuring election officials to act illegally.
"We must do more to protect the people who protect democracy," Benson, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Concerns of political violence have been growing in recent years.
Last month, the co-leader of the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer before the 2020 election was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Whitmer, a Democrat, was not harmed. Prosecutors said the defendants were upset about restrictions related to the COVD-19 pandemic and perceived threats to gun ownership.
In California, prosecutors said the assault of Paul Pelosi was part of a plot to kidnap the Democratic congresswoman and that the suspect also planned to target other politicians.
Members of Congress have seen a sharp rise in threats in the two years since the insurrection. In Kansas, a trial began this week for a man prosecutors say threatened to kill a Republican congressman.
New Mexico House Speaker Javier Martínez of Albuquerque, whose home was among those targeted in the recent shootings, said he was relieved by the arrest.
"These are the things that can happen when the rhetoric gets out of hand," he told reporters on the opening day of the Legislature. "Anyone who takes the plunge to participate in our democracy, to get into the process, should never have to encounter that type of violence and have that kind of fear."
Prosecutors weigh options in fatal shooting by Alec Baldwin - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
A Santa Fe district attorney will announce Thursday whether charges will be brought in the fatal 2021 film-set shooting of a cinematographer by actor Alec Baldwin during a rehearsal of the Western "Rust."
Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said a decision will be announced Thursday morning in a statement and on social media, without public appearances by prosecutors.
"The announcement will be a solemn occasion, made in a manner keeping with the office's commitment to upholding the integrity of the judicial process and respecting the victim's family," said Heather Brewer, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.
Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins died shortly after being wounded by a gunshot during setup for a scene at the ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe on Oct. 21, 2021. Baldwin was pointing a pistol at Hutchins when the gun went off, killing her and wounding the director, Joel Souza.
Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza, who led the initial investigation into Hutchins' death, described "a degree of neglect" on the film set. But he left decisions about potential criminal charges to prosecutors after delivering the results of a yearlong investigation in October. That report did not specify how live ammunition wound up on the film set.
Taking control of the investigation, Carmack-Altwies was granted an emergency $300,000 request for the state to pay for a special prosecutor, special investigator and other experts and personnel.
Baldwin — known for his roles in "30 Rock" and "The Hunt for Red October" and his impression of former President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live" — has described the killing of Hutchins as a "tragic accident."
He has sought to clear his name by suing people involved in handling and supplying the loaded gun that was handed to him on set. Baldwin, also a co-producer on "Rust," said he was told the gun was safe.
In his lawsuit, Baldwin said that while working on camera angles with Hutchins during rehearsal for a scene, he pointed the gun in her direction and pulled back and released the hammer of the gun, which discharged.
New Mexico's Office of the Medical Investigator determined the shooting was an accident following the completion of an autopsy and a review of law enforcement reports.
New Mexico's Occupational Health and Safety Bureau has levied the maximum fine against Rust Movie Productions, based on a scathing narrative of safety failures, including testimony that production managers took limited or no action to address two misfires of blank ammunition on set prior to the fatal shooting.
Rust Movie Productions continues to challenge the basis of a $137,000 fine by regulators who say production managers on the set failed to follow standard industry protocols for firearms safety.
The armorer who oversaw firearms on the set, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, has been the subject of much of the scrutiny in the case, along with an independent ammunition supplier. An attorney for Gutierrez Reed has said the armorer did not put a live round in the gun that killed Hutchins, and believes she was the victim of sabotage. Authorities said they've found no evidence of that.
Investigators initially found 500 rounds of ammunition at the movie set on the outskirts of Santa Fe — a mix of blanks, dummy rounds and what appeared to be live rounds. Industry experts have said live rounds should never be on set.
In April 2022, the Santa Fe Sheriff's Department released a trove of files including lapel camera video of the mortally wounded Hutchins slipping in and out of consciousness as an evacuation helicopter arrived. Witness interrogations, email threads, text conversations, inventories of ammunition and hundreds of photographs rounded out that collection of evidence.
State workplace safety regulators said that immediate gun-safety concerns were addressed when "Rust" ceased filming, and that a return to filming in New Mexico would be accompanied by new safety inspections.
The family of Hutchins — widower Matthew Hutchins and son Andros — settled a lawsuit against producers under an agreement that aims to restart filming with Matthew's involvement as executive producer.
"Rust" was beset by disputes from the start in early October 2021. Seven crew members walked off the set just hours before the fatal shooting amid discord over working conditions.
Hutchins' death has influenced negotiations over safety provisions in film crew union contracts with Hollywood producers and spurred other filmmakers to choose computer-generated imagery of gunfire rather than real weapons with blank ammunition to minimize risks.
Man arrested in hit-and-run death during LA street takeover - Associated Press
An alleged hit-and-run driver has been charged with murder in the death of a woman during an illegal street takeover in Los Angeles on Christmas Day, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Elyzza Guajaca, 24, was killed when the driver of a black Chevrolet Camaro lost control and spun off the roadway, colliding with a group of spectators, the Los Angeles Police Department said. At least six people were hurt. The driver ran from the scene.
Dante Terrel Chapple-Young, 27, was arrested last week in New Mexico, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said in a statement. In addition to murder, he is charged with one count of hit-and-run driving resulting in death, the statement said.
It wasn't immediately known if Chapple-Young, of Orange County, has an attorney. He has waived extradition from New Mexico, officials said.
The Christmas Day crash occurred in the Hyde Park neighborhood during a takeover — an exhibition of speed and wild driving where drivers shut down intersections and perform car stunts like doughnuts, drifting and burnouts.
Guajaca was a nursing student, the DA's office said.
"Ms. Guajaca was working toward a career dedicated to bringing comfort and care to people in our community," District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement. "Her life ended because of a street takeover that benefitted no one and only brought heartache."