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TUES: New Mexico wildfire recovery bill passes first test, + More

Fire burned home Mora County Calf Canyon Hermits Peak
Megan Gleason
/
Source NM
Remnants of a house that the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burned up are surrounded by dead trees in Mora County. Pictured on Sept. 12, 2022.

Recovering from wildfire, New Mexico bill passes first test - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A measure that would clear the way for New Mexico to provide zero-interest loans to local governments to repair or replace public infrastructure damaged by wildfires or post-fire flooding has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

The bill comes as the arid state recovers from a historic wildfire sparked last year when prescribed fire operations managed by the U.S. government ballooned into a conflagration that charred more than 530 square miles of mountainsides and valleys — taking with it hundreds of homes, livelihoods and cultural connections that generations of northern New Mexico families had built with their rural surroundings.

Experts have warned that the environmental consequences will span decades, with one of the most immediate concerns being flooding as snow in the higher elevations begins to melt this spring.

Acknowledging the harm done, Congress and President Joe Biden have approved nearly $4 billion in recovery funds. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still getting its claims offices up and running in New Mexico and local officials expect it will take time for the aid to trickle down.

Sen. Pete Campos, a Las Vegas Democrat, said his constituents are in dire need.

"The resources by FEMA are slow in coming and it's not to detract from the institution and the work that they've done, but it's to indicate to the public that there is an urgency," he told members of the Senate Conservation Committee on Monday.

The legislation would set aside $100 million for counties, cities and municipalities to begin work on projects that could include a water treatment plant in Mora County or roads, bridges and fences in Las Vegas, where thousands of residents were forced to evacuate as the fire approached last spring.

The state Department of Finance and Administration would manage the loan program. The bill does not say how the applications would be considered or approved and does not include a timeline or repayment terms.

Supporters say the state funding would go toward projects FEMA has indicated it will cover under federal guidelines. That means FEMA funds could be used by the local governments later to repay the state loans.

Federal officials have been doing damage control in the months following the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon blaze, with the U.S. Forest Service resuming operations nationwide after a 90-day pause to review prescribed fire policies and procedures. They have vowed things will be done differently after acknowledging missteps and mistakes were made.

Forest officials said at Monday's meeting that the landscape has become drier and the weather more unpredictable amid climate change.

Some in the audience echoed those concerns as the committee considered a separate bill that would prohibit prescribed burns by government agencies during New Mexico's dry, windy season. The measure was tabled, but Republican Sen. Ron Griggs of Alamogordo said something needs to be done to protect residents.

"If we genuinely believe that prescribed burns are not going to cause additional fires in the future, I think we're kidding ourselves," he said.

State Forester Laura McCarthy testified that prescribed fire is an invaluable tool and that it would be a disservice to limit the timing of projects given that New Mexico is such a large state, where one area could be dry while another could be covered with snow at the same time.

Mary Kay Root, a volunteer firefighter, fought back tears as she told the committee that she, her sister and her mother all lost their homes. Her home near the base of Hermits Peak was reduced to ashes.

She said there was no consultation by the Forest Service with the local volunteer fire departments.

"Everyone was aware that that was no day to start a fire," she said. "We already had begun letting people in the canyon know to not go ahead and burn their brush because it was just too windy and far too dry. I hope this kind of thing can be curtailed in the future."

N.M. educators seek a role in setting rules around added school hours - Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico

Danielle Gurnea said she doesn’t mind the additional hours teaching middle school students in Las Cruces, and if state lawmakers approve additional funds for her public school district to expand extended learning or professional development, she just wants a say in the matter.

“I enjoy doing programs with my school, but I also appreciate when it’s a choice. Do I want to go into professional development to improve myself? Or do I want to dedicate more time to this project or to that certain group of students,” she said at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Monday.

In 2019, state lawmakers approved funding for districts to start extended learning programs and in 2021, Las Cruces Public Schools opted into extended learning which allowed officials there to add 10 days to the school year, meaning teachers like Gurnea are working more.

“With the extended time, that means you need extended planning time, which isn’t always there,” she said. “I do most of my planning and grading on my own time. I do not have enough time at school.”

Gurnea and other educators were in Santa Fe to lobby legislators who intend to give all local districts enough money to boost instructional hours. Teachers want to ensure the extended hours do not lead to quality-of-life issues where overworked educators are struggling to meet student needs in the classroom.

Educators do get paid for the additional hours, including summer programs they design.

Still, teachers say they’ve lost planning time and want lawmakers to consider that along with any legislation that will keep them in the classroom longer.

”Districts that offer significant planning time should be rewarded with increased funding,” said Denise Sheehan, a union representative from Las Cruces with the state chapter of the National Education Association. “Educators simply cannot do better if we do not have the time to plan and prepare for rigorous lessons for our students.”

Proposals were presented Monday to New Mexico lawmakers, who will determine exactly how much money and time school districts will receive to meet the proposed minimum requirement for extended learning and for professional development.

The Senate Education Committee heard plans from three different sources that are part of state government: the Public Education Department, the Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee.

All three seek to fund school districts with money to set a required minimum for students and teachers to have 1,140 hours of instruction each school year, which depending on the calendar set by the school district, could lead to up to 190 school days.

Right now, 23 of the 89 New Mexico school districts are sending students and teachers to classrooms under the proposed instruction hour requirements through their extended-learning programs, according to legislative analysts.

Schools not doing extended learning that offer a five-day week currently operate at or below 180 days, while schools that have four-day school weeks average 155 days.

Some details from the LFC and PED plans were made available to lawmakers on Monday. However, only one bill on this matter had been filed as of Monday by Rep. Joy Garratt (D-Bernalillo) and Rep. Andrés Romero (D-Bernalillo).

House Bill 130 has support from the Legislative Education Study Committee, and according to analysis by the committee, the $302 million proposal would fund most school districts required to meet the 1,140 hours of minimum instruction to the school year if the plan is passed. It also funds districts to add 60 hours of professional development for teachers.

The LFC proposal costs the most. It’s a $391 million plan that will fund almost half of the school districts in New Mexico to meet the new hour minimums, and it does not require more teacher professional development.

The Public Education Department’s proposal comes in at $311 million. PED wants to see funding for all school districts to apply the new hours, and on top of 1,140 minimum additional hours, it requires 80 hours of professional development.

Sen. Gay Kernan (R-Hobbs) is a member of the Legislative Education Study Committee and said she wants to ensure whatever choice is made, the decision about how to apply these new school hours stays with local districts, because they know their communities’ needs.

“Additional time in the classroom creates a better outcome for students because we lost so much time during the pandemic, and I don’t disagree with that,” Kernan said. “I do agree with the idea that just adding more hours — unless it’s quality time spent in the classroom — really doesn’t benefit the student that much.”

This debate is also being watched by future educators the state is desperately trying to recruit and retain. Danielle Hamilton is a senior at New Mexico State University and hopes to teach to a first or second-grade class. She’s originally from Colorado but after a semester teaching elementary school students in Las Cruces, she is considering staying in the state.

According to legislative analysts, the 184 days Las Cruces Public Schools had last year is above the 160 classroom days teachers in Colorado average annually and more than what 34 school districts in New Mexico required last year.

She has some requirements while looking for a school to start her career.

“I think ultimately, just a school that feels like a community — not only with the teachers in the school, but also the families and the students — is really important,” she said. “And also having an administration that is supportive.”

Hamilton said teacher pay is an incentive but not the only thing she cares about. She sees the need for students to spend more time in the classroom and said she would be happy with a district that meets the new minimum hours. There is also a work-life balance she wants to prioritize because it could impact her teaching methods or length of career in the classroom.

“Whether that’s hanging out with family and friends or doing things that you enjoy in your free time,” she said, “it’s good to have the time to do that, rather than just working, working, working.”

Bill advances in New Mexico to gird against climate crises - Associated Press

A legislative panel advanced a bill Monday that would help local governments plan in advance for climate-related threats to public health such as wildfires, flooding, extreme heat and rapid erosion.

The initiative from Democratic state Sen. Liz Stefanics of Santa Fe aims to foster greater resilience to climate change through grants of up to $250,000 to local government and tribal agencies. A new bureau at the state Department of Health would oversee distributions from an initial $5 million fund.

"We've had several events, traumas in our state — wildfires, floods, drought, contaminated water — issues that really confound communities and that communities do not know how to plan or prepare for," Stefanics said.

New Mexico state lawmakers are contemplating a variety of public investments to help communities recover from the devastating 2022 wildfires and prepare for future crises. The Hermit's Peak-Calf Canyon Fire last year erupted into the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history, only to be followed by ruinous flooding and erosion.

Stefanics said her proposal might help Santa Fe residents plan and respond to incursions by wildfire on the city's eastern outskirts that intersect with forests of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

The bill advanced on a 7-2 vote with two Republican legislators in opposition. Another committee hearing is scheduled before a possible Senate floor vote.

GOP state Sen. Stuart Ingle of Portales said he worries the funds won't be used effectively.

"This seems so loosely written — I'm a little bit frightened of it," Ingle said.

New Mexico AG seeks to codify abortion rights, nullify bans - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's top prosecutor on Monday asked the state Supreme Court to nullify abortion ordinances that local elected officials have passed in conservative reaches of the Democratic-led state.

Attorney General Raúl Torrez urged the court to intervene against recent ordinances he said overstep local government authority to regulate health care access, and violate state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

At a news conference, Torrez said the ordinances are significant even in regions with no abortion clinics because they threaten to restrict access to reproductive health care in people's homes. More than half of U.S. abortions are now done with pills rather than surgery.

"This is not Texas. Our State Constitution does not allow cities, counties or private citizens to restrict women's reproductive rights," Torrez said in a statement. "Today's action sends a strong message that my office will use every available tool to swiftly and decisively uphold individual liberties against unconstitutional overreach."

It's unclear how soon the New Mexico Supreme Court might take up the issue. Torrez said he hopes his petition will inspire a quick response within weeks or months.

The filing targets Roosevelt and Lea counties, and the cities of Hobbs and Clovis — in eastern New Mexico near Texas, a state where most abortion procedures are banned.

Clovis and Lea County officials declined to comment Monday, citing pending litigation.

Hobbs officials said they have been transparent with their legal analysis through numerous public meetings and have fulfilled public records requests. They deny claims the ordinance bans abortions in Hobbs.

"The ordinance anticipates an abortion clinic will establish a location in Hobbs and sets minimum requisites for obtaining a business license to operate," the city's statement said.

In Roosevelt County, officials called the issue controversial and complex, saying they will respond through the process before the state Supreme Court.

Sentiments around abortion run deep in Roosevelt County, where commissioners adopted a resolution "in support of life" more than two years ago.

It states that "innocent human, including fetal life, must always be protected and that society must protect those who cannot protect themselves," adding its residents would be encouraged to help those who are pregnant find health care.

Prosecutors say abortion ordinances approved in November by an all-male city council in Hobbs and in early January by Roosevelt County define "abortion clinic" in broad terms, encompassing any building beyond a hospital where an abortion is performed — or where an abortion-inducing drug is distributed or ingested.

Torrez warned Roosevelt County's abortion ordinance gives private citizens the power to sue anyone suspected of violating the ordinance and pursue damages of up to $100,000 per violation.

"The threat of ruinous liability under the law operates to chill New Mexicans from exercising their right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy and health care providers from providing lawful medical services," the attorney general wrote to the state Supreme Court.

In 2021, the Democrat-led Legislature passed a measure to repeal a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures, ensuring access to abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she seeks legislation that would codify the right to an abortion statewide.

Lawmakers have already proposed measures to prohibit local government restrictions on abortion access — and call for more protections for doctors and patients.

In June, Lujan Grisham signed an executive order barring state cooperation with other states — including on any future arrest warrants — that might interfere with abortion access. The order also prohibits most New Mexico state employees from assisting other states in investigating or seeking sanctions against local abortion providers.

She also issued another executive order in August pledging $10 million to build a clinic for abortion and other pregnancy care in southern New Mexico.

The Clovis ordinance, approved in early January, is facing a petition challenge, but Mayor Mike Morris has said he thinks voters there would overwhelmingly favor keeping the ordinance if it were on the ballot.

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb said Monday that commissioners in his community heard hours of testimony and learned constituents were overwhelmingly in support of the ordinance.

"The City of Hobbs unequivocally supports women and women's rights," Cobbs said. "The future of our city, our county, and our state depends on the ability of us all to work together to find common ground — even on issues that stir emotion."

In his filing, Torrez argues that the New Mexico Constitution provides broader protection of individual rights than the U.S. Constitution — and that the local ordinances violate New Mexicans' inherent rights, liberty and privacy.

He also argued that the action by the city and county commissioners amount to overreach by attempting to legislate on a matter of statewide importance.

The attorney general asked the court to suspend the local abortion ordinances while deliberations continue.

New Mexico candidate charged in shooting case denied bond - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A political newcomer who lost his bid for the New Mexico state house and is accused of orchestrating a series of drive-by shootings at the homes of Democratic officials will remain in custody pending trial after a judge agreed Monday that he is a danger to the community.

Solomon Peña, 39, is charged with multiple counts that include shooting at a dwelling and possession of a firearm by a felon. Detectives identified him as their key suspect using a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, witness interviews and bullet casings collected at the lawmakers' homes.

No one was hurt in the shootings, but the case has reignited the debate over whether lawmakers should make it harder for people accused of violent crimes to make bail, as New Mexico struggles with persistent violent crime.

Peña's defense attorney raised questions about the credibility of a confidential witness that shared information with authorities, saying some of the statements used in a criminal complaint were contradictory. She also argued that her client's criminal history did not involve any violent convictions or crimes involving firearms and that he has not been in trouble with the law since his release from prison in 2016, other than two traffic citations.

Prosecutors outlined Peña's time in prison and described him as the "ringleader" of a group that he assembled to shoot at people's homes, saying ballistics testing determined that a firearm found in the trunk of a car registered to Peña was linked to at least one shooting. Another man was found driving that car and arrested on an unrelated warrant.

State District Judge David Murphy agreed with prosecutors, pointing to the nature and circumstances of the allegations and that elected officials appeared to be the targets of at least intimidation or at worst harm.

Murphy acknowledged that Peña's attorney was able to articulate a number of inconsistencies that troubled the court, but that "the weight of evidence against this defendant is strong."

"I find the state has met its burden in proving that there are no release conditions that would reasonably protect the safety of others," he said.

Authorities arrested Peña on Jan. 9, accusing him of paying for a father and son and two other unidentified men to shoot at the officials' homes between early December and early January. The shootings followed his unsuccessful Republican bid for a district long been considered a Democratic stronghold. He claimed the election was rigged.

Police also are investigating donations made to Peña's campaign, including a contribution by one of the men accused of conspiring with him and the man's mother. Detectives said they learned through witness interviews that Peña allegedly arranged with an unknown source to have that source funnel donations to his campaign in the names of other people.

Investigators said they are trying to determine whether the money was generated from drug trafficking.

Court records show that 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.

Defense attorney Roberta Yurcic said the past few years showed that Peña was turning his life around, that he earned a bachelor's degree, purchased a home and had job in roofing sales.

She pointed to the criminal complaint and argued that her client, who was arrested at his home, had no firearms and that no DNA or fingerprint evidence has been presented to link him to the weapons seized by authorities through the course of their investigation.

Prosecutors and a police detective confirmed during the hearing that ballistics testing continues on the weapons and casings found at the shooting scenes and in stolen cars thought to be used for the crimes.

Yurcic also argued that prosecutors have not presented any text messages or other evidence besides a confidential witness that her client allegedly asked for the other men to shoot up the officials' homes.

Deputy District Attorney Natalie Lyon told the court that Peña needed to remain in custody.

"With access to a phone, he is able to contact individuals, he is able to convince other individuals to engage in very violent and dangerous acts," she said. "A GPS monitor isn't going to keep him from accessing a phone, pretrial services can't keep him from accessing a phone, even putting him on house arrest isn't going to keep him from accessing a phone."

An assessment that considers his criminal history and several other factors provided recommendations for what level of pretrial supervision Peña should have if released, but Murphy agreed with prosecutors to keep him locked up.

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 changes amid Albuquerque's ongoing struggle to combat persistent violent crime and what many perceive as a "revolving door" in the criminal justice system.

Top court administrators in New Mexico have defended the tool, developed by the Arnold Foundation and used in dozens of jurisdictions around the U.S.

Albuquerque DA appoints special prosecutor in 2020 monument shooting - By Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

The Bernalillo County District Attorney has appointed a special prosecutor to handle the criminal case against a former Albuquerque City Council candidate who shot a protester in June 2020 at the statue depicting Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate called La Jornada at Tiguex Park in Albuquerque’s Old Town neighborhood.

Steven Ray Baca, 34, is accused of attacking several protesters and shooting Scott Williams four times in the torso with a .40-caliber handgun. He is charged with aggravated battery causing great bodily harm for shooting Williams, two counts of battery on two other protesters, and unlawful carrying of a weapon. He pleaded not guilty in August 2020.

His trial begins June 20 and is set to last approximately eight days, according to Second Judicial District Court Judge Brett R. Loveless.

On Jan. 13, attorney David Foster took the oath to serve as special prosecutor in the criminal case, according to court records. Second Judicial District Attorney Sam Bregman appointed Foster in a court filing five days later.

Foster is a former prosecutor who has handled criminal cases in New Mexico and New York, according to his website, and has offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Whenever a district attorney in New Mexico cannot prosecute a case “for ethical reasons or other good cause,” state law allows them to appoint a special assistant district attorney to act as a special prosecutor in one case. In his role in the case, Foster will have all of the authority and duties Bregman would normally have.

Spokesperson Nancy Laflin said in a written statement on Monday that Bregman chose to ask for an outside prosecutor because the DA’s office has a “high volume of cases.”

“There are a number of attorneys in the community who are working with us to prosecute cases,” Laflin said. “That’s what happened here.”

A request for comment sent to Foster on Monday was not returned.

Williams, through his attorney Laura Schauer Ives, declined to comment.

Diego Esquibel, one of the two attorneys representing Baca, said Foster’s appointment doesn’t change anything about the case.

“It’s not unusual, it’s a pretty common practice on some of these cases,” Esquibel said in an interview on Monday. “It will be nice to actually get a fresh set of eyes looking at the case. We felt that the case got politicized pretty early on, and I think that that’s kind of driven the way that the case has been handled.”

Loveless estimates a trial to last eight days and has scheduled it to begin June 20, according to court records. He has required all parties to hand over scientific evidence by Feb. 17, interview all witnesses before April 5, and hold any evidence hearings by May 15.

FORMER DA ANTICIPATED SELF-DEFENSE CLAIM

The shooting happened during deep social unrest in 2020: the George Floyd protests, criticism of police violence, and the destruction or removal of more than 160 monuments to the Confederacy — including the removal of the Spanish colonial statues in Alcalde, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque.

Prosecutors in August 2020 wrote that they anticipate Baca’s attorneys will claim he acted in self defense. But former Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez previously said his office will argue that because Baca was the first aggressor, he will not be able to make a claim of self defense, and that Williams acted in response to Baca’s “violent provocation.”

In the minutes leading up to the shooting, video shows Baca push a woman from behind, causing her to fall to the ground and injure her legs. It also shows him moments later trying to push past another woman to get near the statue, and while she had her arms out and her back turned, he grabbed her shoulder and slammed her into a concrete sidewalk where she hit her head.

A group of protesters including Williams chased Baca away from the monument, according to court records. As Baca ran away, he sprayed them with mace. One protester attempted to hit Baca in the head with a longboard, but dropped it. Williams attempted to use the longboard to knock the gun out of Baca’s hands, but Baca shot Williams.

After the shooting, video shows six members of a right-wing militia called the New Mexico Civil Guard armed with rifles surrounding Baca. Other members of the militia were also rendering aid to Williams’ gunshot wounds.

Last year, Torrez won a civil case that tried to dissolve the militia group, which had mostly broken up and dormant since the 2020 election. The group did not have legal representation and was not responding to court deadlines. Documents in that case revealed that Baca acted alone and was not part of the group during the Oñate shooting.

District Court Judge David A. Murphy in September recused himself from presiding over the case, which was reassigned to Loveless.

Mexican gray wolf that roamed beyond recovery area captured - Associated Press

A female Mexican gray wolf that roamed beyond the endangered species' recovery area into the more northern reaches of New Mexico has been captured, authorities said Monday.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish used a helicopter to locate and capture the wolf Sunday.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials in Albuquerque said the wolf will be held temporarily in captivity and paired with a male Mexican wolf "for transfer as a pair to Mexico later this year."

They said the female wolf first moved north of the arbitrary Interstate 40 boundary in New Mexico on Jan. 2 and then showed no signs of returning to the experimental population recovery area.

Authorities said last week that a map showed the wolf near Taos and south of the Colorado border.

"As it is breeding season and there are no other known wolves in the area, there was a high likelihood of a negative interaction or breeding with domestic dogs," Fish and Wildlife Service officials said in a statement.

The wolf, from the Rocky Prairie Pack of Arizona, was named "Asha" by school children.

Her roaming 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.

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.

Last week, conservation advocates asked authorities to allow the wolf to continue on her journey.

"This wolf's name, Asha, means 'hope' in Sanskrit," said Mary Katherine Ray, wildlife chair for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club. "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?"

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.

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.

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.