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WED: Bill requiring safe gun storage clears first hurdle, + More

Gun safes sit against a wall at a gun shop.
Elaine Thompson
Gun safes sit against a wall at a gun shop.

Bill requiring safe gun storage clears first hurdle - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

A bill that would mandate gun owners to safely store their firearms to keep them out of the hands of minors has passed its first committee hearing in the New Mexico Legislature.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee approved Democratic-sponsored bill on a 4-2 party-line vote.

The bill would make it a misdemeanor for a gun to be stored in a way that “negligently disregards a minor's ability to access” it if the minor then threateningly displays the firearm or injures someone with it. If the minor causes great bodily harm or kills someone with the gun, the gun owner would face a fourth-degree felony.

The bill contains exemptions if gun owners make a good faith effort at safe storage, the minor burglarizes the firearm, or if it’s used in self-defense.

Lawmakers heard testimony from members of the public who both support and do not support the proposal.

Vanessa Sawyer, the grandmother of 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove who was shot and killed at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque in 2021, spoke in favor of the legislation. Police say the middle schooler who shot Hargrove used his fathers’ gun.

Speaking out against the bill was Louie Sanchez, owner of Calibers shooting ranges, who said the proposal was “misguided,” calling instead for education on the matter.

Others questioned whether storing a gun in this way could make it less accessible for use in self-defense in a hurry.

The bill has another committee stop before potentially being voted on by the full House.

New Mexico Police: 7 injured in school bus crash - Associated Press

New Mexico State Police on Wednesday were investigating a crash involving a school bus and a large commercial vehicle that left seven people hospitalized, including one with serious injuries.

Police said in a social media post the crash happened Wednesday morning east of Portales. There were about 22 people on the bus, but their ages and which school they attended was not immediately known.

Authorities did not provide any details about the cause, saying a crash reconstruction unit was on the scene and the investigation was ongoing.

A photo provided by state police shows a school bus with damage on its front end and on the left side near the rear of the vehicle. A large truck with a red cab can also be seen in a photo along with debris along the roadway.

New Mexico bill would ban contracts for migration detention - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators have introduced a bill that would prohibit local governments and state agencies from entering into contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and private detention facilities to detain immigrants in civil cases.

The bill introduced Tuesday could unwind contractual arrangements at the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral in southern New Mexico and spur closer oversight at others. The Otero County facility is operated by Utah-based Management & Training Corporation on behalf of ICE, and typically holds about 600 male and female migrants seeking asylum or legal status in this country.

The bill as presented would not directly compel changes at two other immigration detention facilities in New Mexico that are owned and operated by Nashville, Tennessee-based CoreCivic. Those facilities are the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan and Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia.

The proposal was sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Moe Maestas, both of Albuquerque, with the backing of advocacy groups that are critical of U.S. policies and practices in migrant detention.

Sophia Genovese, an attorney at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, said the bill has the potential to halt immigration detention at the largest holding center in the state at Chaparral. It also would inspire closer oversight of detention conditions at two privately owned facilities — if the federal government chooses to contract directly with CoreCivic at its Estancia and Milan sites without involving county governments.

"We're hoping that by demonstrating at the state level that New Mexico does not want ICE detention in our state, that helps at the federal level get rid of these contracts," Genovese said.

The Torrance County Detention Facility was the focus of a scathing inspection report after an unannounced visit in early 2022 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General. The inspector general found unsafe and unsanitary conditions and recommended the relocation of detained migrants.

The findings were disputed by CoreCivic and ICE. A follow-up inspection by the inspector general showed compliance with 10 of its 14 recommendations.

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján last year urged the federal government to terminate its contract with CoreCivic at the Torrance County Detention Facility.

It was unclear whether Democratic New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the newly filed legislation. Innovation Law Lab and New Mexico Dream Team are among the other supporters of the proposed legislation.

The bill resembles recently enacted legislation in New Jersey, Virginia and Illinois aimed at ending detention in civil immigration cases in local facilities.

California's 2019 ban on privately owned immigration detention facilities was rejected last year by a federal appeals court that cited interference with the federal government's authority to enforce immigration law.


CORRECTION: This version corrects that the bill would directly affect immigration detention contracts at the Otero County Processing Center and not at two other facilities in New Mexico.

Agency delays protections for imperiled bat, prairie chicken - By John Flesher AP Environmental Writer

The Biden administration is temporarily delaying stepped-up legal protections for two imperiled species following efforts by congressional Republicans to derail the actions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday it was postponing reclassification of the northern long-eared bat from "threatened" to the more severe "endangered" category until March 31. The change had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 30.

On Tuesday, the service announced that new designations for the lesser prairie chicken scheduled to take effect then had been bumped to March 27. The agency is granting endangered status to the grassland bird's southern population segment while listing the northern segment as threatened.

The administration said the delays were intended to give regulators and those affected by the changes — such as landowners, loggers, ranchers and wind turbine operators — time to adjust.

"This is basically a chance for us to get our guidance and tools ready for when the listing goes into effect," agency spokesperson Georgia Parham said, referring to the decision on the northern long-eared bat.

In a separate statement on the lesser prairie chicken, the service said the 60-day grace period would provide a window for establishing grazing management plans and voluntary habitat protection measures.

"We are committed to working proactively with stakeholders to conserve and recover lesser prairie chickens while reducing impacts to landowners, where possible and practicable," the service said.

The listings, both announced in November, drew pushback from GOP lawmakers who complained that stronger protections would disrupt infrastructure projects and other economic activity.

"While a delay gives industry stakeholders valuable time to prepare for more bureaucratic red tape, our preference continues to be that this listing of the lesser prairie chicken be dropped," said Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas. He was among senators who wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland this month requesting an extension.

Two dozen House members, led by Arkansas Republican Bruce Westerman, wrote a letter to congressional leaders in December pushing unsuccessfully to block federal funding for reclassifying the bat.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of setting a dangerous precedent by holding off on the new designations.

"It's a red flag that they could continue denying the protections," said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the center.

"This is happening behind closed doors, there's not enough time for us to challenge it legally and they're just caving to Republican pressure that's driven by industry."

The northern long-eared bat has been driven to the brink of extinction — primarily by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease. Declines are estimated at 97% or higher among affected populations. The bats are found in 37 eastern and north-central states, plus Washington, D.C., and much of Canada.

The disease causes the bats to wake early from hibernation and to sometimes fly outside. They can burn up winter fat stores and eventually starve.

In many cases, the service identifies "critical habitat" areas considered particularly important for survival of an endangered species. Officials decided against doing so for the northern long-eared bat because habitat loss isn't the primary reason for its slump.

Still, the agency plans recovery efforts focused on wooded areas where the bats roost in summer, nestling beneath bark or in tree cavities and crevices.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies are required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to be sure projects that they fund or authorize — such as timber harvests, prescribed fires and highway construction — will not jeopardize a listed species' existence.

Westerman and the other Republicans complained that efforts to protect the bat could impose "significant restrictions" on logging, which they said actually can help the bats by increasing roosting and foraging areas. Oil and gas development, mining and other industries also could be hampered, they said.

Parham said the service is crafting instructions to help regulators, landowners and business interests determine more easily how protecting bats' summer habitat might affect individual projects.

The service said it also is developing "conservation tools and guidance documents" involving the lesser prairie chicken for landowners and business interests as well as other government agencies.

The lesser prairie chicken's range covers a portion of the oil-rich Permian Basin along the New Mexico-Texas state line and extends into parts of Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas. The habitat of the bird, a type of grouse, has diminished across about 90% of its historical range, officials say.

The crow-size, terrestrial birds are known for spring courtship rituals that include flamboyant dances by the males as they make a cacophony of clucking, cackling and booming sounds.

Environmentalists consider the species severely at risk due to oil and gas development, livestock grazing, farming and construction of roads and power lines.

Navajo Nation Council sets historic leadership - Hannah John, Source New Mexico

Evolution is happening within the Navajo Nation government.

Historically, many leadership positions, including Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council have been held by men.

Crystalyne Curley is changing that path.

On Monday, the Navajo Nation 25th Council voted to make Curley the first woman to hold the speaker position in the tribal government’s legislative body. She will hold the position for two years.

Curley said she attended her first Council session in the third grade, and grew up in the legislative chambers she now controls.

“It hasn’t completely sunk in,” Curley said in an interview with Source NM. “It’s just the shock of it and knowing that my colleagues and the delegates are ready for that next step in history. Just knowing that they support us women, us sisters, a mother, a grandmother, it’s just overwhelming.”

Curley’s selection is the latest development for Navajo Nation voters that approved historic changes in 2022. Richelle Montoya was voted in as the first woman to be the Navajo Nation Vice President to work in the executive branch with the youngest president ever elected, Buu Nygren. Nine women elected in November were sworn in with Curley on the first day of the Navajo Nation Council. There are 24 delegates total.

Curley began her career within the Navajo Nation government. She worked with the Council as a legislative district assistant and held the title of Miss Navajo from 2011 to 2012. She went on to work with the Speaker staff and more recently with the Office of the President and Vice President.

Shirleen Jumbo-Rintila, a member of Diné Sáanii For Justice, commended Curley’s win and said she looks forward to the changes the newly elected women will make during their terms.

“It’s historic, and it’s just amazing,” she said. “She’ll be representing my hometown in Many Farms.”

Diné matrilineal society plays an important role within the new leadership, Jumbo-Rintila said.

“We are a matrilineal society,” she said. “So the women are the dominant folks at home, and it should be also like that here with our government, too.”

Curley continuously reinforced this specific point.

She also touched on the importance of the Navajo Nation government changing with the new leadership.

“I think our Navajo people are ready for change and going back to our Navajo culture of how us women have that leadership long with love and caring and being knowledgeable,” Curley said. “not only within a homestead, but of a hogan too.”

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren told Source NM it is important that positions like the speaker are held by Navajo women because change is needed.

Nygren said electing women in high government positions is something he campaigned on when he selected his running mate, who is a Navajo woman.

“To me it’s always very important because they are very thoughtful, organized, knowledgeable, powerful, all the things that are needed when it comes to having been raised by strong Navajo women,” Nygren said.

Curley plans to use her term to prioritize federal funding and projects important to colleagues in the Council, such as infrastructure, water, broadband and wastewater cleanup. She said she hopes to push past the tribal bureaucratic red tape surrounding these projects in order to get funding.

The projects will be funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, and according to the federal timeline, the funds must be assigned by Dec. 31, 2024. Then the funds must be expended two years later.

“All of those projects have a deadline of December in 2026, so one of my priorities is to really provide that technical assistance and resources for our chapters and for our communities to help push those projects over to the finish line,” she said.

Nygren said he appreciates how Curley plans to prioritize basic infrastructure needs.

“She talked about her stories of having no water, no electricity, and none of those things that aren’t available,” he said. “Definitely, I’m happy that we share the same values. I’m looking forward to working with a former classmate.”

The two newcomers attended Arizona State University together and would discuss ideas they had about the Navajo Nation government.

“Since going through college, we always talked about the disparities our Navajo government and our people lives through,” Curley said. “It’s just amazing to be here with him (Nygren) at the same time.”

Nygren also hopes that the speaker accomplishes collective work between the Council and his office, something she mentioned in her acceptance speech.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had partnership with the Council and the President’s Office over the past many terms,,” he laughed. “Over the past 12 years, it’s always been a battle. So one of the things I share with her, and I think she shares with me, is that we want to work together.”

Curley said she is willing to fight for the Navajo people during her term.

“I’m willing to, you know, fight for our children and our grandchildren, our grandparents,” she said. “And really bringing back that Hózhó back into the Navajo Nation government.”

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 (1,370 square kilometers) 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."

New Mexico chief justice urges caution with bail law reform - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's top judicial official urged state legislators Tuesday to be cautious and remember the principle of innocence until proven guilty as they consider toughening the state's bail laws in response to violent crime.

Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon delivered a State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature — the first in several years. She outlined efforts to streamline court procedures to keep law enforcement officers in communities and on the streets, as lawmakers grapple with public frustration over violent crime, including a record-setting spate of homicides in Albuquerque.

She also recalled advances in public safety that came with New Mexico's overhaul of its pretrial detention system, starting in 2017, to eliminate money-bail and ensure dangerous individuals can be jailed pending trial.

"With the elimination of money-bail, judges now have the ability to assess dangerousness, something they could not do before," Bacon said. In Albuquerque and "Bernalillo County, this has resulted in the detention of over 3,000 defendants pending trial. Something that could not happen before."

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and some legislators from both political parties have voiced support for changes that would make it easier to keep certain criminal defendants in jail while awaiting trial. Currently, people charged with a felony can be held without bond only if prosecutors can persuade a judge that no conditions of release would protect the public, or that a defendant is unlikely to appear in court.

An unsuccessful bill last year would have created a presumption that defendants should be held if they are charged with a serious violent offense, such as crimes involving a firearm.

But Bacon also cautioned against rash changes to the state bail system, invoking the wrongful 2019 detention of a 17-year-old high school student in a case of mistaken identity that was dismissed after efforts by prosecutors to deny pre-trial release.

"We must remember why our Constitution protects the rights of every person, including those accused of crime," Bacon said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth says he doesn't support a major expansion of pretrial detentions.

"I do think there's a number of things on the crime front we need to do," Wirth told The Associated Press. "I don't support adding new presumptions that I think would result in thousands of people being held that don't need to be held."

Democratic state Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil of Albuquerque introduced a bill that would modestly change the way judges assess a defendant's risk to the community.

Republicans in the legislative minority are proposing a constitutional amendment that would expand possible pre-trial detention without bail to crimes beyond felonies. Another GOP-sponsored bill would revive money bail in limited instances and prohibit state courts from relying on analytic tools to judge the risk of a defendant fleeing justice.