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FRI: APD revises use of force policy, Native leaders say educational funding necessary, + More

A pile of brightly colored rainbow fentanyl pills.
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
FILE - Teacher Arleen Franklin explains a math lesson to her students at Judy Nelson Elementary School on Sept. 21, 2022, in Kirtland, N.M. Native American leaders say creating a special $50 million trust fund to help finance educational programs within New Mexico's tribal communities would help improve student outcomes. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

Native American leaders: Educational trust fund will be key — Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Native American leaders said creating a special $50 million trust fund to help finance educational programs within tribal communities in New Mexico, where there are the lowest rates of reading and math proficiency in the country, would be a big step toward improving outcomes for their students.

The leaders packed a legislative committee room Friday at the state Capitol, with many testifying that the proposed trust fund would be an investment in their people and a signal to students that the state believes in them.

Laguna Pueblo Gov. Wilfred Herrera Jr. pointed to a landmark education lawsuit that centered on the state's failures to provide an adequate education to at-risk students, including Native Americans, English language learners, students with disabilities and those from low-income families. Those groups make up a majority of the state's student population.

In the nearly five years since the court ruled the state was falling short of its constitutional obligations, Herrera said legislative efforts and funding allocations to address the public education system's deficiencies have been piecemeal.

"I liken this to putting away resources for our children for the future," he said of the proposed trust fund. "If we do things right and manage it, administer it, let it grow, we stand to achieve things."

New Mexico ranks last in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed just 21% of fourth-graders could read at grade level and fewer than 1 in 5 students could do grade-level math. For eighth-graders, proficiencies in reading and math were even more dismal.

Supporters also pointed out when asked by lawmakers that Native American students have the lowest graduation rates among their New Mexico peers.

Democratic Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, one of the bill's sponsors, said the trust fund would be established with a one-time allotment of state money. After a couple of years of earning interest, annual disbursements starting with the 2025 fiscal year could help tribes build their own educational programs.

Siting New Mexico's financial windfall, Lente said: "This is the time to do it."

The idea is for tribes to put the money toward programs they believe would have the most benefits for students, he said, rather than have the state dictate how the money is spent.

Many of the Native American leaders and librarians who work with tribal communities said one focus would be on revitalizing Native languages and weaving cultural heritage into lessons.

A separate measure that also won the committee's approval Friday would amend the Indian Education Act to funnel 50% of the state's Indian education fund to New Mexico tribes. Tribes would be able to carry over unused allocations.

In the landmark case known as Yazzie v. Martinez, the court pointed to low graduation rates, dismal student test proficiencies and high college remediation rates as indicators of how New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional obligation to ensure all students were college and career ready.

The court suggested public school funding levels, financing methods and oversight by the state Public Education Department were deficient. However, the court stopped short of prescribing specific remedies, and deferred decisions on how to meet obligations to lawmakers and the executive branch.

The education department last year shared with tribal leaders a draft plan to address the ruling, but many leaders said at the time it would not be enough.

In recent weeks, education officials with Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration confirmed they still were working to finalize the plan.

Supporters of the Native education bills say the intent is to encourage tribes to plan, design and implement their own community-based education programs to complement what children are learning in school.

The proposed trust fund comes just after U.S. Interior Secretary Debra Haaland visited New Mexico, where she grew up and is an enrolled Laguna Pueblo member, on the yearlong "Road to Healing" tour for victims and survivors of abuse at government-backed boarding schools.

"Tribal communities have the experts and I think we owe that to the pueblos to decide how they want to implement their programs," said Rep. Yanira Gurrola, who has worked as a bilingual teacher. "And I think hopefully this will be something that sets a precedent for communities."

Albuquerque police has revised its use-of-force policies — Associated Press

The Albuquerque Police Department has finished revising its use-of-force policies and officers will begin training on the new policies over the next quarter, according to authorities.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that the changes have been approved by the Department of Justice, which is engaged in a settlement agreement to reform the city's police department.

According to the Journal, city leaders anticipate the changes will result in fewer shootings by officers since they should have a better sense of when they can use less-lethal force rather than deadly force.

Less lethal options include stun guns, beanbag shotguns, 40-millimeter impact launchers or canine deployments.

There were 18 shootings by Albuquerque police officers last year and 10 of them were fatal.

The number caused DOJ attorneys and community stakeholders to raise concerns at a federal court hearing last month.

The Journal said the police department currently is at 100% primary compliance, 99% secondary compliance and 80% operational compliance with the reforms laid out in the court approved settlement agreement with the DOJ.

"We wanted officers to be clear on when they could use less lethal force," said Superintendent of Police Reform Victor E. Valdez, who is a retired judge. "We found officers should be able to use less lethal force sooner than they were (formerly) able to under the previous policy. These revisions allow better protection to both the public and the officers when confronted with a violent individual."

Police Chief Harold Medina said "our goal with these changes is to make sure that if de-escalation is not possible, we exhaust every tool available to apprehend offenders, only using a firearm as a last resort."

Governments within NM would no longer enter detention contracts with ICE under proposed legislation — Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

About a decade ago, Itzayana Banda’s father called to tell her how horribly officials at the Otero County Processing Center were treating him and how he couldn’t stand it anymore. Eight months later, she said in an interview, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported him. It was another 10 years before Banda got to see him again.

Source New Mexico’s Megan Gleason reports he may have never gone through that treatment if the county government hadn’t allowed ICE to incarcerate immigrants there.

State legislators are trying to outlaw such agreements. Democratic Sens. Gerald Ortiz y Pino and Moe Maestas introduced legislation on Monday that would prohibit governments within the state of New Mexico from entering or renewing detention contracts with ICE starting in 2024.

That means the Otero County Processing Center — which racked up extensive abuse complaints and allegations of inhumane treatment and cruel conditions — could no longer hold hundreds of immigrants.

Banda is now a spokesperson for the New Mexico Dream Team, an immigration advocacy group. She said her father told her how terribly officials treated him in Otero County.

“My dad would say that they would get treated like animals,” she said.

Ortiz y Pino said he was inspired to create the legislation after people approached him with concerns about how ICE treats asylum-seekers.

Federal inspectors told ICE in March to relocate people detained in Torrance County because of unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Five months later, in August, an asylum-seeker from Brazil died by suicide there, and attorneys said he was being held in “horrific conditions.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham responded to a question about poor detention conditions at a public safety news conference on Wednesday.

Lujan Grisham said she recently told Department of Homeland Security Cabinet Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that what’s happening at Torrance County Detention Center in New Mexico needs to improve, particularly if the federal government wants the state to keep licensing those facilities.

“I’m appalled at what’s going on in Torrance County, and I need that fixed,” she said.

Uriel Rosales, a field organizer with the New Mexico Dream Team, was raised in Chaparral, N.M., home to ICE’s processing center. A DACA recipient, Rosales said he wants to see the immigrant detention in his community gone because of the reports of inhumane treatment there and at the other facilities.

The ultimate goal, Rosales said, is “to stop having inhumane conditions in detention centers in New Mexico.”

Sophia Genovese is a senior attorney at the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. She said a large number of the immigrants coming to New Mexico are seeking asylum.

“They don’t deserve this treatment,” she said. “No one deserves this treatment.”

The bill’s prospects

Genovese said this bill could eliminate a space where ICE can hold up to 1,000 immigrants. That’s just at Otero County Processing Center, she said, which detains the most immigrants in the state.

It could be more difficult to enforce a full shutdown at the other two detention centers in New Mexico. Genovese said the facility in Otero County is the only one where the county owns the land and the building, while the other two in Torrance and Cibola Counties are owned and operated by the private company CoreCivic.

So, she said, while the legislation would end the contracts ICE has with the counties in 2024, the federal agency could then just cut the county governments out altogether in Torrance and Cibola and contract directly with CoreCivic.

However, Genovese said the Torrance and Cibola detention centers each house fewer than 100 immigrants, while Otero usually holds around 500 or 600 people at a time.

The Torrance and Cibola facilities are primarily filled with state prisoners, Ortiz y Pino said. If ICE wanted to move more immigrants to those counties and skirt the state law, Ortiz y Pino said CoreCivic could no longer contract with the state, meaning those facilities would no longer be allowed to hold New Mexico prisoners.

That would be difficult, Ortiz y Pino said, since the bulk of CoreCivic’s job in those prisons — under the company’s contracts with the N.M. Corrections Department — is overseeing state prisoners.

Legislators tried to pass this kind of legislation in New Mexico four years ago, and Maestas said they’ve learned a lot. He said the measure has better chances this time.

“We’re hoping to have a great conversation,” Maestas said. “We think it’s reasonable and phased in. But New Mexico should not participate in mass incarceration that ICE is doing these days.”

Genovese said it’s likely that the bill will pass due to the Legislature’s Democratic majority, as well as community support. “When your constituents support it, I know our New Mexico politicians listen to them and vote in that direction,” she said.

Virginia, New Jersey and Illinois recently enacted similar detainment legislation. Genovese said this is becoming a national movement.

“It’s a growing trend of states saying, ‘We will not jeopardize the health and safety of those within our jurisdiction by subjecting them to inhumane treatment at immigration detention facilities,’” she said.

Financial worries

The bill sponsors said opponents of the legislation will likely be anyone who profits from detention centers, like private companies or surrounding towns.

But Genovese said that’s not a strong argument against the bill because the facilities might not really be that financially helpful, research has shown.

New Mexico State University anthropology Professor Nathan Craig was an expert witness for Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) in 2021 when lawmakers were attempting to end private prisons in the state. He said detention centers in rural areas don’t help the local economy as much as people believe, because many workers are coming from more distant metropolitan areas.

Indeed, most of the guards at the Chaparral facility live in El Paso, Texas, Ortiz y Pino said. For those New Mexicans who do lose their jobs, he said, there are plenty of correctional facilities elsewhere in the state that desperately need workers. Maestas backed that up.

“When jails or prisons close down, the town doesn’t close down,” he said.

Bernalillo County expands fentanyl prevention efforts with settlement funds - By Nash Jones, KUNM News

New Mexico’s largest county is expanding its efforts to prevent fentanyl use with funding from national opioid settlements with pharmaceutical companies.

The Bernalillo County Commission this week unanimously approved the allocation of $975,000 of the $3.9 million it received in opioid settlements last year for fentanyl awareness and prevention efforts.

The money will fund a marketing campaign through the end of the year and community education through trainings, according to a statement from the county. Other plans include making the keepNMalive.com website a more comprehensive resource, including treatment options.

Commission Chair Barbara Baca called the county’s work to combat the opioid epidemic an “urgent” priority.

Former New Mexico taxation employee sentenced in fraud case – Associated Press

A former New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department employee has been sentenced to nearly eight years in prison for wire fraud, identity theft and money laundering.

Federal prosecutors said 46-year-old George Martinez also was ordered by a judge Wednesday to pay more than $1.2 million in restitution.

Martinez, of Albuquerque, was given a 94-month sentence after pleading guilty in July to 42 counts each of wire fraud and identity theft and six counts of money laundering.

Prosecutors said Martinez used his position as the unit supervisor/bureau chief of the Questionable Refund Unit at the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department to fraudulently alter tax refunds and direct them to bank accounts that he controlled from 2009 until July 2018.

They said Martinez copied tax returns that had already been processed or created new returns in taxpayers’ accounts.

Martinez was accused of altering information such as taxpayers’ Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and withholding amounts in the returns. By changing the withholding amounts, authorities said he increased the amounts of the refunds.

New Mexico police: School bus failed to yield before crash – Associated Press

A school bus failed to yield at an intersection east of Portales and collided with a tractor-trailer, resulting in injuries to seven students and the drivers of both vehicles, according to authorities.

New Mexico State Police said one student suffered severe injuries in Wednesday morning’s crash and was airlifted to a Texas hospital for treatment.

Six other students — along with the 61-year-old man who was driving the school bus and the 28-year-old tractor-trailer driver — suffered injuries not believed to be life-threatening, police said.

The names, ages and conditions of the injured students weren't available Thursday.

Police said the bus was carrying about 17 students who ranged in age from 6 to 15. It’s still unclear what school or schools the students attended.

The crash occurred around 7:30 a.m. and a photo provided by police showed the bus with damage on its front end and left rear side.

The large commercial vehicle, carrying a full load of corn, can also be seen in the photo with debris scattered along the roadway.

Police said the crash remains under investigation and they are being assisted by a reconstruction team.

US sweetens pot to study siting for spent nuke fuel storage – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. government has long struggled to find a permanent solution for storing or disposing of spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants, and opposition to such a site is flaring up again as New Mexico lawmakers debate banning a facility without state consent.

The state's prospective ban cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday with approval from a key committee. Supporters acknowledge that the bill has a long road ahead, but it does have the backing of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, the bill's sponsor, said momentum against New Mexico becoming a permanent dumping ground for the nation's nuclear waste — including spent fuel from commercial power plants — is growing and he's cautiously optimistic this is the year that the state takes a legislative stand.

Steinborn said consent should be mandatory and that the federal government should provide states with a significant financial incentive reflecting the risks associated with managing radioactive materials.

New Mexico and neighboring Texas have sued in federal court over two proposed multibillion-dollar interim storage facilities — one in southeastern New Mexico and the other in Andrews County, Texas.

“New Mexico has not been offered anything with this deal,” Steinborn said. “And even if we had, I don’t think any amount of money would convince me that it’s the right thing.”

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a license for a facility in West Texas in 2021, and the agency plans to make a final decision as early as March on whether to grant a license for the planned storage complex in New Mexico. The two sites would be about 40 miles (64 kilometers) apart.

Environmental and nuclear watchdog groups have filed their own lawsuits, but a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Wednesday dismissed all objections opposing the Texas project.

Federal appellate courts elsewhere have yet to rule on the state of Texas' claims, which focus on whether federal nuclear regulators have authority to license such a facility, or on New Mexico's claims that regulators did not do enough to vet plans by Holtec International.

The New Jersey-based company is seeking a 40-year license to build what it has described as a state-of-the-art complex near Carlsbad, which already is home to the federal government’s only underground repository for Cold War-era waste generated by decades of nuclear research and bomb-making.

Ed Mayer, program director of the planned facility, told state lawmakers during a hearing earlier this week that Holtec has an unblemished safety record and the probability of a severe accident happening while the spent fuel is transported via train from sites around the U.S. would be 1 in 10 trillion. Even then, he said, no radiological material would be released because the casks holding the fuel are robust.

Southeastern New Mexico officials testified that building the complex would bring jobs and diversify the region's economy, which is fueled now by oil and gas development that spans the Permian Basin.

However, commissioners in New Mexico two most populous counties — Bernalillo and Dona Ana — adopted resolutions this week opposing the transportation of spent fuel across county lines and the construction of an interim storage facility in the state.

While not necessarily opposed to nuclear power, Bernalillo County Commissioner Walt Benson said "the level of risk is too high and there’s a lack of information in terms of containing that risk.”

From the decommissioned nuclear plant near the San Onofre Beach in Southern California to plants that have powered communities on East Coast, spent fuel has been piling up for decades and elected officials in those communities want it shipped elsewhere.

U.S. Rep. Mike Levin, a California Democrat, is among those who have sought federal funding to restart the U.S. Department of Energy's consent-based process for locating places where the fuel would be welcomed.

“One of my top priorities since my first day in office has been moving the nuclear waste at San Onofre away from the region as quickly and safely as possible,” Levin said in September.

The Biden administration sweetened the pot this month, putting up $26 million for communities interested in studying potential interim storage sites. The deadline to apply is Jan. 31.

Despite opposition from environmentalists, Biden and his top energy officials have pointed to nuclear power as essential to achieving their goals of producing carbon-free electricity over the next decade.

According to the DOE, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it remaining on-site because there’s nowhere else to put it. The federal government is paying to house the fuel, and the cost is expected to stretch into the tens of billions over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.

Steinborn said the state of New Mexico's willingness to entertain spent fuel storage will hinge on the federal government's ability to identify and fund a permanent solution.

“They just need to change their approach rather than just shove it down the state’s throat without any assurances,” he said.