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WED: New Mexico House budget plan would boost spending and savings, + More

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New Mexico House budget plan would boost spending, savings - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A panel of New Mexico House lawmakers endorsed a $1 billion increase in annual state general fund spending Wednesday to raise public salaries, shore up rural health care networks and expand no-pay day care and college. The increase would tap into a financial windfall linked to robust local oil and natural gas production.

The budget plan for the coming fiscal year also responds to an eventual economic transition away from fossil fuels in the nation's No. 2 state for oil production by investing up to $850 million in a trust to generate earnings and sustain public services in future decades.

Democratic state Rep. Nathan Small, of Las Cruces, chair of the lead House budget-writing committee, said that a large deposit to the state's severance tax permanent fund makes sense in the long term.

"This one-time only (set-aside) pays for itself in roughly a decade," Small said. "At the same time, we're investing in agencies and prioritizing health care, education, infrastructure, economic development."

The House panel advanced the bill on a 14-3 vote. A House floor vote would send the bill to the state Senate for deliberation and possible adjustments. The Legislature has until March 18 to send a budget proposal to the governor.

The proposal would increase general fund spending by roughly 12% to $9.4 billion for the fiscal year starting in July 2023 and ending in June 2024. The budget plan includes a separate $1 billion increase in infrastructure spending and leaves room for about $1.1 billion in possible tax reductions or rebates.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is advocating for $750 payments to tax filers and additional rate reductions for taxes on sales and services.

The budget proposal from House legislators includes an average pay increase of 5% for state employees and public school educators at an annual cost to taxpayers of roughly $234 million. Further pay increases are proposed for critical agencies and programs.

Lujan Grisham has urged legislators to boost teacher compensation by underwriting health care premiums by as much as $10,000 a year. The bill from legislators includes a more modest increase in medical care premiums for public school employees.

Medicaid spending would increase by $218 million in an effort to retain and recruit health care professionals by raising reimbursement rates to medical providers, under the proposal.

Public spending on daycare and prekindergarten programs overseen by the Early Childhood and Education and Care Department would increase by $135 million, or nearly 70%.

The budget blueprint also includes increased annual spending of $291 million for agencies that oversee oilfield, water and environmental regulations. It devotes $120 million to tuition-free college for in-state students. That scholarship program was initiated in the fall of 202 amid a surge in enrollment.

Lujan Grisham has urged the Legislature to underwrite tuition-free college on a permanent basis. Small said the budget bill includes "guardrails" to monitor future increases in tuition.

The House budget would devote more than $100 million in one-time incentives for private industry and partnerships, including energy-related projects and local venture capital investments with strong growth potential and high risk of losses.

Republican state Rep. Cathrynn Brown, of Carlsbad, voted against the budget plan, objecting to the scale of spending on government programs.

"The overall spend and increase of 12% is just more than I would like to see," she said. "We've had successive years of large increases. And I'm looking into the future and thinking our best move right now is put more money into the permanent funds that will help us along for the future and take care of our next generations."

Former New Mexico lawmaker tapped for USDA leadership role - Associated Press

A former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico has been nominated to serve as the next deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The granddaughter of migrant farm workers, Xochitl Torres Small has been working as an under secretary in the agency with a focus on rural development. Her nomination was announced Wednesday by the agency and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation.

Torres Small served on the House Agriculture Committee during her one term in Congress, and for nearly two years she has overseen loans and grants to provide infrastructure improvements, broadband expansion and business development as under secretary for rural development.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement described Torres Small as an exemplary member of USDA leadership, saying she represents "the heart and soul of rural communities."

Torres Small started out as an organizer in southern New Mexico before joining former U.S. Sen. Tom Udall's team as a field representative. She also practiced water and natural resources law after earning a degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law.

In 2018, Torres Small won by less than 4,000 votes to flip a traditionally Republican-leaning district that spans oil and gas country, border communities and desert valleys known for their agricultural production.

She lost her re-election bid to Republican Yvette Herrell in 2020 and was tapped the following year by the Biden administration to lead the agency's rural development office. Her husband, Nathan Small, is a state lawmaker.

N Mexico St AD gets vote of confidence after hoops shutdown - By Eddie Pells AP National Writer

New Mexico State's chancellor expressed his confidence in athletic director Mario Moccia on Wednesday, less than a week after the school's most high-profile sports program — the men's basketball team — was shut down for what the chancellor said was a culture of bad behavior, egregious violations of the student code of conduct and other "despicable acts."

In addition to backing Moccia, chancellor Dan Arvizu said at a news conference that he was confident the behavior that led to the cancellation of the season and firing of head coach Greg Heiar was not reflective of the athletic department or the school overall.

"Our review indicates that this culture of bad behavior is contained within the basketball program," Arvizu said.

He was speaking less than 24 hours after firing Heiar, whose program was sunk by a pair of scandals, both of which are subject to ongoing investigations. The latest was the hazing allegations reported to campus police last week by a player who said three teammates ganged up on him and attacked him in the team locker room.

That came less than three months after the fatal shooting of a student at rival University of New Mexico in November. Surveillance video of the shooting shows New Mexico State player Mike Peake being shot at by that student, then responding by shooting the student as they ran through an apartment parking lot. Peake has been suspended from school but not charged in the incident.

Arvizu said the shooting, which had roots in a fight that Peake and others were involved in at an Aggies football game a month earlier, is still under investigation. He said players who are under investigation could be suspended from school, suspended from basketball or exonerated.

At a board of regents meeting held shortly after the fatal shooting, chair Ammu Devasthali said guns are not permitted on the university campus or on university trips.

Moccia, who appeared with Arvizu at the news conference, defended his hiring record over his eight years on the job, along with the vetting process he led on Heiar, who went 9-15 in his first season before it was abruptly halted.

"I made a list of every coach I've hired ... and, you know, we have an excellent batting average," Moccia said. "Nobody bats a thousand. But surely, tremendously disappointed in this outcome, specifically for this victim, but for everyone involved. We'll go back and look at our processes."

The AD also was pressed on whether Heiar ultimately bore responsibility for Peake and his teammates being out after curfew on the night of the shooting in Albuquerque.

"What my heart tells me is that when you're sound asleep in your bed and you're awoken and a situation has occurred, what is your direct responsibility?" Moccia said. "However, setting the culture matters, and for individuals to think that the night before a big game, to get out of a room and do some things we would never condone, is certainly troubling."

Heiar coached 22 games after the Nov. 19 shooting. His firing — which Arvizu said was "with cause," meaning the school isn't obligated to pay him — came after the hazing allegations surfaced, and after Arvizu called off the season. The chancellor said the coach had not been cooperating with investigators. Arvizu also said the fates of the rest of the coaching staff, along with players involved, would be determined after the multiple investigations are complete.

Safe, however, is Moccia, who is in charge of a basketball program that, more than any other sport, puts New Mexico State and its 14,000-student campus in Las Cruces, on the map. The Aggies have made 26 March Madness trips over their long history and have long drawn more nationwide attention than their football or any other team.

"He still has my confidence to turn this problem around," Arvizu said. "Clearly there are some issues that we need to see why it took so long to understand that there was an issue. But I think there's plenty of evidence to support this particular incident, or set of incidents, is contained within the basketball program and primarily as a coach's responsibility. The oversight of that is in question, and we'll continue to look at that."

Snowstorms moving out of Southwest; bitter cold to continue – Associated Press

A winter storm packing gusty winds and heavy snow that shut down schools and stretches of highways in northern Arizona and New Mexico was making its way out of the region late Wednesday. But unseasonably cold weather with bitter wind chills was forecast to keep an icy grip on much of the Southwest into Friday.

"High temperatures on Thursday and low temperatures Friday morning will be unseasonably cold areawide," the National Weather Service in Albuquerque said Wednesday afternoon. "Conditions will improve over the weekend with warmer temperatures and dry conditions."

Several stretches of Interstate 40 east of Flagstaff, Arizona, were closed off and on Wednesday because of multiple crashes and spinoffs after a foot of snow fell in the area Tuesday night into Wednesday. There were no immediate reports of serious injuries.

The same was true with a couple of stretches of U.S. Highway 60 in New Mexico south of Albuquerque. Fifteen inches of snow was reported at Los Alamos and schools were closed in Santa Fe.

A winter storm warning was set to expire Wednesday evening in northern Arizona and New Mexico. But bitterly cold temperatures were forecast Wednesday night into Thursday from as far west as the Sierra Nevada to the New Mexico-Texas Line.

Temperatures were expected to drop below zero around Lake Tahoe, as cold as minus 6 Fahrenheit at Truckee, California. Lows early Thursday were expected to drop to minus 10 in Ely, Nevada near the Utah line.

In New Mexico, the temperatures fell early Wednesday to minus 28 at Angel Fire, minus 6 at Taos. Winds gusted up to 46 mph in Albuquerque.

In Flagstaff, where schools also were closed Wednesday, it was expected to be even colder overnight into Thursday, with raw temperatures around zero and wind chills as low as minus 13.

Even deserts cities like Phoenix and Tucson were expected to see temperatures drop below freezing.

New Mexico State fires coach in wake of hazing allegations - By Eddie Pells Ap National Writer

New Mexico State fired basketball coach Greg Heiar on Tuesday in the wake of hazing allegations within the team that shut down the program for the rest of the season.

Chancellor Dan Arvizu announced the firing of the first-year coach and said "hazing has no place on our campus, and those found responsible will be held accountable for their actions."

The chancellor said decisions about the rest of the coaching staff will be made after further investigation.

Arvizu shut down the program for the season on Sunday, after reviewing a campus police report in which an Aggies player said three teammates ganged up on him and attacked him. The report, which redacted the names of the players, included allegations of false imprisonment, harassment and criminal sexual contact.

The 47-year-old Heiar spent time earlier in his career as an assistant for former Aggies coach Chris Jans, who left after last season to coach Mississippi State. Last season, Heiar was at Northwest Florida State, where he helped the Raiders win the junior college national title.

He brought two highly ranked players with him from the juco ranks, Issa Muhammad and Deshawndre Washington (another player, Marchelus Avery, had moved over from Northwest Florida the season before), but the Aggies were riddled with problems almost from the start of their season.

It started unraveling when some basketball players were involved in a fight with New Mexico students at an Aggies football game in October.

A month later, the night before New Mexico State basketball was scheduled to play at New Mexico in Albuquerque, forward Mike Peake went to the apartment complex of one of the students involved in the fight. Security cameras at the apartment complex shows the student pulling a gun, then Peake brandishing own gun and shooting the student, inflicting fatal wounds. Peake was taken to the hospital with leg wounds.

Peake has been suspended from the team but not charged with a crime while authorities in Albuquerque investigate. New Mexico State has hired an independent investigator to look into the circumstances surrounding the killing.

The hazing allegations came less than three months after the shooting in Albuquerque. The police report says the hazing victim described teammates removing "his clothing exposing his buttocks and began to slap his (buttocks). He also went on to state that they also touched his scrotum."

The Aggies were 9-15 when the season was first put on hold before a scheduled game last Saturday at California Baptist.

The Western Athletic Conference is counting New Mexico State's final six games as forfeits. The team is supposed to move into the bigger, more high-profile Conference USA next season — a move that seemed like a good fit for a program that has a long tradition of strong basketball teams. New Mexico State has made 26 trips to the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 five times.

But there have also been problems checkered throughout the history of a program that has long depended on juco transfers and players looking for second chances. An academic scandal in the 1990s brought about the quick end to the otherwise successful tenure of coach Neil McCarthy. It led to relative stability during the second of two long tenures in Las Cruces by coaching stalwart Lou Henson.

Most of Henson's successors, including Marvin Menzies, Reggie Theus and Jans, enjoyed success before leaving for bigger opportunities.

There has been similar turnover in the administration. Just over the past 14 months, the university provost and president have resigned or been removed from their positions. And Arivzu, the chancellor, is on his way out in June after the regents declined to renew his contract. He said the school will investigate the hazing allegations.

"We will work to ensure we fully understand what happened here, and that those found responsible are held accountable," he said. "We will also ensure that support systems are in place to prevent this from happening again."

Haitian offers guilty plea in 2018 New Mexico compound raid - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A Haitian woman has signed a tentative agreement to plead guilty to weapons charges in exchange for a reduced sentence more than four years after authorities arrested her and four other adults from an extended family at a squalid New Mexico compound and recovered the remains of a 3-year-old boy.

Jany Leveille would accept a potential prison sentence of 12-15 years and possible fines under the proposed agreement with prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Albuquerque that dismisses kidnapping and terrorism-related charges.

Approval of the agreement is still pending in U.S. District Court. Prosecutors could withdraw from the agreement based on responses to proposed plea agreements with four additional defendants who say they are innocent of all charges, the U.S. Attorney's Office confirmed Tuesday. A deadline passed last week without additional plea agreements to avoid trial.

Leveille was arrested along with her partner Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and extended family members in a law enforcement raid in August 2018 on a ramshackle encampment in the remote desert surrounded by berms of used tires and an adjacent firing range.

Authorities were searching for a sickly 3-year-old who had been reported missing by his mother in Georgia. Sheriff's deputies and state agents initially found 11 hungry children and a small arsenal of ammunition and guns. After days of searching, they recovered the decomposed remains of the 3-year-old in an underground tunnel.

Authorities have said the deceased child, Abdul-Ghani Wahhaj, suffered from untreated disabilities as father Siraj Ibn Wahhaj and Leveille performed daily prayer rituals over him — even as he cried and foamed at the mouth. Authorities also said Leveille believed medication suppressed the group's Muslim beliefs.

Forensic specialists determined the child died several months prior to the recovery of his body.

Leveille was accused of flouting prohibitions on firearms possession and transportation based on her status as a Haitian national without legal standing in the U.S. after she overstayed a visa without seeking renewal. Convictions also could result in her removal from the U.S.

An initial grand jury indictment alleges Leveille and her partner instructed people at the compound to be prepared to engage in jihad and die as martyrs, and that one more relative was invited to bring money and firearms.

All five defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and providing material support to each other as potential terrorists by crossing state lines with firearms and training at the New Mexico compound.

Defense attorneys have said their clients would not be facing terrorism-related charges if they were not Muslim.

All five defendants have been found competent to stand trial after mental health evaluations.

One defendant, Lucas Morton, is acting as his own legal counsel after declining his right to a public attorney.

New Mexico Senate approves landmark conservation bill - Associated Press

A measure that would create recurring funding for land and water conservation projects in New Mexico cleared the state Senate on Tuesday, with supporters describing it as a landmark measure that would help the state grapple with drought, wildfires and flooding.

The bipartisan bill will now be sent to the House for consideration.

The measure has the support of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who proposed as part of her budget recommendation funding for existing programs that aim to safeguard urban and rural water supplies and support local economies that are tied to the outdoors and natural resources.

"The Land of Enchantment Legacy Fund will provide lasting protections for New Mexico's beloved lands and waters, and I applaud the Senate for taking this step toward its establishment," the governor said in a statement.

Sponsors of the bill hope to secure at least $150 million for the initiative, including $100 million to build a "conservation legacy" trust. The other $50 million would ensure initial annual distributions for at least five years. The earnings would help finance forest restoration, agriculture projects, river stewardship work, wildlife conservation and development of the state's outdoor recreation infrastructure.

Roundhouse one step away from giving millions for Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire recovery  - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

Fixing the only road into town. Repairing aquifer systems so families aren’t worried about the water they drink or use for cattle or farming.

That’s the kind of work that northern New Mexico counties could finally pay for if the state House passes the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Recovery Funds bill.

Monday, the House Appropriations and Finance unanimously passed Senate Bill 6.

It now heads for a debate on the House floor, and awaits signature by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham who made this legislation a priority in her State of the State speech.

If signed into law, $100 million in zero-interest loans will be available for local counties and governments that are approved for federal relief dollars to fund projects to fix damage from the massive 2022 fire and subsequent flooding.

Any local government that takes from this pot will have to repay the state once they receive federal dollars.

“This is not free money,” Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) said. “These are resources to go in to help right now.”

Smaller rural areas are unable to cover costs to quickly rebuild after the disasters tore through the region last year.

Ali Rye, deputy secretary for the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said there are around 72 entities that could be eligible for state loans, such as Mora County or the City of Las Vegas.

Rep. Meredith Dixon (D-Albuquerque) asked the sponsors if they considered making the legislation a long-term, revolving fund to be used for future disasters. Rye said there were a few discussions but nothing concrete. She added that something like that would be beneficial for the state.

“We weren’t ready in the state for a disaster like this,” Rep. Ambrose Castellano (D-Serrafina) said. “And I think if we could make this recurring, I think it’s something that could protect our state for years to come.”

Rep. Joseph Sanchez (D-Alcalde), another one of the bill’s sponsors, said lawmakers are trying to get this legislation through the Capitol as quickly as possible. It has an emergency clause that would allow Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to sign it immediately so it could go into effect right away.

That’s why Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-Carlsbad) didn’t try to minorly amend the bill during Monday’s committee. If the legislation changed at this point, it would have to go back to the Senate for approval.

Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces) is the chair of House Appropriations and Finance. He said it’s rare for the committee to hear legislation this early before working out the budget, “However, we recognize the importance.”

Las Vegas city councilor David Romero said it’s difficult for the city to afford all the necessary recovery projects without money like this being available now.

Billions in federal relief earmarked by Congress could take years to make its way to northern New Mexico.

“This is going to help us in the interim because that type of money, we can’t afford it,” he said.

Last week, Las Vegas received $2.6 million to pay for pre-engineering assessments as part of more than $140 million it expects to get to build a new water treatment facility. And that project could take at least five years to finish, Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said.

A few lawmakers voiced concerns that this legislation is only helping public bodies, and not communities directly.

Rep. Harry Garcia (D-Grants) questioned why the state has to front any money, arguing the responsibility is completely with the federal government since the U.S. Forest Service started the prescribed burns that led to the largest wildfire in state history.

“I support this bill. I really do,” he said. “But they need more money than this.”

Sanchez said New Mexico can’t afford to hand out as much money allocated by Congress, so in the meantime, he said, the state is trying to help while communities wait for payments.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap,” he said.

The state’s federal delegation visited the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Monday, too. U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Gabe Vasquez thanked the lawmakers for the recovery legislation.

Leger Fernández also said there are opportunities to reshape recovering communities.

She suggested building energy-efficient, fireproof homes or creating small businesses while the forest regrows. She added that an economic center could help guide those kinds of projects, and encouraged lawmakers to fund these initiatives.

“I want us to think creatively about what the phoenix rising from those ashes can look like,” Leger Fernández said.

Production to resume on movie 'Rust' after fatal shooting - Associated Press

Production is expected to resume this spring on the movie "Rust" that was halted in October 2021 after a fatal shooting on the set involving actor-producer Alec Baldwin.

Rust Movie Productions also announced Tuesday that a related documentary will detail the completion of the film and the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who died shortly after being wounded during rehearsals at a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

Baldwin and Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the weapons supervisor on the set of the Western, were charged last month with felony involuntary manslaughter in Hutchins' shooting death.

Authorities said Baldwin was pointing a pistol at Hutchins when the gun went off, killing her and wounding director Joel Souza.

Hutchins' parents and sister have filed a lawsuit over the shooting after a similar suit filed by her husband and son was settled.

Rust Movie Productions said Hutchins' widower, Matthew Hutchins, will serve as the film's new executive producer with Blanca Cline as the new cinematographer.

Souza will return as director when production resumes although it's unclear in what state the filming will take place.

Rust Movie Productions officials said the use of "working weapons" and "any form of ammunition" will be prohibited on the movie set.

Wildfire damage prompts calls for funding water system - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Dozens of traditional irrigation systems that supply community farms, gardens and orchards in northern New Mexico won't flow with water this spring, forcing many families to decide whether to risk planting crops this year with no guarantee of water.

Rural officials testified Tuesday before a state Senate committee, saying the damage done to the acequia system is a devastating consequence of a historic wildfire that the U.S. Forest Service sparked last year during a prescribed burn operation that went awry.

Portions of the earthen canals have been wrecked by post-fire flooding and are choked with debris.

Paula Garcia, who heads the New Mexico Acequia Association, told lawmakers that the systems are managed by volunteers and that without resources, it will be impossible to clean and clear them before the irrigation season begins.

"They are full of silt, sediment, ash, debris and they will not flow this spring — and that's endangering a whole way of life that's been in our valley for hundreds of years," said Garcia, who lives in the shadow of a burn scar that stretches across more than 530 square miles (1,373 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills.

Garcia and others testified in support of legislation that would double the amount of money earmarked annually to fund community ditch infrastructure and construction projects. The bill also includes language that would allow the money to be used for disaster response, recovery, hazard mitigation, and for meeting matching requirements under other state and federal programs.

It's one of a series of bills aimed at addressing what many lawmakers have described as a water crisis in the drought-stricken state — which has been complicated by fallout from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico and another blaze that charred more than 508 square miles (1,315 square kilometers) of the Gila National Forest.

Congress has approved billions of dollars in federal funding for wildfire recovery in northern New Mexico, but supporters of the state legislation noted that having a sustainable pot of money for farmers elsewhere would help fill the gap left when federal assistance has not been granted.

The New Mexico Legislature also is considering a measure that would clear the way for the state to provide zero-interest loans to local governments in order to repair or replace public infrastructure that has been damaged by wildfires.

Even when the Federal Emergency Management Agency is involved in surveying the damage and decides to dole out recovery funds, Sen. Pete Campos said New Mexico needs to have a way to brace for the next flood or the next wildfire.

"We're trying to make all the resource available for the long term," said Campos, whose district includes communities affected by wildfire.

Another measure that unanimously cleared the Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday included a $150 million proposal to create a permanent trust fund that would be managed by state investment officers. The goal is to establish a consistent source of revenue for the design, construction, and restoration of reservoirs and dams statewide.

Supporters estimate that there's at least an $8 billion need for water infrastructure improvements statewide.

State Engineer Mike Hamman, New Mexico's top water official, told lawmakers that minimal zoning considerations have allowed for more housing developments to be constructed in areas where dams were originally designed only to protect agricultural lands, not homes and lives.

"When we talk about dams, irrigation, infrastructure, what we have done is neglected our water system overall in the state and that's a very hard statement to make," Campos said.