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TUES: Governor sets gun bill priorities, + More

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a plan on Wednesday to provide free tuition in all of the state's 29 public colleges and universities. The proposal still needs the approval of the state legislature.
Gemunu Amarasinghe
As some gun bills encounter hiccups moving through the Legislature, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she’s setting priorities with Democratic leadership.

Governor sets gun bill priorities - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News

As some gun bills encounter hiccups moving through the Legislature, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she’s setting priorities with Democratic leadership.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the governor addressed a group of young people advocating for gun restrictions at the Roundhouse Tuesday, assuring them that — despite the challenges — several of the proposals would reach her desk.

Her comments came the day after a bill that would have banned automatic firearms, semiautomatic pistols and hollow-point ammunition stalled in a Senate committee,tabled by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. That signals potential trouble for another bill that would ban AR-15-style rifles.

While Lujan Grisham told the Journal she’d continue to fight for the ban, she also says she’s narrowing her focus to what she called her “must have” gun bills.

Those include a two-week waiting period to purchase a firearm — which is awaiting debate on the House floor — and raising the age to buy or own an automatic or semiautomatic firearm to 21.

Meanwhile, legislation that would prohibit guns within 100 feet of an election polling place and a proposal to require owners to safely store their firearms away from minors both passed out of committees this week.

Jury weighs whether Cowboys for Trump flouted campaign law - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Cowboys for Trump cofounder Couy Griffin confronted a trial by jury Tuesday on charges that he failed to register a political organization without filing related public financial disclosures.

The two-day trial began Tuesday with jury selection in state District Court at Alamogordo, the New Mexico community where Griffin served as an Otero County commissioner until he was banished from office last year for his role in the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

In 2019, Griffin forged a group of rodeo acquaintances into the promotional group called Cowboys for Trump, which staged horseback parades to spread President Donald Trump's conservative message about gun rights, immigration controls and abortion restrictions.

But Griffin has resisted pressure to register the group as a political committee, including filing an unsuccessful petition to the 10th District Court of Appeals.

The secretary of state's office prevailed in a June 2020 arbitration decision that ordered Cowboys for Trump to register as a political committee, file expenditure and contribution reports and pay a fine of $7,800.

State prosecutors accuse Griffin of a misdemeanor violation of failing to register as a political group, which is punishable by up to a year in prison and an additional $1,000 fine.

Contacted Monday, Griffin expressed concern that registering Cowboys for Trump as a political group could lead to reprisals against donors.

He invoked free speech protections and said Cowboys for Trump used donations to travel and espouse support for conservative ideals, without raising money for a political candidate.

"All I wanted to do was speak on behalf of an 'America First' agenda, which should all be protected under the First Amendment," he said. "I don't want the state of New Mexico to know who has supported Cowboys for Trump. It's about protecting donors."

Griffin was previously convicted in federal court of a misdemeanor for entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds on Jan. 6, without going inside the building. Last year, he became the first elected official to be banished from elected office in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol building that disrupted Congress as it was trying to certify President Joe Biden's 2020 election victory.

In court testimony, State Elections Director Mandy Vigil said that state regulators typically negotiate with political groups to encourage registration without seeking sanctions.

"We have not had to escalate the process for any other political committee," Vigil said.

Police: motive for Albuquerque double homicide still unknown - Associated Press

Authorities have yet to determine why a man fatally stabbed two people before shooting himself last week at an Albuquerque home.

The offender's name hasn't been released, as his relatives have not yet been notified, police said Monday.

An off-duty state parks ranger found 25-year-old Omar Rodriguez-Hechemendia lying unresponsive in the street Thursday morning. He had been stabbed multiple times and died after being taken to a hospital.

A trail of blood led to a home, where officers found 36-year-old Danay Morales-Hernandez and the offender dead inside, according to police.

Morales-Hernandez was stabbed multiple times, according to an autopsy. A gun was found at the scene and neighbors had reported hearing gunshots that morning.

All three individuals knew each other, according to police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos. No other details of their relationship have been released.

Endangered Mexican wolf population makes strides in US - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Endangered Mexican gray wolves are making more strides, as more breeding pairs and pups have been documented since reintroduction efforts began in the southwestern U.S. more than two decades ago, federal wildlife managers said Tuesday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of its annual survey in New Mexico and Arizona, saying this is the first time the population has topped 200 and the seventh straight year that the numbers have trended upward.

In all, at least 241 of the predators were counted, marking a nearly 23% increase over the previous year and a doubling of the population since 2017.

Since the first wolf release in 1998, the program has had its share of fits and starts due to illegal killings, a lack of genetic diversity and legal wrangling over management.

"To go from zero wild Mexican wolves at the start to 241 today is truly remarkable," Mexican Wolf Recovery Coordinator Brady McGee said in a statement.

The annual count started in November, with members of the interagency field team conducting ground and aerial surveys of a rugged forested area along the Arizona-New Mexico line. Aside from tracking radio-collared wolves, they used remote cameras and collected scat to estimate the population.

The work is done over the winter when the population is most stable.

It's estimated that thousands of Mexican wolves once roamed from central Mexico to New Mexico, southern Arizona and Texas. Predator eradication programs began in the late 1800s and within several decades, the wolves were all but eliminated from the wild.

The rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America, Mexican wolves were listed as endangered in the 1970s and a U.S.-Mexico captive breeding program was started with the seven remaining wolves in existence.

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.

Jim deVos, Arizona Game and Fish Department Mexican Wolf Coordinator, said recovery for any endangered species is difficult and this has proven to be the case for the Mexican wolf. Still, he described growth over the last year as stunning.

"By every possible measure, progress was made," he said, pointing to 31 breeding pairs that produced 121 pups, about two-thirds of which survived to the time of the count. The survival rate for pups in their first year is typically around 50%.

The field team was able to capture and collar 21 wolves during the survey. Officials said the additional collars will help them gain a better understanding of wolf activity and help with on-the-ground management.

The cross-fostering of captive bred pups with packs in the wild also has added to the population and has helped to address concerns about genetic diversity. This year, two of the 11 pups that were fostered survived.

Officials also documented the lowest annual total of wolf deaths since 2017 — six in Arizona and six in New Mexico for 2022. In 2020, 29 wolves were reported dead and another 25 the following year.

Environmental groups celebrated the numbers but cautioned Tuesday that more work needs to be done to improve genetics among the wild population and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to allow wolves to roam beyond what they call arbitrary boundaries that have been established for the recovery area.

Citing low survival rates for cross-fostered pups, the groups have been pushing for more family groups — adult wolves with pups — to be released into the wild.

Public health councils struggle for funding in the Roundhouse - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

Advocates for New Mexico’s local community health planning councils are scrambling to revive support after a House panel last week blocked a proposal to finally provide them with the money needed to carry out their public health mission.

Thirty-three health councils operate in every county in New Mexico, and another nine are based in tribal nations around the state, said Gerilyn Antonio, tribal liaison for the New Mexico Alliance of Health Councils.

“They definitely serve a big role in our public health infrastructure,” Antonio said. “It definitely does need to be fully funded.”

Health councils are the lifeline to meeting public health needs in underserved communities including rural parts of the state and border towns, said Valeria Alarcón, executive director of the Alliance.

They serve as the public health hubs for local communities, and did COVID contract tracing, Antonio said. In 2022, health councils organized more than 24,000 vaccine equity events, and helped get more than 345,000 New Mexicans vaccinated, Alarcón said.

When the pandemic started in 2020, the Rio Arriba County Health Council, for example, sewed and distributed free masks when retail workers were prohibited from buying masks to wear at work, was involved in a significant release of people from the county jail, and set up telehealth kiosks for people getting substance use disorder treatment.

Health councils have been critical partners whenever someone needs to convene community members to talk about health issues, but they have been “systematically underfunded,” said Anne Hays Egan, a public health consultant.

Currently, the entire budget for all 42 health councils across the state is just over $544,000, or $12,952 per council.

“There’s not a lot any of us can do with $12,000,” Egan said. “You need to have continuous, baseline funding.”

That level of funding alone is not enough to pay for even one part-time staff, let alone carry out the functions required of health councils in state law, Antonio said, which include reporting on shortcomings in local health systems, coming up with strategies to address them, and offering advice to counties and tribes.

“This takes a level of expertise, experience, competency and skill set to deliver on this work,” Alarcón said, “and it’s one that should really be compensated adequately, and funded.”

A task force created by lawmakers reported last summer the Legislature should create “a sustained, adequate funding stream” for local health councils.

The task force recommended creating a set of best practices for health councils, increasing the minimum state funding for them, setting aside money so their staff can get training, and figuring out what money controlled by the state Department of Health, including Medicaid, can be used by the councils to get large grants.

In their budget recommendations for the upcoming fiscal year, the Legislative Finance Committee recommended increasing health council funding by $100,000, while the governor recommended an increase of $235,000.

But advocates say those meager increases are not enough.

House Bill 49 would set aside $5.25 million per year to fund the 42 health councils across New Mexico. Each health council would receive $125,000 each year.

The bill would also set aside $500,000 for the DOH to hire a nonprofit to provide training, technical assistance and other support to the local health councils; help create a system to evaluate the councils’ work; and strengthen community-based health planning and self-determination.

The bill is sponsored by Reps. Anthony Allison (D-Fruitland), D. Wonda Johnson (D-Rehoboth) Elizabeth Thomson (D-Albuquerque), and Sen. Elizabeth Stefanics (D-Cerrillos).

The House Health and Human Services Committee unanimously passed the bill on Jan. 23. However, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee on Feb. 20 voted to table the bill, preventing it from getting a vote by the full House of Representatives.

Committee Chair Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces) said the action taken by the committee was a “temporary table.”

There is still a way to add more money for health councils in the state budget bill called House Bill 2, Small said.

“We can bring this back up if there are changes in the Senate,” Small said.

He said more funding could be put into the budget as it makes its way through the Senate, and then when the two legislative chambers work to merge their budget proposals together, called “reconciliation.”

“This is one of the most challenging things about the committee,” Small told Allison on Feb. 20, “is that we’re not able to fully fund items, therefore, that the bills, especially that are just appropriations, cannot pass through. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be more funding for these purposes that flow this year. It just means that in this fashion, the bill can’t move through this committee.”

Now, advocates are trying to convince members of the Senate Finance Committee to put more funding in House Bill 2, the bill that determines the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year, Alarcón said.

They have been trying to convince members of the committee for the last two weeks, Alarcón said on Thursday.

She said Sens. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City), Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces), Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) and Nancy Rodriguez (D-Albuquerque) “have all verbally expressed support for HB 49.”

For a vote to pass on the committee, the advocates would still need to convince two additional members to vote in favor of funding the health councils.

Police: Santa Fe County magistrate arrested on a DWI charge - Associated Press

A newly elected Santa Fe County magistrate has been arrested on a DWI charge, according to authorities. Santa Fe police took Dev Atma Khalsa into custody early Sunday morning on suspicion of aggravated driving while intoxicated and driving with an expired license. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, police responded to a rollover crash on Interstate 25 and found Khalsa standing outside his vehicle. Police said officers reported Khalsa had an odor of an alcoholic beverage on his breath and noticeably slurred speech although he said he had nothing to drink. Khalsa was transported to a hospital for evaluation but became uncooperative and refused to be medically assessed or submit to a blood test or chemical test, police told the New Mexican.

He was released from jail Sunday. It was unclear Monday if Khlasa has a lawyer yet who can speak on his behalf. Khalsa began his first term as a Santa Fe County Magistrate just a few months ago and previously worked as prosecutor in the First Judicial District Attorney's Office. Police said Khalsa doesn't appear to have any other DWI charges on his record.

State starts monthslong process to get debris out of acequias near the Gila - By Megan Gleason,Source New Mexico

In a few months, some acequias in southern New Mexico will finally be free of debris. The work to get that done starts today.

During fall 2022, floods that came after the Black Fire in the Gila pushed debris down rivers, blocking up irrigation systems that need to have water flowing for farmers and ranchers to use in the spring.

The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management teamed up with the Interstate Stream Commission to set aside funds so state workers could help remove all the debris. The agencies allocated over $1.4 million for acequia work.

The N.M. Department of Transportation will be in charge of clean-up operations. John Romero, a director within the department, explained to acequia stewards in Silver City last week how the process will work.

Eleven acequias are eligible for the debris removal in the Mimbres and Cliff areas. That’s just over half of the public acequias in Grant County. There are likely around a dozen or more damaged acequias in other southern counties.

Romero said the department worked with the New Mexico Acequia Association to figure out which systems needed help and would consider helping other ditches, too, if they reach out immediately.

Romero said it took a while to get the funding to do this work. He said the Department of Transportation met with the stewards back in November 2022 to talk about getting the project going.

“Things kind of stalled out since that point,” he said. “But now we're moving in and we should move pretty fast.”

It’ll take six to eight weeks for the state to finish its job, Romero said.

An acequia steward asked if they could start the clean-up work on their own and get reimbursed with these state funds later, if they can’t wait eight weeks for the work to get done. John Romero said no, because these funds are just for the Department of Transportation to do the debris removal.

However, a steward could try to go through a different process to get reimbursed for that work.

Matthew Smith is a senior program manager for the environmental consulting firm High Water Mark LLC. He explained that DHSEM also holds state emergency funds for Grant County, and acequia stewards could apply for those dollars instead. However, it would be a much longer process to get that money back and it would only cover three-quarters of the cost.

“It does take some time,” Smith said. “There is a lot of administrative burden on that part, so a lot of forms that need to be filled out and a lot of due diligence as far as keeping track of costs.”

Romero added that crews will strictly be removing debris and only one site in Cliff will get repairs due to the nature of the work.

This is just a temporary fix. The soil on the Black Fire burn scar will remain tough for years, ranchers said, making it possible for precipitation to flow off of it easily in the future, leading to more flooding.

John Paul Romero is the project consultant for the Department of Transportation who will lead the contractors. Romero said there will be multiple crews — who are local, he said in a response to a question — on the ground so they can get to both the Cliff and Mimbres acequias.

He assured the stewards that the contractors would be working closely with them so the state can prioritize which ditches to work on first.

“I want to include the mayordomos,” he said, “and then during the debris removal, we can make sure that we get to the projects that are the most important.”

3 men convicted in 2018 murders of 2 Albuquerque teen boys - Associated Press

Three men were convicted Monday in the 2018 beating and shooting deaths of two Albuquerque teenage boys in an alleged drug deal gone wrong. A jury in 2nd Judicial District Court found 23-year-old Stephen Goldman Jr., 26-year-old Jimmie Atkins and 18-year-old Julio Almentero guilty of two counts each of first-degree murder, kidnapping and armed robbery. Prosecutors said 14-year-old Ahmed Lateef and 15-year-old Collin Romero were found buried in a remote area of Sandoval County about two weeks after their disappearance in December 2018. The two boys appeared to have been tortured before they were killed with Lateef shot 19 times and Romero at least nine times, according to authorities. Jurors began deliberating the case last Friday afternoon and returned the verdicts shortly before noon Monday. Prosecutors say Goldman, Atkins and Almentero each are facing life in prison when they're sentenced at a later date. Two other men involved in the case took plea deals and got prison terms.