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TUES: House approves bill making funds available to more coal workers, + More

Workers in high-visibility vests use shovels to dig around a large mechanical structure
Alice Fordham
Workers fill in the main fan shaft at the San Juan coal mine. The mine's portals have been sealed and the remaining employees are working on reclamation.

Bill to assist coal workers passes HouseNM Political Report

A bill to expand eligibility for funding that the Energy Transition Act of 2019 made available to employees who lost their jobs at the San Juan Mine or the San Juan Generating Station passed the House of Representatives on a 64-0 vote on Monday.

According to the NM Political Report the bill removes language in the ETA that limits the people eligible for displaced worker assistance to those who have been laid off within the previous 12 months.

But the funding was not available when the first workers lost their jobs in November 2020.

Funds were not available until last summer.

Bill sponsor Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, said that the closures were a big blow “to many of our friends and relatives.”

Other representatives from San Juan County, including Rep. Mark Duncan, R-Kirtland, Rep. T. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, and Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, joined Allison in sponsoring the bill.

The bill had no real debate, only some of the other supporters standing to speak about the importance of the bill.

Duncan is the mayor of Kirtland, which is one of the closest communities to the power plant.

“I am ashamed that it has taken us three years to get the money to them,” Duncan said about the displaced workers.

New Mexico Legislature votes to block local abortion bans - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An initiative that would shore up abortion access in New Mexico amid a flurry of local anti-abortion ordinances cleared a last major hurdle on Tuesday with state Senate approval.

New Mexico has one of the country's most liberal abortion access laws, but two counties and three cities in eastern New Mexico have recently adopted abortion restrictions that reflect deep-seated opposition to offering the procedure.

Democratic state Sen. Katy Duhigg, of Albuquerque, urged colleagues to support a bill that would prohibit local governments from blocking access to reproductive health care, including abortion, birth control, and prevention of or treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

"It ensures the local governments can't block access to that care," said Duhigg. "Your ability to access life-saving health care is really limited by your zip code right now."

State Senate approval on a 23-15 vote nearly ensures the bill will reach Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a staunch supporter of abortion rights. The governor is one of 20 state leaders working together to strengthen abortion access. House approval of Senate amendments is pending before the bill can be signed.

The bill could impact abortion access for residents of neighboring states with abortion bans, including Texas.

The Democratic-sponsored bill would also ban local restrictions on gender-affirming care, which typically can include puberty-blocking medication, hormone therapy or surgeries. That provision is a counterpoint to proposed bans on gender-affirming care for minors or young adults in more than two dozen states.

An additional bill working its way through New Mexico's Legislature would protect abortion providers and patients from out-of-state interference, prosecution or extradition attempts.

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

The local ordinances adopted in New Mexico are similar to the effort to ban abortion in local jurisdictions by Mark Lee Dickson, founder of the Texas-based Sanctuary Cities of the Unborn organization.

Anti-abortion ordinances, adopted over the past several months by officials in the cities of Hobbs, Clovis and Eunice, along with Lea and Roosevelt counties, reference an obscure U.S. anti-obscenity law that prohibits shipping of medication or other materials intended to aid abortions.

An hourslong debate on the state Senate floor Tuesday was peppered with emotional stories in support and opposition to the bill that touched on personal and family decisions about abortion and health care in the wake of rape and gender identity for young people.

"My granddaughter was saved because my daughter came to us to ask for help ... I have one grandchild; I would have been without any," said Republican state Sen. David Gallegos, of Eunice, who unsuccessfully proposed an amendment to require an ultrasound be performed prior to abortions for mothers "to see the life of the child."

Democratic state Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill, of Silver City, said the bill would ensure medical care isn't withheld amid complex decisions about pregnancies.

"These are not decisions that are made lightly," she said. "Each pregnancy is unique and health care providers need to be able to provide the care that their patients need without government interference."

Separately, Democratic state Attorney General Raúl Torrez has urged the state Supreme Court to intervene against local abortion ordinances that he says violate state constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.

New Mexico weighs tax credits for kids, electric vehicles - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Legislators on Monday advanced a package of state tax changes aimed at providing financial relief to New Mexico families with young children, residents of low or modest incomes and military veterans.

The package also includes incentives aimed at reducing climate-warming pollution by offering refundable tax credits to residents who purchase electric vehicles and install related car-charging equipment, along with home-energy storage systems.

A legislative panel advanced the bill on a 9-4 vote toward a likely House vote. The Democratic-led Legislature has until noon on March 18 to send bills to the governor.

Democratic state Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, lead sponsor of the proposed tax changes, said the goal is to put more money in the pockets of working parents, retirees and veterans while bolstering small businesses and supporting climate goals.

"We focus on what I think is important to the state: progressivity in our taxes, reforms to personal income tax rates to lower taxes to low- and middle income filers, while ensuring those at the top of the income scale pay their fair share," Lente said.

Notably, the child income tax credit would increase to as much as $600, from $175, per child for families with lower incomes. Per-child credits would taper to $400 and $200 for families with higher earnings.

The entire package would cost the state more than $500 million in forgone government income. It still leaves room for direct individual tax rebates of $300, or $600 per couple, at a cost to the state of more than $400 million, Lente told the legislative panel.

The bill would overhaul income tax brackets with lower rates for some demographics and higher rates for top earners — as high as 6.9% for individuals making more than $250,000 annually.

The state's portion of the gross receipts tax on sales and services would decline by half a percentage point, settling at about 4.4% by July of 2024. Combined state and local gross receipts tax rates currently range from about 6% to 8.5% across the state, depending on location.

The bill would increase liquor excise taxes, with exceptions for small breweries and wineries, to provide more money for programs to treat alcohol dependency and prevent drunken driving. It would also eliminate a tax exemption for cigars, and extend income tax exemptions for military veterans on retirement pay above $30,000 through 2031.

The state would provide a $2,500 refundable personal income tax credit toward the purchase of an electric vehicle — or up to to $4,000 for low-income residents, with an additional $300 credit for car-charging equipment and installation. Eligible vehicles can't cost more than $55,000.

The proposal also is designed to increase tax collections on capital gains from income on investments.

Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce CEO Terri Cole urged legislators to reject the bundled tax changes, arguing that even selective rate increases are unnecessary amid a multibillion-dollar budget surplus.

"For businesses, this is a disappointing tax package," she said.

Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup said he favors cash rebates that are focused on people with fixed incomes and the poor, fearing universal rebates will lead to mark-ups on retail prices as rebate checks and transfers go out.

"It drives inflation up," he said.

Disaster relief legislation has less than two weeks to make it through the Roundhouse - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

It seems like it could be smooth sailing for legislation that would get relief funds to wildfire disaster victims.

Bipartisan support is showing up in committees for legislation that would aid New Mexico counties and local communities struggling to recover from devastating fires and floods that happened in 2022.

It can take a while for bills to get on committee schedules and move along. With less than two weeks left in the 2023 60-day legislative session, lawmakers are watching the clock.

Bills can take weeks to be heard by a single committee, and then sponsors have to wait for the next committee chair to schedule the bill. With 11 days left at the Roundhouse, lots of legislation will die before it even reaches the point for debate, let alone make it to the other chamber where it has to undergo the same process again.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed three bills since lawmakers made their way to Santa Fe in January: the Feed Bill that covers operational costs to keep the session running, the Legislative Stationary Prohibitions bills that lays out legislative capacity and the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Recovery Funds bill that set aside $100 million in loans for repairs in northern New Mexico

The northern relief bill is the furthest any of the wildfire disaster recovery legislation has made it through the Roundhouse.

All bills must get through the entire House side of the Legislature in less than two weeks now. This legislative session ends at noon on Saturday, March 18.

The full Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 334 and Senate Bill 430 on Monday, which would send $3 million to Black Fire victims around the Gila National Forest, and over $18 million to Lincoln County and the Village of Ruidoso for repairs following the McBride Fire.

“We had fires throughout the entire state this last year, and it was devastating to every community,” said Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos), a co-sponsor of the McBride Fire relief bill.

Other relief bills are just now making their way past a second committee, like Senate Bill 176. This legislation, also known as Acequia Fund for Disaster Response, passed Senate Finance unanimously on Monday.

SB 176 would allow the state acequia and community ditch infrastructure fund to be used for disaster relief purposes. It would also ensure that acequias don’t have to meet cost-share requirements and allow dollars from this fund to be used as a state or federal financial match for projects.

“It would help us and support, if you will, to use these resources for disaster response recovery and hazard mitigation,” bill sponsor Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) said.

Campos said the acequias need the resources as soon as possible.

A previous version of the bill would’ve doubled the amount in the acequia and community ditch infrastructure fund, but the committee approved an amendment on Monday to strike that, leaving the pot standing at $2.5 million annually, like it has been.

Paula Garcia is the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. Speaking as an expert on the bill, she said there are close to 700 acequias across 23 counties in New Mexico.

“This is even more important now that there have been so many disasters in the state,” she said. “We had numerous acequias damaged from different fires and subsequent flooding last year.”

Other more general disaster recovery bills that have yet to be heard in a second committee include the Wildfire Recovery Act and the Rural Infrastructure Crisis Response Act.


Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) is sponsoring the Black Fire Recovery bill. She represents Sierra and Hidalgo counties, some of the areas dealing with fire and flooding damage. She told the full Senate on Monday that the reason the state has to step in to help with these disasters is because there’s no federal aid coming through.

The feds took responsibility for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire that was started by prescribed burns conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. The cause for the Black Fire is still under investigation.

“Although the U.S. Forest Service didn’t claim ownership for that fire responsibility, it is because of decades of overgrown grass. Our forest lands are not grazed. There’s dense forests,” Diamond said. “This wildfire started in the wilderness and has really devastated much of the Gila.”

Sen. William Burt (R-Alamogordo) is sponsoring the McBride Fire Recovery bill. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been “slow to react” to the disaster..

“That’s what we’re asking for,” Burt said, “is simply the funds to recover from this devastating fire.”

After the McBride Fire, Burt said, there’s damage to water and sewer systems and a need to replace four bridges.

The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the state’s Office of the Attorney General have concerns that these bills could be too vague and don’t lay out specific recovery efforts, according to the legislative fiscal impact reports.

Diamond said Black Fire recovery projects were vetted during the interim legislative session, when many people from affected counties presented to lawmakers about their issues.

She said what’s been discussed by everyone in the southern part of the state impacted by the Black Fire. Repair work needs to start now on bridges, dams, acequias and ditches.

“Our communities are seeking assistance, much-needed assistance,” Diamond said.

DA stands by prosecutor in Alec Baldwin set-shooting case - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A district attorney in Santa Fe fought back Monday against efforts to disqualify the special prosecutor pursuing manslaughter charges against actor Alec Baldwin in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on a New Mexico film set.

Baldwin's legal team in February sought to disqualify special prosecutor and Republican state Rep. Andrea Reeb of Clovis based on constitutional provisions that safeguard the separation of powers between distinct branches of government.

Defense attorneys argued that Reeb's role as a state lawmaker and prosecutor are incompatible and could distort legislative and judicial actions, including state spending on the prosecution of Baldwin over the 2021 shooting on the set of the Western movie "Rust."

Santa Fe District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies on Monday called the objection a "novel theory that has no support in new Mexico statutes or case law."

She said the state constitution provides a variety of safeguards against legislators interfering with the outcome of ongoing court cases.

"Any attempt by Ms. Reeb as a legislator to influence the outcome of this trial would be completely ineffective," Carmack-Altwies said in a court filing.

Since joining the legislature in January, Reeb has steered clear of voting on public spending to prosecute Baldwin and film-set weapons supervisor Hannah Gutierrez-Reed. She was excused from a House floor vote in February on a proposed state budget that includes $360,000 for special prosecution expenses in the fatal film-set shooting.

Baldwin and Gutierrez-Reed have pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 18-months in prison and fines.

Hutchins died shortly after being wounded Oct. 21, 2021, during rehearsals at a ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe. Baldwin was pointing a pistol at Hutchins when the gun went off, killing her and wounding the director, Joel Souza. A likely preliminary hearing is still months away to decide whether evidence is sufficient to proceed to trial.

Prosecutors say assistant director David Halls, who oversaw safety on set, has signed an agreement to plead guilty in the negligent use of a deadly weapon. A judge is scheduled to consider approval of the plea agreement later this month.

Prosecution in the death of Hutchins is currently underwritten by an emergency state grant, approved in September 2022 by the State Board of Finance that is led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Reeb is listed as a sponsor or cosponsor on several criminal justice initiatives, including enhanced punishments for firearms violations, as legislators explore ways to rein in surging violent crime. She previously served as district attorney for a judicial district on the eastern plains of New Mexico.

Work begins to clear water canals following New Mexico fire - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

It's tradition in New Mexico's rural communities — to gather with neighbors each spring, shovels and rakes in hand, to clean the earthen irrigation canals that will direct snowmelt from the surrounding mountains to crops, gardens and orchards.

Doing the job in the traditional way — by hand — is nearly impossible this year because dozens of the irrigation systems known as acequias are choked with ash, silt and other debris from flooding that followed the largest wildfire in New Mexico's history — a conflagration sparked last year by the federal government during prescribed burn operations.

The flames swept across more than 530 squares miles (1,373 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills and burned for months, destroying homes and livelihoods.

While recovery is expected to take generations, work to clear the first acequia through a special effort led by the state Department of Transportation and local contractors began Monday near Cleveland, a mountain village southeast of Taos. There are about dozen more acequias on the list.

Crews are using excavators to dig out debris after firefighters spent a day clearing brush from the banks to provide access. Vacuum trucks are cleaning out culverts.

The equipment operators must have a light touch. Digging too deep could damage soil at the bottom that has become so tightly packed over decades that it keeps water from leaching out.

Engineers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency walked the acequia three times, using GPS to map it and to survey damage that stretches more than two-thirds of a mile (more than a kilometer).

"I'm so excited," said Barbara Bradshaw, a commissioner on the Acequia de Cañoncito who has spent months making phone calls and sending letters in search of a path to get the repairs done as soon as possible. "We've already lost one crop year."

Congress has approved billions of dollars in recovery funds for the area, but it will take time for the money to trickle down. New Mexico lawmakers also are considering legislation this year that would provide a funding stream for acequias in case of another natural disaster, given that the groups have limited resources due to their grassroots nature.

More than 30 families depend on the Acequia de Cañoncito, which is fed by a couple of canyons that originate in parts of the mountain range that were severely burned. Ash and silt rushed from the hillsides during last summer's rainy season, clogging a diversion point for the irrigation system and culverts beyond that.

"Parts of the acequia are filled bank to bank and it looks like a path instead of an acequia. And we don't know what's under the mud and ash — how many trees are in there, how many rocks are in there," Bradshaw said. "The force of the water was just remarkable."

John Romero, a division director with the state Transportation Department, described the material that needs to be removed as blackish muck. He said the work will take at least a couple of weeks and the list of acequias requesting help could grow given the scope of the damage.

"Everybody involved is very exhausted from it and they continue to do work," he said of what has been a nearly yearlong ordeal for the communities scattered through the burn scar. "These kinds of events are so taxing on everyone."

And it likely won't be the end of it, Bradshaw said, wondering what this summer's rains might bring down from the hills.

Senate approves $21.7M for fire relief funds in SW New Mexico and Ruidoso – Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico Senate approved two bills Monday that would make over $21 million available for communities in southern New Mexico affected by the Black and McBride fires last year.

The Albuquerque Journalreports Senate Bill 430 would authorize over $18 million for Ruidoso and Lincoln County for damage to bridges, infrastructure and 200 structures from the McBride Fire.

Senate Bill 334 also passed, which would authorize $3 million to help areas damaged by the massive Black Fire, including the Gila and Aldo Leopold wilderness areas.

These amounts are on top of the $100 million in a bill signed into law last month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for communities in northern New Mexico hit by the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire.