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MON: Lawmakers approve $9.6 billion budget over a windy weekend, + More

The sun rises above the New Mexico State Capitol on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)
Liam DeBonis
Source New Mexico
The sun rises above the New Mexico State Capitol on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)

Lawmakers approve $9.6 billion budget over a windy weekend - Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico

On a windy Saturday in Santa Fe, lawmakers inside the Roundhouse discussed and passed bills on how to spend a historic $9.6 billion budget.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a committee substitute bill by a 9-2 vote that lays out funding allocations from the nearly $10 billion pot.

After an hour-and-a-half of debate on Sunday night, the Senate voted 25-16 to approve the budget. Because the Senate Finance Committee made changes to the bill on Saturday, it must go back to the House for concurrence.

There are substantial increases for many state agencies included in House Bill 2, the General Appropriations Act of 2023. Adrian Avila, Senate Finance Committee analyst, said the $9.57 billion allocation is a 14% increase from the last fiscal year.


Avila went over new financial changes in the budget that increase what state agencies had in FY23:

  • $489 million more for natural resource agencies (8-15% increases)
  • $302 million more for public education (8% increase)
  • $246 million more for Medicaid (21% increase)
  • $187 million for higher education (18% increase)
  • $135 million more for Early Childhood Education and Care Department (69% increase)
  • $4.2 million more for tourism (20% increase)
  • $1.97 million more for economic development (11% increase)

He said there would also be $164 million for behavioral health services across the Health and Human Services Department, CYFD, and the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, and $100 million for law enforcement programs.
Another $1.132 billion would go toward special appropriations, he added.

Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup), chair of the committee, said it’s up to the state agencies that requested all these funding increases to figure out what to do if a recession comes around.

“You wanted the money. You do the cutting,” Muñoz said. “If you’ve got to cut 30% out of your budget, you’re going to do it. I’m not going to do it for you.”

Also, Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington) said oil and gas revenues, which is the main reason for the state’s record surplus, will dip in the future.

Some of the department requests go beyond what the governor’s office and legislative staff recommend. For example, the $489 million split between natural resource agencies includes a 21% jump in funds for the Environment Department, more than what the executive and Legislative Finance Committee suggested in their budget proposals.

Sen. William Burt (R-Alamogordo) said he’s concerned that there’s not enough of a reserve in the bill. There would be about $2.87 billion in reserve savings, which is about 30% of the budget.

Some senators also questioned why education agencies would get so much more funds.

Sen. Pat Woods (D-Broadview) said he didn’t understand why higher education is allocated such a substantial increase. Charles Salee, deputy director for the Legislative Finance Committee, said enrollment is expected to keep increasing, meaning institutions will have to pay more to operate.

Burt said the early childhood portion of the budget is also tying up a lot of funds. “Early childhood still boggles my mind the amount of money that they have,” he said.

Avila said funding for pre-K and child care could sharply increase, and the distribution from the Early Childhood Care and Education Program Fund would go up by $150 million — though that’s contingent on House Bill 191.

Avila said there would also be a 6% average increase for public school, higher education and state employees. The budget also aims to fill other needed positions that lack workers, like nurses, crime lab techs, caseworkers, judges and district attorneys.


While lawmakers discussed the changes in the legislation, no copy of the updated bill itself was available for public review online or in person ahead of the committee that met at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

The amended version of the bill has not been posted on the New Mexico Legislature website at time of publication Monday morning. Source New Mexico requested a copy of the new budget on Saturday from the bill’s sponsors and a legislative analyst but did not receive a copy of the amended version.

By Saturday afternoon, a new fiscal impact report explaining changes in the bill with new budget lines was posted on the website.

Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) said the committee members should’ve had more time to process all this new information, and Sharer, who voted for the bill in committee, said he would reconsider his support on the floor when he had more time to review the changes.

He voted with Republican colleagues against the bill on Sunday.

Steinborn added, all these documents that committee members had should be posted online for public review, just like any other bill.

“The public should see the same documents. They should be online, just like any bill that we vote on, we put online. But we don’t do that with a $9 billion budget?” he said. “I’m mystified, and we need to just collectively do that.”

Muñoz said the budget language changes that Senate Finance went over on Saturday were never read out in committee in the past, even before he took over as chair.

“You can complain to the press. You can complain to whoever you want to complain to,” he said. “But the openness and the changes since I’ve been the chair is very clear to the public.”

Meanwhile, the sponsor of House Bill 505, which sets aside $1.2 billion for capital outlay projects, lauded his budget process for being clear.

“It was transparent, it was open, and it was full of communication,” sponsor Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo) said.

Several lawmakers thanked Lente for leading the charge on the capital outlay process.

The legislation passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 41-26 on Saturday and heads to the Senate for debate.

While there was generally bipartisan support voiced for the bill in the House, an appropriation for $10 million for a reproductive health clinic in Doña Ana County split some votes along party lines.

Rep. John Block’s (R-Alamogordo) amendment to remove that section was tabled.

Lawmakers revive tenant protections bill - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

A proposal to strengthen protections for tenants facing eviction in New Mexico was resurrected on Saturday.

House Bill 6 would give tenants more time to catch up on rent before being evicted, along with the opportunity to avoid getting kicked out if they can pay what is owed.

The legislation had died on Friday because of a tied vote in the House Judiciary Committee, however, on Saturday morning one of its sponsors asked them to reconsider.

House Speaker Javier Martinez (D-Albuquerque) had been present for the meeting on Friday, but was not in the room at the moment of the vote.

“Being that it was a tie vote, we’d really like to have an actual vote on the matter,” said Rep. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe).

Rep. Greg Nibert (R-Roswell) and Minority Floor Leader Rep. Ryan Lane (R-Aztec) questioned whether Romero’s motion was proper but committee chair Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos) overruled them, so they voted 6-4 to reconsider the bill.

Nibert initially refused to vote on the motion.

Chandler told him, “at a certain point, once the chair rules, it’s a motion that can be made.”

“I’m sorry, representative, that you don’t agree, but if you’re present in the room, you need to vote,” Chandler said.

Nibert begrudgingly voted no, and the committee voted 6-4 to pass the bill.

To become law, the bill would still need to be voted on in the House of Representatives, at least two Senate committees, and the full Senate; and get the OK by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The 60-day legislative session ends at noon on March 18. 

Agents stop crowd at Texas border crossing amid asylum woes - Associated Press

A large group of migrants in Mexico who were poised to barge into the U.S. over the weekend were blocked from crossing a bridge leading from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman said.

The migrants were "posing a potential threat to make a mass entry," and physical barriers were put up to restrict their entry at the Paso Del Norte International Bridge on Sunday afternoon, spokesman Roger Maier said in a statement to The Associated Press on Monday.

Barricades also were used in El Paso for a short time Sunday afternoon at other border crossings including the Bridge of Americas and the Stanton-Lerdo bridge, Maier said.

Video of the scene at the Paso Del Norte bridge on Sunday showed hundreds of migrants brush past Mexican National Guard officers on the Mexican side, some carrying children on their shoulders. Many appeared to be Venezuelan, by their accents.

Shouting "We want to get through!," the migrants ran up to the center line of the bridge, where U.S. authorities had erected concrete and plastic barriers strung with concertina wire.

The migrants were stopped by the barrier, and remained on the Mexican side, shouting "Open up for us!" to the U.S. officers. After a time, the migrants ran back toward the Mexican side.

Traffic was reopened and flowing in both directions as of Sunday evening, Maier said. It wasn't immediately known what caused the attempted mass crossing. A message seeking comment was left with the mayor's office in El Paso.

The rush across the bridge may have been sparked by false rumors, said Camilo Cruz, who works with the U.N. migration office in Ciudad Juarez.

Cruz said there was "a rumor that they were going to let them cross massively, particularly people who arrived with children."

Cruz said the rumors are a recurrent problem. About a month ago, messages began circulating "that there were going to be buses on the U.S. side to take them to Canada ... and when they arrived, they were told it was a lie."

The worst thing, Cruz said, is that migrants often leave the shelters where they are staying to attend such mass crossing attempts, only to find the shelters full when they return.

Many of the migrants on Sunday appeared to be asylum seekers. One woman held out what appeared to be an appointment slip at the barricade. Migrants seeking asylum, a legal immigration pathway for people fleeing persecution in their own country, have been frustrated by newly-implemented limits on those showing up at the southwest border, as many Venezuelans do.

There has been frustration with the U.S. government's CBPOne mobile app for making appointments to apply for asylum, which has been overloaded since the Biden administration introduced it Jan. 12. New appointments are available each day at 6 a.m., but migrants find themselves stymied by error messages.

Also causing frustration is a pandemic rule, scheduled to end May 11, that denies migrants a chance to seek asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Under the public health rule, known as Title 42, Mexico recently began taking back Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who crossed.

In addition, the Biden administration has said it will generally deny asylum to migrants who show up at the U.S. southern border without first seeking protection in a country they passed through.

Bill against straw purchases of guns advances in New Mexico - Associated Press

Legislators from both political parties are rallying behind a gun control bill in New Mexico that would apply felony penalties to straw purchases of firearms, in which a weapon is bought legally in order to sell it to someone who can't lawfully possess a gun.

The state House of Representatives voted 62-3 on Friday to endorse the bill and move it to the Senate for consideration. The Legislature has until noon on March 18 to send bills to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

House Republican Minority Leader T. Ryan Lane of Aztec cosponsored the bill and highlighted support from several law enforcement agencies.

"We have a real problem with criminals obtaining firearms where they shouldn't be able to do that," Lane told House colleagues.

Other cosponsors include Democratic state Rep. Raymundo Lara of Chamberino and Republican state Rep. Andrea Reeb.

Reeb, a former district attorney, is currently serving as a special prosecutor in the manslaughter case against actor Alec Baldwin in connection with the shooting death of a cinematographer on the set of a Western movie in October 2021. Baldwin has pleaded not guilty.

Reeb praised the bill for giving state prosecutors an important new tool.

The initiative would establish felony penalties for the unlawful purchase or transfer of a firearm for another person with sanctions of up to 18 months in prison. Guilt would hinge upon whether a person knowingly purchases or transfers a firearm by request.

Votes against the bill were cast by Republican state Reps. Stefani Lord of Sandia Park, John Block of Alamogordo and James Townsend of Artesia. Townsend is a member of the Republican Party's national committee.

Ex-Navajo president honored in funeral procession, reception - Associated Press

Remembered as an inspirational, humble leader with a passion for education and commitment to his people, former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah was honored Saturday with a funeral procession that stretched for 100 miles (160 kilometers) from western New Mexico into eastern Arizona.

People lined roads on the reservation to say their final farewells to a monumental leader who made education, family, culture and Navajo language the hallmarks of his life. He fought tirelessly to correct wrongdoings against Native Americans.

"He led with compassion and a crystal-clear vision of what is right for the people first," said Robert Joe, Zah's nephew who served as the master of ceremonies at a public reception Saturday afternoon. "He always put the people before him to do what was right and for the interest of the people."

Crsytalyne Curley, Zah's granddaughter who is now the speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, said Zah "spread hope throughout the whole Navajo Nation."

Zah died late Tuesday in Fort Defiance, Arizona, surrounded by his family and after a lengthy illness. He was 85.

Zah was buried in a private service at his family's cemetery in Low Mountain, Arizona, where he was born.

The procession passed through several Navajo communities, with people holding their hands to their hearts and displaying signs that declared Zah would be missed. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority hoisted flags from utility trucks along the route.

"All of Indian Country mourns with you today," said Stephen Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community. "We mourn the loss of his brilliant mind, his personality, his wisdom. ... We are truly mourning the passing of an era."

Zah was the first president elected on the Navajo Nation — the largest tribal reservation in the U.S. — in 1990 after the government was restructured into three branches to prevent power from being concentrated in the chairman's office. At the time, the tribe was reeling from a deadly riot incited by Zah's political rival, former Chairman Peter MacDonald, a year earlier.

Zah, who also served a term as tribal chairman, vowed to rebuild the Navajo Nation. Under his leadership, the tribe established a now multi-billion-dollar permanent fund after winning a court battle that found the tribe had authority to tax companies that extracted minerals from the vast reservation.

"President Zah never lost sight of his purpose: to stand up for the dignity and respect of the Navajo people," President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden wrote in a letter to Zah's family Saturday.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said in a statement that Zah "transformed the Navajo Nation, and with it, our state."

Sometimes referred to as the Native American Robert Kennedy, Zah was known for his charisma, ideas and ability to get things done, including lobbying federal officials to ensure Native Americans could use peyote as a religious sacrament.

Zah also worked to ensure Native Americans were reflected in federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

He was well-known for his low-key but stern style of leadership, driving around in a battered, white 1950s International pickup that was on display outside at the public reception Saturday.

Several speakers said Zah was instrumental in their determination to attend and graduate from Arizona State University or other institutions of higher learning.

"To say Peterson Zah was a champion of education is like saying there are a lot of stars in the sky. It's an understatement," said Charles Monty Roessel, a former director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Education who is now president of Diné College in Arizona.

"He understood the transformational power of education because he saw it in his own life," Roessel said.

Buu Van Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, said Zah had recently met with tribal leaders to emphasize the importance of continuing to prioritize educational opportunities for their children.

"He made sure education was at the forefront of everything he did," Nygren said. "He touched many, many generations of young Navajo leaders like myself."

Post-wildfire conditions result in poor recovery for fish - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Fishing in rivers and streams that cross through a national monument in northern New Mexico is off limits now as wildlife managers look for ways make the area more habitable following a catastrophic fire and years of subsequent flooding.

Managers at Bandelier National Monument issued a temporary fishing closure order Friday, saying Rio Grande cutthroat trout and other species reintroduced following the 2011 blaze aren't recovering as expected.

Water testing has shown a decline in the insect larva that the fish feed on, and the water temperature also is warmer because of the lack of shade in the burn areas.

"Simply put, there is no food for the fish," Bandelier Superintendent Patrick Suddath said in a statement. "Even catching and releasing them appears to be causing undue stress."

Biologists are considering alternative strategies for restoring the riparian habitat so the fish will have better chance of survival. Continued monitoring of the trout population will help to inform any park management decisions, officials said.

The Las Conchas fire — then the largest in New Mexico history — burned so hot in some spots that it turned entire hillsides to ash, leaving behind only charred skeletons of what had been towering ponderosa pine trees.

The flames raced across more than 244 square miles (632 square kilometers) of the Jemez Mountains during the summer of 2011. The fire destroyed several dozen homes, threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory, burned through cultural sites and threatened an important water source for Santa Clara Pueblo.

Downstream communities are still dealing with the lingering effects of the fire.

In 2011 and again in 2013, post-fire floods ravaged Bandelier and wiped out the native fish population. The National Park Service teamed up with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to return the Rio Grande cutthroat trout — the only cutthroat trout native to the state — to the area.

Last fall, efforts began to reintroduce the Rio Grande chub and sucker as well.

Data is limited on those species since the work began recently, but officials say the trout appear to be struggling.

Similar problems have cropped up in other parts of the West, either because of wildfires and flooding or dwindling water supplies and warming temperatures amid climate change.

Those rare species found mostly in small, high-elevation streams — like the Rio Grande cutthroat and Gila trout in southern New Mexico — have been particularly vulnerable.

On the Colorado River, federal managers have a legal obligation to maintain native fish populations under the Endangered Species Act. They have experimented with changing the flow of water from Glen Canyon Dam near the Arizona-Utah border to boost the number of aquatic insects for the fish to eat.

In another stretch of northern New Mexico, crews had to rescue fish from what became the largest fire in the state's recorded history in 2022 when government-sparked prescribed burn operations went awry. They stunned and netted as many cutthroat as possible so they could be trucked south and stored until they could be returned to the wild.

Gila trout also have been rescued over the years as fires have threatened their habitat near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

New Mexico seeks limits on release of police body-cam video - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's House of Representatives has endorsed new limitations on public access to police body-camera video when it captures images of nudity, violence, injury or death.

The 46-19 vote Thursday sent the bill to the Senate for consideration. Proponents of the initiative include the New Mexico State Police and associations representing county and municipal governments, including sheriffs' departments.

New restrictions would be placed on access to police lapel-camera video that shows acts of extreme violence, injury or death unless an on-duty officer "is reasonably alleged or suspected to have caused the great bodily harm."

The proliferation of body-worn cameras by law enforcement personnel across the country has put the use of force by police on public display with profound consequences, such as responses to images of the fatal arrest of Tyre Nichols in Memphis on Jan. 7.

New Mexico lawmakers in 2020 enacted legislation requiring that all state and local police officers wear body cameras in response to concern about excessive use of force by law enforcement, with the exception of tribal governments.

Mary Fan, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and expert on police body-camera policies, said the proposed exemptions in New Mexico are moderate in comparison with many state and local jurisdictions, including some that require court approval for access to video recorded by police.

"A concern in various jurisdictions that do make camera footage a public record is the risk that (someone) may post a person's worst moments on YouTube," said Fan, noting that video of police responses to domestic violence incidents are of particular concern. "There needs to be a balance to protect against, essentially, voyeurism."

The New Mexico initiative sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Debra Sariñana and Democratic Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, both of Albuquerque, adds several exceptions on access to law enforcement documents and recording that are otherwise open to public inspection.

Exemptions for police body-camera video includes recordings that reveal intimate body areas, confidential police sources and tactics, or scenes in which people are notified of the death of a family member.

Some videos with sensitive content would still be made available where problematic images can be obscured with editing tools. And video still would be available for on-site viewing at government offices with a prohibition or copying or recording video files.

The bill contains a long list of other exemptions to open-records law, including information about government computer and information technology systems, as well as private business information related to marketing and advertising campaigns for the state.

A legislative panel held a hearing Monday with the opportunity for comment on a rewritten bill that was not made public until later. No objections were raised by an open-records watchdog group.

Under a separate bill, state law would no longer automatically presume that police acted in bad faith by failing to comply with policies for body-worn cameras, such as when to turn them on and prematurely erasing video, and liability provisions would be eased but not eliminated for negligently ruining or destroying video evidence. That bill won Senate approval Wednesday on a 41-0 vote.

During the House floor debate Thursday, Republican state Rep. Cathrynn Brown of Carlsbad expressed unease with proposed limits on public access to information about government computer and technology systems, including election systems.

"Of course we don't want people hacking into the computer systems. But there are times where there are question marks about how things are actually done, and I think citizens should have the right to look into that and not be precluded," she said.

Bill sponsor Sariñana said the intention is to protect information technology systems.

Police: 2 teens arrested in a fatal shooting near Las Cruces - Associated Press

Two 16-year-old boys have been arrested in connection with a fatal shooting near Las Cruces, according to authorities.

New Mexico State Police said 17-year-old Benjamin Archuleta was wounded by gunfire from another vehicle on Interstate 25 and pronounced dead at a hospital March 3.

The vehicle's driver and a passenger who is the suspected shooter were later arrested and their names were being withheld because they're juveniles, police said.

Police said the two teens are facing charges of first-degree murder, shooting from at or from a motor vehicle resulting in great bodily injury and assault with intent to commit a violent felony.

According to the Las Cruces Sun-News, Archuleta was enrolled at Las Cruces High School but had dropped out before the shooting occurred.

Pedestrian killed in hit-and-run crash in Albuquerque - Associated Press

Albuquerque police are investigating a fatal hit-and-run accident that left a pedestrian dead on the east side of town.

Police said Saturday the pedestrian was hit by a westbound sedan late Friday night on Zuni Road SE near Dallas Street SE about a block south of U.S. Route 66.

Officers responded just before midnight and determined that the vehicle fled the scene to the west.

The pedestrian was transported to a local hospital with significant injuries and later died. The victim's name has not been released.

An investigation is continuing.