WED: NM convenes law enforcement commission to disrupt organized crime, + More
New Mexico convenes law enforcement commission to disrupt organized crime - Associated Press
New Mexico's governor announced a new effort to confront organized crime Wednesday by convening a specialized commission of local prosecutors and leading law enforcement officials.
Organized crime in New Mexico has recently spurred the adoption of criminal penalties for coordinated retail theft, federal raids on stash houses to rescue migrants and efforts to disrupt fentanyl rings.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is reviving the state's Organized Crime Commission under provisions of a 1970s-era statute. A commission hasn't been convened since the administration of former Gov. Bill Richardson, who served from 2003 until 2011.
Albuquerque-based District Attorney Sam Bregman will lead the eight-member group that will provide an annual report to the state Legislature and governor.
"New Mexico, like the rest of the country, has a crime problem, whether it's guns, drugs or human trafficking," Bregman said. "Much of it gets its origin, means and methods from criminal organizations. ... The purpose of this commission is to forestall, check and prevent the infiltration and encroachment of organized crime."
Commission members include Republican former state Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura, U.S. Marshal Sonya Chavez, state Public Safety Secretary Jason Bowie and Democratic Bernalillo County Sheriff John Allen.
At a news conference, Lujan Grisham said the commission's work should help inform future legislative proposals, though some activities involving criminal investigations won't be disclosed to the public.
New Mexico homelessness spikes as housing costs surge - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
A tally of the homeless population in New Mexico shows an abrupt jump in the number of people living without permanent housing or with no shelter at all, according to the legislative agency focused on budgeting and accountability.
A spot-count commissioned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on a winter night in January identified about 3,850 homeless people, 48% more than a year earlier, a report released Tuesday found.
The count reflected many more unsheltered people — mostly in Albuquerque, where authorities are grappling with encampments on sidewalks and riverside parks.
The change interrupts a gradual, decade-long decline in homelessness in New Mexico, which has the highest poverty rate in the western U.S., according to the nonpartisan research agency.
"Poverty rates are high, labor participation is low. There is high substance abuse rates," Kathleen Gygi, a program evaluator, told a legislative panel at the state Capitol. "These are all things that compound the problems."
About half of available shelter beds were being used when surveyed, but some shelters were full and others were hard for people to reach.
The study highlighted a decline in affordable housing as rent increases vastly outpaced personal income growth. Average rents statewide have risen by about 70% since 2017, versus a 15% increase in incomes.
Legislators and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are searching for the best ways to spend $84 million in new state funding to reduce homelessness and boost affordable housing. The governor commissioned an investment plan Tuesday that might help address housing shortages.
The Legislature's analysis of homelessness and housing found that people in New Mexico stay in shelters and transitional housing for relatively short periods, about half the national average.
But New Mexico's largest city, Albuquerque, faltered when it came to successfully transitioning people into permanent housing. About 20% of people in the city's shelters or temporary housing successfully make the leap into permanent housing each year, far below the national average and the 40% transition rate for Phoenix.
A dire struggle with homelessness amid soaring real estate prices was on prominent display Monday at an emergency shelter for men near downtown Santa Fe, just across the street from the city's thriving Railyard district of art galleries, restaurants, bars and a boutique movie theater.
Scott Snyder, a 67-year-old with limited use of his hands because of a childhood accident, moved into the facility run by St. Elizabeth Shelters in January after his truck broke down and he could no longer sleep in it. He said cheap rental apartments and spare rooms were plentiful when he moved to Santa Fe in the 1980s.
"The affordable rentals are almost nonexistent, they've all dried up," Snyder said.
St. Elizabeth Executive Director Eduard Archuleta oversees two shelters in Santa Fe along with publicly subsidized apartment complexes that support chronically homeless people, disabled adults and low-income families with a variety of support services. The facilities are consistently filled to capacity, he said.
Archuleta says he has been astonished to see professionals with modest incomes but no place to call home turn up in droves to apply for space at the the organization's 120-unit affordable housing complex that opened in 2021.
"It was a deluge of people and most of them you never would have guessed that they were homeless," he said.
At Tuesday's hearing, housing analysts warned that commitments to subsidized rent at hundreds of units may expire without intervention over the next decade. However, the state's financing authority for affordable housing does support a robust pipeline of multifamily units for low- and moderate-income families.
Isidoro Hernandez, CEO of the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, said more than 50 multifamily projects with 4,300 units are under development or construction across the state.
Native Americans were overrepresented in New Mexico's homeless population — accounting for 17% of the homeless population and just 11% of the overall population, the study found. That often translates into overcrowded housing.
"We don't see the homeless because we don't allow people to be homeless. We will take them in," said Democratic state Rep. Derrick Lente, a tribal member of Sandia Pueblo.
PRC orders utility to give credits to New Mexicans after undercharging large customers - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
State officials want to make sure New Mexicans are not missing out on what could be more than $1 million because a Texas utility company was found charging incorrect rates on electric bills.
Last week, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission ruled that El Paso Electric had been undercharging some of its largest customers a few years ago, consequently making other people pay higher rates.
Commissioners said the undercharge created inequities in the rates that other regular El Paso Electric customers paid. Officials in Las Cruces argue the utility owes more than $1.19 million for overcharging people.
The PRC ordered El Paso Electric to fix its billing mistakes by creating new discounted rates for people with non-commercial accounts and gave the Texas-based company just under a month to determine how much it will return in credits.
The utility has until June 6 to file a notice with credited rates.
El Paso Electric will not appeal the decision in court and is moving in motion plans to correct the charge to its customers, according to utility spokesperson Karmen Mayorga.
She said the utility will credit its non-commercial customers to make up for undercharging its large customers starting July 1.
“Pursuant to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission’s order, El Paso Electric is to correct the underbilling of five large commercial customers and will credit the underbilled sum directly to all other customers over the course of the next year,” Mayorga said via email.
HOW THIS HAPPENED
Utilities can charge their customers certain fees in order to meet state-required renewable energy standards.
Large, nongovernmental utility customers used to have caps on how much of these fees they had to pay for utilities’ renewable energy requirements — no more than 2% of their annual revenue. New Mexico lawmakers reversed that rule in 2019 when they amended the Renewable Energy Act.
However, El Paso Electric continued to cap fees for some of its biggest customers.
This matter dates back to 2018, when the PRC approved fines that El Paso Electric wanted to charge its customers in order to pay for energy from a facility in southern New Mexico. The city of Las Cruces disagreed with the fees and appealed the PRC decision with the New Mexico Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, El Paso Electric charged its customers the extra fines from 2019 to 2021.
In December 2021, the New Mexico Supreme Court decided that the fees were illegal.
The PRC shouldn’t have approved the fines because the energy costs that the utility was charging for should’ve been free under federal law, according to the court.
So the public regulation commission ordered El Paso Electric to pay back its customers. In 2022, the utility returned over $600,000 to its customers in southern New Mexico.
Las Cruces officials had more issues with the Texas utility company, arguing in a hearing that took place in January and February 2023 that the El Paso Electric capping fees on its largest customers since 2019 trickled into higher bills for people with smaller accounts.
El Paso Electric could owe more than $1.19 million to people with accounts in southern New Mexico, said Las Cruces Utilities administrator José F. Provencio.
El Paso Electric argued against paying it all back, saying discounted rates or credits would qualify as “retroactive ratemaking,” or changing rates after they’ve already been set in place and charged. And, the utility argued, El Paso Electric billed people following approval in 2018 directly from the PRC.
Last week, the Public Regulation Commission agreed with Las Cruces officials and ordered El Paso Electric to give its general customers credits to make up for the difference in the rates the utility charged them compared to its large customers.
The PRC said since the rates were wrong in the first place, the utility needs to fix them.
Commissioners also said all parties — including the PRC and El Paso Electric — have to follow New Mexico law, regardless of what the commission ordered in 2018. PRC attorney Russell Fisk explained this during the public meeting last week.
“Correcting billing to comply with the amendments to the (Renewable Energy Act) is not retroactive ratemaking,” Fisk said. “It is ensuring compliance with the law to which the Commission as well as EPE were and are subject.”
Now that El Paso Electric has to fix the incorrect charges, the city of Las Cruces also wanted the utility to skip over figuring out how much needs to be credited, since Provencio’s testimony with the city added up to $1,198,067 in error.
The PRC disagreed.
Commissioners said the utility should be able to calculate the needed billing adjustments, which El Paso Electric has about a month to do.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case where the commission ordered an adjustment that would be executed by utility without letting the utility calculate the adjustment,” Fisk said.
Spaceport governance meeting pushed back - By Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
The New Mexico Spaceport Authority governing board postponed a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, according to its online meeting announcement.
No agenda was posted for the meeting.
Alicia Keyes, New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary and board chair for the Spaceport Authority, said the delay stemmed from the Virgin Galactic flight planned for May 25.
The date for a new meeting is up in the air.
“We will post when the next meeting will be but with so much travel from board members, it’s looking like July,” Keyes told Source NM in an email..
Additional questions emailed to New Mexico Spaceport Authority staff went unanswered Tuesday. The agency is without a public information officer, according to an auto-response, Alice Carruth recently departed the agency.
The postponement raises questions about the board’s obligations to host meetings every fiscal quarter.
The law establishing the board states it “shall meet in regular session at least once every three months.”
The last regular board meeting posted to the site is dated Jan. 20, 2023. There was a public hearing on a rule on Feb. 22, 2023.
Keyes did not respond by deadline to a follow-up question regarding the law.
Emails, a call and texts to the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General, regarding the obligations were unreturned Tuesday.
Ex-New Mexico State basketball player not facing charges in fatal shooting - Associated Press
Former New Mexico State basketball player Mike Peake will not face charges in a fatal shooting on a rival college's campus last year, according to authorities.
The Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office said in a statement Monday evening that "the decision to not charge Mike Peake was made by the prior administration based on all the facts and evidence presented to them. Nothing has changed, so we're honoring that decision."
Peake was placed on indefinite suspension shortly after the Nov. 19 shooting death of Brandon Travis, a 19-year-old University of New Mexico student.
Peake, 21, told authorities that he was lured to UNM's Albuquerque campus by a female student hours before the Aggies were to play the rival Lobos.
Authorities said Travis and two other men then assaulted Peake with a baseball bat in a dormitory parking lot as part of a revenge plot stemming from a fight last October in Las Cruces.
Video surveillance footage showed an exchange of gunfire between Travis and Peake. Authorities said Travis was shot multiple times and died at the scene while Peake suffered a leg wound and survived.
Peake, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, entered the NCAA transfer portal in December but has yet to join another college team.
In February, New Mexico State indefinitely suspended its men's basketball program in a move that university officials said was unrelated to the fatal shooting.
‘Duster’ streaming series halts production as unions support striking writers – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press
A streaming series being filmed in New Mexico has suspended production after members of two unions refused to cross picket lines set up to support writers who are on strike nationwide.
The Albuquerque Journal reports the show “Duster,” whose executive producers include J.J. Abrams, began filming in April around Albuquerque and several other areas. It’s slated for streaming on Max, formerly known as HBO Max.
Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — the main unions for crews and drivers on sets — are supporting the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike since early this month.
Writers say the rise of streaming has hurt their earning power. It’s the first writers’ strike — and the first Hollywood strike of any kind — in 15 years.
The union is seeking higher minimum pay, more writers per show, and shorter exclusive contracts, among other demands — all conditions it says have been diminished in the content boom driven by streaming.
Community solar moves forward; developers chosen to set up renewable energy facilities - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
After weeks of delay, New Mexico’s push to get solar energy to communities like apartment renters and low-income households is progressing again.
InClime, a renewable energy-affiliated company, chose 45 solar facility projects out of over 400 proposals, giving companies the green light to start the process to set up farms they’ll soon operate for New Mexico’s community solar program.
New Mexicans could be able to officially start signing up to be part of the program next month.
The project announcements on Monday came weeks later than state officials anticipated, after multiple companies that applied to set up and run solar facilities filed complaints with the state’s Public Regulation Commission alleging InClime had errors in its program application process.
The PRC put the community solar process on hold while sorting that out.
“The PRC’s staff has put in a great deal of effort to make this program a success,” Commissioner James Ellison said in a news release. “The PRC is proud to play a role in bringing community solar to New Mexico.”
Over half the solar facilities InClime chose will be located in southern New Mexico.
The solar energy that’s eventually generated will go to customers of the three investor-owned utilities in the state — the Public Service Company of New Mexico, the Southwestern Public Service Company and El Paso Electric — who choose to opt in. PNM customers will get a majority of the energy.
Renters, homeowners and businesses that choose to be part of community solar don’t have to purchase and install solar panels themselves, according to the PRC. The legislation that enacted community solar also specifies that participants will get a break on their utility bills for being part of the program, and at least 30% of the solar energy generated has to go to low-income communities.
Developers will start reaching out to eligible New Mexicans in the next few weeks to try to get them to participate in community solar, according to the PRC. The commission said project disclosure forms are scheduled to be released in June, then communities could start signing contracts to be part of the program.
Meanwhile, the companies setting up these solar farms need to get on preexisting energy grids. The PRC said the chosen developers will work with the investor-owned utilities to sort this out in coming weeks as well.
If any of the companies InClime chose can’t meet predetermined commitments or drop out of the community solar program, there’s a waitlist with dozens more companies that can step in instead.
Breakthrough proposal would aid drought-stricken Colorado River as 3 Western states offer cuts – Suman Naishadham and Ken Ritter, Associated Press
Arizona, Nevada and California said Monday they’re willing to cut back on their use of the dwindling Colorado River in exchange for money from the federal government -- and to avoid forced cuts as drought threatens the key water supply for the U.S. West.
The $1.2 billion plan, a potential breakthrough in a year-long stalemate, would conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet of water through 2026, when current guidelines for how the river is shared expire. About half the cuts would come by the end of 2024. That's less than what federal officials said last year would be needed to stave off crisis in the river but still marks a notable step in long and difficult negotiations between the three states.
The 1,450-mile (2,334-kilometer) river provides water to 40 million people in seven U.S. states, parts of Mexico and more than two dozen Native American tribes. It produces hydropower and supplies water to farms that grow most of the nation's winter vegetables.
In exchange for temporarily using less water, cities, irrigation districts and Native American tribes in the three states will be paid. The federal government plans to spend $1.2 billion, said Lauren Wodarski, a spokesperson to U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat.
Though adoption of the plan isn't certain, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton called it an “important step forward.” She said the bureau will pull back its proposal from last month that could have resulted in sidestepping the existing water priority system to force cuts while it analyzes the three-state plan. The bureau's earlier proposal, if adopted, could have led to a messy legal battle.
"At least they’re still talking. But money helps you keep talking,” said Terry Fulp, former regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Basin region.
The three Lower Basin states are entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water altogether from the river. An acre-foot of water is roughly enough to serve two to three U.S. households annually.
California gets the most, based on a century-old water rights priority system. Most of that goes to farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District, though some also goes to smaller water districts and cities across Southern California. Arizona and Nevada have already faced cuts in recent years as key reservoir levels dropped based on prior agreements. But California has been spared.
Under the new proposal, California would give up about 1.6 million acre-feet of water through 2026 — a little more than half of the total. That's roughly the same amount the state first offered six months ago.
But the threat of forced federal cuts — made more strongly last month — appears to have prompted action.
“It’s always a concern when states lose control of their own process,” said John Entsminger, general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
The Imperial Irrigation District would account for more than half of California’s cuts. J.B. Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board of California, said the district has already taken measures to improve water efficiency and will need to do more. He said the district is working on a pilot summer idling program where farmers would sign up to turn off their water for 60 days for forage crops. During that time of year, yields are already down and more water is required, he said.
Bill Hasencamp, manager of Colorado River resources for the Metropolitan Water District of California, which supplies water to 19 million people in southern California, said the wet winter means the state simply needs less water. His district is planning on leaving 250,000 acre feet this year in Lake Mead, and won’t withdraw it until after 2026.
The district will also turn over to the federal government a program that pays farmers to fallow land that typically nets them about 130,000 acre feet of water a year, he said. Metropolitan will save roughly $100 million over three years, he said.
Buschatzke stressed that the announcement is not a final deal.
“We agreed to a proposal. This is not an agreement,” Buschatzke said during a conference call with reporters. Buschatzke said the proposal still needs analysis and approval from the federal government, which will determine how much funding will be allocated for entities that give up water.
The plan doesn’t change how much water the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah or Wyoming will receive. Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said that Upper Basin states didn’t have a chance to analyze the Lower Basin's plan in detail.
“The wet winter has given us a bit of space to negotiate, but we must not squander this gift from Mother Nature,” Mitchell said. She said Colorado and other basin states urged federal officials to return to longer-term discussions about how to preserve water levels at Lakes Mead and Powell beyond 2026.
The Colorado River has been in crisis for years due to a multi-decade drought in the West intensified by climate change, rising demand and overuse. Water levels at key reservoirs dipped to unprecedented lows, though they have rebounded somewhat thanks to heavy precipitation this winter.
In recent years the federal government has cut some water allocations and offered billions of dollars to pay farmers, cities and others to cut back. But key water officials didn't see those efforts as enough to prevent the system from collapsing.
Last summer, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation called for the seven basin states to figure out how to cut their collective use of Colorado River water by about 2 to 4 million acre feet in 2023 alone — roughly 15% to 30% of their annual use — but states blew past that deadline and an agreement remained elusive.
In April, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released a plan that considered two ways to force cuts for Arizona, Nevada and California. One contemplated using a decades-old water priority system that would have benefited California and some Native American tribes with senior water rights. The other would have been a percentage cut across the board.
Michael Cohen, a senior researcher at the Pacific Institute focused on the Colorado River, called the amount of cuts the three states have proposed a “huge, huge lift” and a significant step forward.
“It does buy us a little additional time,” he said. But if more dry years are ahead, “this agreement will not solve that problem.”
Zia Pueblo awarded for best tasting water in the country — Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News
If you find yourself parched while on Zia Pueblo, you’re in luck — their water tastes great. So great that they’ve taken home top prize at this year’s Annual Great American Water Taste Test.
The Albuquerque Journal reports the pueblo northwest of Albuquerque first beat out the rest of New Mexico as the tastiest water in the Land of Enchantment. They went on to compete against most other states in the national contest at the Rural Water Rally in Washington D.C. this month, taking home the mouthwatering gold metal.
The Pueblo primarily relies on groundwater pumped from the Rio Grande Aquifer, according to a 2019 report from the Bureau of Reclamation. It supplies water to just under 1,000 residents.
ABQ icon Don Schrader hospitalized in hit-and-run - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News
Albuquerque’s long-time icon Don Schrader has walked the streets for decades––telling the Albuquerque Journal it’s been 44 years since he’s driven a car.
Though, as the Journal reports, the city’s most recognizable pseudocelebrity was hit by a car in a hit-and-run that left Schrader badly injured in the hospital.
Since then, he has undergone elbow and knee surgery and may be transferred to Lovelace hospital for rehab.
Schrader was crossing the street near the South Broadway Public Library when he was hit by a fast-moving car.
Schrader has told police he couldn’t see who the driver was or what vehicle they were driving, but says he forgives them.