WED: NM lacks money and workers to fully connect everyone to good internet, + More
State lacks money and workers to fully connect everyone to good internet - By Megan Gleason, Source New Mexico
New Mexico needs billions of dollars more to connect everyone to fiber-optic internet, a state broadband official told lawmakers this week.
Even with additional money, a manual workforce shortage could present challenges in getting things done.
Drew Lovelace, acting director of the state’s Office of Broadband Access and Expansion, spoke to the legislative Land Grant committee on Monday to update them on efforts to get New Mexicans connected to broadband.
A major priority is accessing $675 million in federal funding the state secured over the summer. The broadband office has to submit its first proposal in late December laying out internet setup and expansion plans. Meanwhile, people can tell the state their thoughts.
“We’re right on target to be able to deliver that and make sure that $675 million that’s been allocated continues to come into the state,” Lovelace said.
The state won’t actually see the federal money coming in for projects until 2025, he said.
And it won’t be enough to connect everyone to good, reliable internet still, he added. Lovelace said there’s still a $2.1 billion gap in getting fiber to homes and businesses across the state.
“The most long-term, most reliable technology is going to be pretty expensive,” he said.
The state will spend most of the $675 million grant to hook up homes not connected to internet at all or whose connections are too slow, he said. That still leaves out many households with slow speeds, making things like telehealth or remote work and education difficult or impossible from home.
Lovelace also said New Mexico lacks workers needed to set up broadband infrastructure. He said there’s a need for positions like laborers and material movers, trucking crews, trenchers, and fiber and wireless technicians.
And those types of positions are going to be high in demand in the next six years, if not already, he said, because federal infrastructure programs prioritized by the Biden administration also need a manual workforce and will start rolling out around the country then.
“All of these funds use the same labor, and that’s going to be where our challenges really lie ahead of us,” he said.
The lack of broadband workers is something local and state officials have talked about before. At a broadband summit in May 2023, universities and local organizations explored potential solutions for how to fill the workforce, like offering more college courses and trainings or providing adequate job funding.
FEDERAL INTERNET MAPS REMAIN INACCURATE
he federal maps showing areas with and without broadband in New Mexico are still wrong, excluding areas still needing good internet. This has been an issue since the Federal Communications Commission released the original map in November 2022.
Lovelace said the state’s broadband office is working to fix these errors. Mistakes on these maps could leave New Mexicans out of the loop to benefit from the $675 million.
The federal broadband program the $675 million comes from requires tribal consultations, and Lovelace said the office has talked with 22 of 23 tribes so far. He didn’t specify which tribal nation the agency has yet to consult.
“We want to make sure that we’re out in the communities and getting broadband to where it’s needed the most,” Lovelace said. “And so that’s been a big, big success for us.”
The state could help bridge the $2.1 billion gap Lovelace said is a problem.
He said the broadband office started with an $800,000 budget a few years ago and is now up to a $1.2 million budget. He urged the lawmakers to continue funding the agency as the 2024 legislative session nears, acknowledging that $2.1 billion all at once is unrealistic to ask for.
“But we think that we need to do this over time,” he said.
He said the federal government could come out with additional broadband or infrastructure funds in the future, but if that doesn’t happen, the need for broadband doesn’t just stop.
The Connect New Mexico program, created and funded by lawmakers in 2021, could help address this gap, he said. The fund has $100 million, and he said continuing to channel money through — even beyond 2026, which is the current end date — will help.
“The reality is that broadband is not going away,” he said.
Since starting in 2021, the broadband office has expanded from two employees to 20 employees, he said. Now, he said, the agency wants to grow to 45 employees.
Lovelace said the state’s broadband program should also be a separate entity from the New Mexico Department of Information Technology, which it currently operates under. He said the additional oversight slows the process to set up broadband.
“Given how quickly we have to move on some of these programs, waiting six months for a contract to go through is challenging at best,” he said.
Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Albuquerque) said she’s not convinced the broadband office needs autonomy and thinks the agency mostly disperses federal funds. So, she asked, what happens when there are no more federal dollars?
“You have not, at least at this point, convinced me at all of the need,” she said.
She also asked if the office has reached out to land grants to ensure those people get resources. Lovelace said that hasn’t really happened yet, but the agency plans to soon have those conversations.
Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) said he doesn’t understand the point of investing so much money in broadband for only a fraction of the state’s population who might not be able to afford the better internet anyway. He said it would be cheaper for the state to give families money to hook up to satellite systems.
However, Lovelace said fixed wireless or fiber is actually much more affordable in broadband-servable locations than a satellite system. He also said there are latency issues when too many people connect to satellites.
“Right now, you have to buy a $600 satellite system from Starlink, and then you’re paying $120 a month. And that’s going to be beyond most rural folks’ capability, unless you’re a business or a farm,” he said.
Rep. Cristina Parajón (D-Albuquerque) asked what the return on the broadband investments in New Mexico looks like. Lovelace said there are no economic studies on it yet because it’s still early on but anecdotally, it’s very good, especially for communities that would lose families because they can’t work or do school remotely.
Rural and tribal communities have historically been the ones without broadband.
“It is a game changer,” Lovelace said.
TRYING TO GET MORE FEDERAL DOLLARS
Lovelace said the state is on track to meet another deadline in February for a separate program regarding digital equity through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The federal agency is supposed to announce that award in summer 2024.
2 young children and their teen babysitter died in a fire at a Roswell home, fire officials said - Associated Press
Two young children and their teenage babysitter have died in a fire at a Roswell home, authorities said Wednesday.
Roswell Fire Department officials said a 3-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy were rushed to a hospital Tuesday night along with a 16-year-old girl who was babysitting the siblings.
The three were later pronounced dead. Their names haven't been released yet.
Authorities said the parents of the two children returned home and found their house filled with smoke. The three victims were found unresponsive inside the home around 10:30 p.m.
Fire officials say the blaze happened in the front living room of the house, but there was smoke and heat damage throughout the home.
They said the Roswell Fire Marshal's Office is investigating the cause of the fatal blaze with assistance from city police.
Abortions in the US rose slightly overall after post-Roe restrictions were put in place, study finds - By Geoff Mulvihill Associated Press
The total number of abortions provided in the U.S. rose slightly in the 12 months after states began implementing bans on them throughout pregnancy, a new survey finds.
The report out this week from the Society of Family Planning, which advocates for abortion access, shows the number fell to nearly zero in states with the strictest bans — but rose elsewhere, especially in states close to those with the bans. The monthly averages overall from July 2022 through June 2023 were about 200 higher than in May and June 2022.
The changes reflect major shifts after the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2022 handed down its Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling, overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that had made abortion legal nationally. Since last year, most Republican-controlled states have enacted restrictions, while most Democrat-controlled states have extended protections for those from out of state seeking abortion.
"The Dobbs decision turned abortion access in this country upside down," Alison Norris, a co-chair for the study, known as WeCount, and a professor at The Ohio State University's College of Public Health, said in a statement. "The fact that abortions increased overall in the past year shows what happens when abortion access is improved, and some previously unmet need for abortion is met." But she noted that bans make access harder — and sometimes impossible — for some people.
Meanwhile, an anti-abortion group celebrated that the number of abortions in states with the tightest restrictions declined by nearly 115,000. "WeCount's report confirms pro-life protections in states are having a positive impact," Tessa Longbons, a senior researcher for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, said in a statement.
Abortion bans and restrictions are consistently met with court challenges, and judges have put some of them on hold. Currently, laws are being enforced in 14 states that bar abortion throughout pregnancy, with limited exceptions, and two more that ban it after cardiac activity can be detected — usually around six weeks of gestational age and before many women realize they're pregnant.
In all, abortions provided by clinics, hospitals, medical offices and virtual-only clinics rose by nearly 200 a month nationally from July 2022 through June 2023 compared with May and June 2022. The numbers do not reflect abortion obtained outside the medical system — such as by getting pills from a friend. The data also do not account for seasonal variation in abortion, which tends to happen most often in the spring.
The states with big increases include Illinois, California and New Mexico, where state government is controlled by Democrats. But also among them are Florida and North Carolina, where restrictions have been put into place since the Dobbs ruling. In Florida, abortions are banned after 15 weeks of pregnancy — and it could go to six weeks under a new law that won't be enforced unless a judge's ruling clears the way. And in North Carolina, a ban on abortion after 12 weeks kicked in in July. The states still have more legal access than most in the Southeast.
The researchers pointed to several factors for the numbers rising, including more funding and organization to help women in states with bans travel to those where abortion is legal, an increase in medication abortion through online-only clinics, more capacity in states where abortion remains legal later in pregnancy and possibly less stigma associated with ending pregnancies.
Nationally, the number of abortions has also been rising since 2017.
Texas counties trying to prevent people from using roads to get an abortion grows - Associated Press
A Texas county near New Mexico — where abortion is legal — has banned helping people traveling to get an abortion in one of the newest ways conservatives are trying to restrict abortion access since the fall of Roe v. Wade.
Lubbock County is the largest of four Texas counties that have now adopted a version of the measure, which would be enforced through lawsuits filed by private citizens against people who help women obtain abortions. It is the same legal mechanism Texas used to enact a strict abortion law in 2021 before the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the state last year to ban nearly all abortions entirely.
Commissioners in the west Texas county adopted the measure 3-0 at a meeting Monday, rejecting some requests to postpone the vote.
The ordinance "has many legal problems," said Lubbock County Judge Curtis Parrish, the county's top elected official. "This ordinance, however, does not have a problem with its intent or the intent of those who are passionate about this."
The measures expand on city ordinances rural Texas cities began passing in 2019 to ban abortion within their boundaries, even if the cities did not have a clinic performing abortions. Critics have attacked the campaign as an effort to intimidate women from seeking abortions in places where it remains legal.
Mark Lee Dickson, a Texas pastor who has led the efforts, praised the vote.
"Guys, I long for the day (when), coast to coast, abortion is considered a great moral, social and political wrong and is outlawed in every single state," Dickson told commissioners.
No violations of the travel prohibition have been reported in the counties with similar measures already on the books. The measures would not punish women who are seeking the abortion but would present legal risks to people who help transport them to get the procedure.
Legal experts have questioned whether the ordinances could be enforced.
"We haven't had this kind of issue tested, so it's really kind of a case of first impression," said Seema Mohapatra, a health law expert and law professor at Southern Methodist University.
The Lubbock County Sheriff's Office declined to comment on the ban or its implementation.
Lubbock County has about 317,000 residents and far outnumbers the population of the three other Texas counties — Mitchell, Goliad and Cochran — that have approved the ordinance in recent months, with each county's population counting fewer than 10,000 residents. Highways through Lubbock County run to New Mexico, which has some of the most permissive abortion laws in the U.S.
The ban does not apply to cities within Lubbock County, including the city of Lubbock, which has about 264,000 of the county's residents. Lubbock voters in 2021 adopted a similar measure.
"Texans already live under some of the most restrictive and dangerous abortion bans in the country, yet anti-abortion extremists continue to push additional unnecessary, confusing and fear-inducing barriers to essential healthcare," said Autumn Keiser, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.
Texas is one of 13 states that bans abortion at all stages of pregnancy. In August, a Texas judge ruled that the state's ban was too restrictive for women with pregnancy complications. But that ruling was swiftly put on hold following an appeal by the state.
The Texas law was passed prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2022 ruling that overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that allowed abortions nationwide.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that two New Mexico counties had also passed similar measures.
Otero County agrees to pay more for incarcerating people in Texas - Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
Otero County Commissioners voted unanimously earlier this month to pay more for people arrested in Otero County held at the Hudspeth County Jail in Sierra Blanca, Texas.
“Hudspeth County houses detainees for Otero County Detention Center when the facility is overcrowded and/or due to short staffing,” wrote Nina Sisler, the Otero County correctional services director, in the request for the item.
Sisler cited “inflation and rising operational costs” as reasons for the increase.
Commissioners passed 18 consent agenda items at the Oct. 12 meeting, including the new contract with updated rates.In the contract, Otero County agrees to pay Hudspeth County $75/per-day, per-person, up from the $60/per day rate, but also be billed for any medical care and additional costs. Both parties could end the contract with written 60-day notice.
It’s unclear how much the increase will cost Otero County.
Otero County spent $866,239 on incarcerating adults in 2022, according to thefiscal year 2023 budget. That’s up from $577,525 in 2021 which nearly doubled the 2020 rate of $295,109.
Thefiscal year 2024 budget does not have the same line items, and it’s unclear how much is spent on holding people outside the Otero County detention facility.
Sisler could not be reached by phone for an interview with Source NM Tuesday.
In an interview, Peter Urbina, the Hudspeth County Jail Administrator, could not say how much Otero County has paid for incarceration costs since 2020 and did not have a firm average number of people sent to the jail. He said Hudspeth County holds inmates from jails in surrounding Texas counties, such as Ector County, Reeves County and Pecos County.
A Sept. 5invoice from Hudspeth County requested $26,940 from Otero County. That invoice does not have a breakdown of how many people are held there, or any additional costs for medical expenses.
BY THE NUMBERS
At the Oct. 12 meeting, Sisler told commissioners she had 137 people “in-house,” with 10 people held at the state Otero County Prison Facility and another 5 people in Hudspeth County.
At the July 13 meeting, she said there were 124 people held “in-house” with 13 people held at Otero County Prison Facility and another 17 people in Hudspeth County.
In the May 11 meeting, she said 134 people were held “in-house” with 11 held at the Otero County Prison Facility and 10 people at Hudspeth County.
At the Feb. 9 meeting Sisler said there were 121 people held “in-house” with 19 people at the Otero County Prison Facility and seven people at Hudspeth County. Another 10 were in the Doña Ana County Detention Center, and one person was held in Lincoln county.
At the Jan. 12 meeting, there were 100 people held “in-house,” with 23 at Otero County Prison Facility and 15 at Hudspeth County.
STAFFING SHORTAGES BETTER, BUT STILL A CONCERN
Otero County has been struggling to hire detention center staff, noted as a frequent concern during county meetings, which was a driver in incarcerating people elsewhere outside the county-run facility.
Last year, Otero County’s detention center vacancy rate was above 50% with just over 30 vacancies, and the second highest in the state, according to data from New Mexico Counties.
Sisler told commissioners in October the vacancy rate is down to 17 open positions, or just over 32%.
Grace Philips, the general counsel for New Mexico Counties, said the vacancy rates at local detention centers are constantly moving, but still more than half have at least a 20% vacancy rate.
“The details change on any given day, but the main point is we’re still chronically understaffed,” Philips said.
In August 2022, thecounty enacted a referral bonus of $0.50 per hour and a $500 hiring bonus, in addition to $1.20/hour in hazard pay for all full-time employees. The hazard pay was reimbursed with federal relief dollars from the public health emergency for the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic.
In August, the Otero County voted to end the referral bonus and hiring bonus, after a presentation from Cassie Green, the Human Resources Director, said they were no longer as effective.
Otero County Commissioner Amy Barela confirmed the county had spent approximately $70,000 on the bonuses and hazard pay.
At the Aug. 10 meeting, commissioners voted to continue the hazard pay until Nov. 1 or until the approximately $22,000 left in federal funds runs out.
Commissioners asked if people received the hiring bonus and immediately quit, since there was almost no waiting period. Green confirmed that three or four recent hires had “left within a short period” after receiving the bonus.
County Attorney RB Nichols told commissioners the county had not enacted a waiting period in part because of complications to payroll calculations, but also because of urgency.
“The liability of not hiring them [detention officers] far outweighed the risk of a few people only working a little bit and leaving,” he told commissioners in the Aug. 10 meeting.
N.M. Congressional member looks for solutions to illegal robocalls - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News
A Commerce subcommittee hearing, chaired by Sen. Ben Ray Luján on Tuesday, is on the hunt for solutions Congress could use to address fraudulent and illegal robocalls.
As the Albuquerque Journal reports, lawmakers took steps to stomp the problem out by passing the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act in 2019 to cut the number of robocalls.
Though, with the rise of artificial intelligence, worries about the risk of targeted attacks continue to grow.
Ideas floated about suggested the Federal Communications Commission adopt a method of temporary restraining orders, so that after a voice service provider has been found repeatedly processing illegal calls, the FCC could suspend the telemarketing company’s services.
Another would have the Department of Justice establish a robocall enforcement and education department.
State awards $8 million to NM organizations addressing housing insecurity - By Nash Jones, KUNM News
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Monday announced a second round of awards through the Casa Connections Grant Program totaling $8 million dollars to address housing insecurity across the state.
Seven local organizations and governments spanning the state from Las Cruces to El Rito will receive the grants. The Governorsaid in a statement that the program is part of her administration’s “commitment to addressing homelessness and removing barriers to affordable housing in communities across the state.”
The projects include permanent, transitional and emergency housing options, along with student housing.
Northern New Mexico College will receive $700,000 to turn buildings on its El Rito campus into affordable housing.
The City of Santa Fe and Española Pathways will receive $2 million each to turn local hotels into transitional housing with support services available for residents. Transitional housing in Albuquerque will also get a boost with the state awarding Saranam $750,000 to expand its program to the city’s westside with 25 small homes.
Meanwhile in southern New Mexico, the City of Las Cruces and El Camino Real Housing Authority in Socorro will spend their grants on long-term affordable housing developments, while Sheri’s House of Hope in Hobbs will build an emergency shelter for abuse survivors.
PNM wants to let more customers participate in EV charging pilot - By Hannah Grover, New Mexico Political Report
New Mexico’s largest electric utility has asked state regulators to increase the number of customers who can participate in a pilot program that encourages electric vehicle owners to charge their vehicles overnight when demand on the grid is lower.
New Mexico Political Report’s Hannah Grover reports PNM offers participants in its Whole Home EV program a base electric rate of 3 cents per kilowatt hour if they charge their vehicles overnight.
When the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission originally approved the program, it set a cap of 39-hundred customers who received rebates for charging systems and 1-thousand who did not. It also asked PNM to file a notice once 75% of the slots for non-rebate customers were filled.
PNM reached that point last month and, when it filed the notice with the commission, the utility asked to increase the cap by 1-thousand customers.
However, the PRC is not yet ready to approve the request. It voted 2-1 to ask the utility to provide expert affidavits in support of the increase.
Commissioner James Ellison cast the dissenting vote. He argued that waiting to increase the cap would allow the commission to gather information about whether the pilot program is doing what it is intended to do and if the new meters associated with it are functioning as intended.
Texas sues Biden administration seeking to stop federal agents from cutting razor wire on border - By Valerie Gonzalez Associated Press
Texas sued the Biden administration on Tuesday, seeking to stop federal agents from cutting the state's razor wire that has gashed or snagged migrants as they have attempted to enter the U.S. from Mexico at the Rio Grande.
In the lawsuit filed in federal court in Del Rio, Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton accuses the Biden administration of "undermining" the state's border security efforts.
"Texas has the sovereign right to construct border barriers to prevent the entry of illegal aliens," Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a news release Tuesday.
State authorities started rolling out miles (kilometers) of the concertina wire in May before the end of Title 42, a temporary emergency health authority used to turn migrants back during the pandemic. The sharp wire was deployed in areas of high traffic through the Rio Grande at the border near such locations as Brownsville and Eagle Pass, Texas.
Migrant and environmental advocates quickly raised concerns over the damaging effects of the razor wire, which were also raised internally by those charged with enforcing its use. A state trooper and medic described the use of their border tactics as "inhumane" in July when he sent an internal complaint documenting cases of lacerated and injured migrants.
The barrier is set up a few yards (meters) from the river or sometimes at the edge of it and would keep migrants in the water, sometimes for hours, waiting for U.S. Border Patrol tasked with processing them under immigration law. In some cases, federal agents have broken through the wire to gain access to entangled migrants or on the other side.
Texas alleges the practice of cutting through the wire increased recently when thousands of migrants waded through the river and into the area of Eagle Pass in late September.
"By cutting Texas's concertina wire, the federal government has not only illegally destroyed property owned by the State of Texas; it has also disrupted the State's border security efforts, leaving gaps in Texas's border barriers and damaging Texas's ability to effectively deter illegal entry into its territory," the complaint stated.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.
The razor wire is just part of Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's two-year effort of escalated measures to block migrants from crossing the state's 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) border with Mexico.