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FRI: Air quality board can get back to work for now, + More

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Downtown Albuquerque

Air quality board can get back to work for now - Albuquerque Journal, KUNM News 

A state district judge Thursday cleared the way for the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board to continue its work pending the outcome of a lawsuit.

The Albuquerque Journal reportsJudge Francis Mathew granted the board’s request for a preliminary injunction following the Albuquerque City Council’s decision last month to remove the board’s city-appointed members and keep it from meeting until February.

The board sued the city, alleging the council’s actions violated state law. The injunction will be in place until Judge Mathew can rule on the merits of the lawsuit. The judge said Thursday that “the board is likely to prevail, ultimately.”

Attorney for the board Antoinette Sedillo Lopez says it will now get back to work until that final ruling.

A spokesperson for Mayor Tim Keller’s Office said the judge’s ruling is promising but the “saga is not over.”

The City Council’s actions, led by now-City Council President Dan Lewis, had blocked it from hearing a rule on environmental health equity meant to protect communities that bear the brunt of industrial pollution. Critics said it could hurt business.

Future hearings in the case are not yet scheduled.

Gov. directs lawmakers to consider fake elector crimes - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico

New Mexico’s governor has given state lawmakers the go-ahead to consider closing what the state’s top prosecutor says is a loophole in election law that allowed the 2020 fake electors in the state to escape criminal liability.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday signed an executive message allowing the Legislature to consider a bill “creating the election offenses of disrupting election results and falsely acting as a presidential elector.”

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez is asking lawmakers to change election law in order to prevent another fake presidential elector scheme like the one in 2020.

Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson for the governor, said Thursday the executive message was in response to the New Mexico Department of Justice’s findings from a two-year investigation of the scheme.

This month the Office of the Attorney General rebranded itself as the New Mexico Department of Justice.

Torrez and the prosecutor who investigated the scheme on Jan. 17 explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee they didn’t pursue charges against New Mexico’s fake electors because the certificate of electoral votes they signed did not say they were the legitimate presidential electors, and because the state’s election law doesn’t include that record in the definition of “false election documents.”

Judiciary committee chair Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) said he wanted Lujan Grisham to put the bill “on the call” during the short session. He was not immediately available for comment on who will carry the legislation in the Senate.

The bill will start in the House of Representatives. As of Thursday morning, it had not been introduced. It will appear here when a lawmaker does introduce the proposal.

Torrez said on Jan. 17 there is “a potential sponsor” but did not identify them.

New Mexico lawmakers don't get a salary. Some say it's time for a paycheck - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Members of New Mexico's legislature are the only state lawmakers in the country who aren't paid a salary for their service, but voters might change that as a referendum on giving legislators a steady paycheck gains traction.

A Democratic-sponsored initiative to provide New Mexico legislators with regular salaries earned its first committee endorsement Friday, over the objections of Republicans in the legislative minority.

The proposed constitutional amendment would scrap a ban on legislative salaries and create an independent commission to set and adjust future pay for the state's 112 legislators. Similar proposals have stalled in recent years.

Salary figures aren't specified and would be determined later by a nine-member "citizens commission on legislative salaries." Salaries would take effect as soon as July 2026.

Currently, New Mexico legislators do receive mileage reimbursements for travel and a daily stipend toward expenses like room and board during legislative sessions. Those who serve at least 10 years qualify for partial retirement benefits at a subsidized rate through a public employee pension fund.

Advocates for legislative salaries in New Mexico say they are looking for ways instill greater professionalism and make elected office more accessible to people of limited economic means.

"I know there's a lot of pride in being a 'citizen legislature,'" said Democratic state Rep. Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces, co-sponsor the initiative. "I believe that we're leaving a lot of people out of being able to represent their communities.

"It's a privilege to serve in the legislature — but it's that much more of a 'privilege' when it comes to finances and when a person can't afford to do this," she said.

Republican state Rep. Martin Zamora of Clovis voted against the initiative in committee, expressing unease with a referendum on unspecified salaries.

"We're going to ask the public to vote on this resolution but they're not really going to be given the facts," said Zamora, a farmer. "What if we did give ourselves an outrageous amount of pay for doing this job, and the citizens would say, 'Hey, that's not what I voted on.'"

Already this year, state lawmakers in New Jersey and Alaska have approved legislative salary increases amid concerns about rising costs and efforts to attract younger people or those with families to run and serve in the Legislature.

In New Mexico, a three-fifths vote of approval in both the House and Senate would send the proposed constitutional amendment to a statewide vote in November.

A separate referendum proposal would lengthen the Legislature's short 30-day legislative session in even years to 60 days.

APD brings in civilian investigators to solve orphaned homicides - Elizabeth McCall, City Desk ABQ

This story was originally published by City Desk ABQ 

Help for several cold cases is on the horizon for the Albuquerque Police Department.

In a press conference on Jan. 25, APD brass updated the department’s progress with orphaned and departed homicide cases due to bringing in civilian investigators and a new homicide digital library.

“I think that we found a formula for going forward for justice for these families, and at the same time, we are rerunning these cases with today’s technology for evidence, such as DNA and fingerprints,” said APD Chief Harold Medina. “So that is where we are at with these orphaned cases and we are working to get these cases results and we will continue to move forward.”


Most cases are categorized as active or closed in the homicide unit. According to APD, in the homicide unit, orphaned cases are defined as cases that belonged to a detective who left the department but did not close the case. Departed cases are cases that belong to a detective who left the unit, but is still working on that case.

Acting Deputy Chief for the Investigative Bureau, George Vega, said the department now has 16 homicide detectives in the homicide unit, which has increased from the nine detectives they had when he was hired in 2022.

“That was a lot of work for those detectives to be taking on the amount of cases they were seeing, which led to them not being able to get to some of the departed and orphaned cases,” Vega said. “That is what gave me the idea to bring other investigators in with investigative experience to come in and basically hit the ground running.”

The department currently has six civilian investigators, but hopes to acquire more. These investigators are retired police officers who have experience with this service. Just from the six investigators, there have been 67 cases reviewed, with 57 reviews completed and 11 arrests made.

“They look at the case and get it to the point where they believe it is ready for warrant or it can be sent to cold cases if there are no further things that need to be done,” Vega said. “At that point, it is transferred to one of the homicide detectives and they take it from there.”

Of those 67 reviewed cases, they discussed one of the department’s successful revisions of the case of Peggy Meyers, whose body was discovered in Santa Fe County. Once the Santa Fe County sheriff’s office was able to identify her remains and found that she lived in Albuquerque. APD’s homicide unit then took over the case and was able to find her alleged killer who was then living in Kansas.

The department also introduced the new homicide digital library that will convert hard copies into a digital platform. This will ensure proper documentation of all homicide investigations along with orphaned cases, case supervision and meeting needs of prosecutors for successful prosecution.

“We brought in new programs and we now have very accountable systems within homicide, and we will continue to work diligently to get these solved,” Medina said.

Bid to overhaul New Mexico oil and gas regulations clears first hurdle amid litigation - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

An effort to modernize state oversight of a thriving petroleum industry in the nation's No. 2 state for oil production advanced past its first committee vetting Thursday at the New Mexico Legislature.

The bill would rewrite portions of the state's 1930s-era Oil and Gas Act in order to help regulators keep pace with the industry's meteoric growth in recent years — as well as increasingly assertive calls to hold the sector accountable for air pollution, spills and the costly cleanup of equipment and abandoned wells.

It advanced on 6-5 vote of the lead House committee on natural resources, over the objections of small and moderate sized oil producers but with the public endorsements of industry heavyweights Occidental Petroleum and EOG Resources.

The initiative would increase financial assurances for well plugging and cleanups, while ratcheting up administrative fees and penalties for regulatory violations. The bill also would give regulators greater authority over applications to transfer ownership of wells that often change hands when oil and natural gas output declines.

Bill cosponsor Rep. Matthew McQueen of Galisteo urged colleagues to rally behind the bill, warning that a downturn in the industry could saddle the state with immense liabilities for orphaned wells.

"If we can't put appropriate safeguards in place during record (oil) production then we're never going to have those safeguards in place," he said. "We've had boom industries in New Mexico before. We had uranium mining — they went bust. We're still dealing with that legacy that was not cleaned up."

Initial provisions were dropped from the bill that would have established no-drilling buffer zones around schools, residences, surface waters and critical habitats across New Mexico, to the dismay of environmentalists and community advocates who vowed to press legislators to reinstate setback requirements. The State Land Office recently imposed its own buffer around schools.

The Democratic-led Legislature and governor are being sued over alleged failures to meet constitutional provisions for protecting against oil and gas pollution, as fed-up residents living near oil wells and environmental groups turn to the judiciary for relief. The lawsuit filed in May 2023 seeks compliance with a "pollution control clause" of the New Mexico Constitution.

"This bill utterly fails to impose any real restrictions on the oil industry and does nothing to protect frontline communities from the toxic pollution they're exposed to every single day," said Gail Evans, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead counsel in the lawsuit to plaintiffs including Indigenous Lifeways, Pueblo Action Alliance, Youth United for Climate Crisis Action.

Democratic state Rep. Nathan Small of Las Cruces — the lead House budget negotiator — warned that deleted provisions from the bill "would make it extremely difficult and unlikely for these important fiscal protections to move forward." He voted to advance the bill toward a second vetting before a possible House floor vote.

Ahtza Chavez, executive director of the Native American environmental and social justice group NM Native Vote, participated in working groups on the bill organized by Gov. Lujan Grisham over the past six months, alongside state oil-field regulators and industry representatives.

She called the elimination of setback requirements "devastating" but pledged support for the amended bill.

"They've had 90 years to do better and they have not protected our communities," said Chavez, an Albuquerque resident who is Diné, tracing her ancestry to the Navajo as well as Kewa Pueblo.

The committee-endorsed bill would increase a common financial assurance to remediate multiple wells from a maximum of $250,000 to $10 million. The cap on daily penalties for regulatory violations would increase from $2,500 to as much as $25,000, with no cumulative limit.

Voting against the bill, Republican state Rep. Larry Scott of Hobbs, said the initiative represents an existential threat to small-scale oil and natural gas producers, echoing concerns raised by several businesses.

"The concern is that, with the stroke of a pen, financial assurances and penalties can put these small operators completely out of business," said Scott, also a petroleum-industry engineer.

The bill would also expand the state's regulatory authority over other types of well activity in anticipation of a gradual transition away from fossil fuel production — including geothermal projects that harness underground heat to produce electricity, or emerging underground systems of kinetic energy storage.

US nuclear agency isn't consistent in tracking costs for some construction projects, report says - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. agency in charge of maintaining the nation's nuclear arsenal is not consistent when it comes to tracking the progress of small construction projects, making it difficult to prevent delays and cost overruns, congressional investigators said in a report released Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office warned in the report that even fewer projects will go under the microscope if officials raise the dollar limit for what qualifies as a small project. Congress has raised that threshold numerous times, reaching $30 million during the last fiscal year after having started at $5 million in 2003.

Without collecting and tracking information on minor projects in a consistent manner, National Nuclear Security Administration officials may not have the information they need to manage and assess project performance, the investigators said.

"This is important because NNSA plans to initiate 437 minor construction projects over the next five fiscal years totaling about $5 billion, and cost overruns could be significant in aggregate," the investigators stated in the report.

They went on to say NNSA offices use varying processes for managing smaller projects, some of which generally follow more rigid principles outlined by the U.S. Energy Department for large projects. However, these processes and other related requirements haven't been documented in a formal or comprehensive way, the investigators added.

The agency disagreed that any cost overruns for minor construction projects would be significant and said small projects — like office buildings or fire stations — generally have a track record of being completed at or under budget.

"Following a project management approach tailored to the lower risk nature of these types of projects saves time and money by avoiding unnecessary rigorous oversight," agency spokesperson Roger Bain said in an email.

The agency said it plans to use authority provided by Congress to increase the current threshold to keep up with inflation. Officials said doing so will maintain NNSA's buying power for maintaining national security infrastructure.

The NNSA agreed with recommendations outlined in the report, saying it will determine what approach would be best for collecting and tracking information on costs and scheduling and how best to document its processes and requirements for minor construction projects.

The agency aims to finish that work by the end of June.

Still, nuclear watchdogs are concerned about the NNSA having a blank check with little accountability. Those concerns have ramped up as billions of dollars more are being funneled toward efforts to modernize the nation's nuclear warheads. Some of that work is being done at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and at Savannah River in South Carolina.

Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group said large projects often are split into two or more smaller ones as a way to avoid federal and congressional oversight and accountability. He said better reporting after the fact won't necessarily help NNSA do a better job of managing projects going forward.

"There are too many contractors and subcontractors in the value chain, too many profit opportunities and too few penalties for poor performance to expect high-quality results," he said.

Mello pointed to the contracts to run Los Alamos and other sites that are part of the complex, saying they are worth tens of billions of dollars and are among the largest contracts in the federal government.

The NNSA said it provides semi-annual status updates to Congress on all minor construction projects valued at $10 million or more, including any changes to project costs or schedules. Agency officials also said the Energy Department's more prescriptive management requirements are meant for more complex, nuclear and one-of-a-kind construction projects with a total cost of $50 million or more.

Between 2019 and 2023, the congressional investigators documented 414 minor construction projects worth more than $3 billion at NNSA sites across several states. Most of that spending was done at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and at Sandia and Los Alamos labs in New Mexico.

A new, smaller caravan of about 1,500 migrants sets out walking north from southern Mexico - By Edgar H. Clemente, Associated Press

A new, smaller caravan of about 1,500 migrants started walking north from southern Mexico on Thursday, a week after a larger group that set out on Christmas Eve largely dissolved.

The migrants, most from Central and South America, said they had grown tired of waiting in Mexico's southern city of Tapachula, near the Guatemala border. They said processing centers there for asylum or visa requests are overloaded and the process can take months.

The migrants carried a sign reading "Migrating is not a crime, it is a crime for a government to use repression against migrants."

The group managed to walk past two highway control checkpoints Thursday as immigration agents and National Guard troopers stood by.

Migrant Alexander Girón said he left his native El Salvador because his wages did not cover basic necessities.

In previous years, many people left El Salvador because of gang-related violence. But even though the Salvadoran government has brought down the homicide rate with a tough crackdown on gangs that has imprisoned tens of thousands, Girón said he still had to leave.

"Safety isn't enough if there is no work," said Gíron, who was traveling with his wife and two teenage sons in hopes of reaching the U.S. "Wages just can't keep pace, everything is very expensive. We are going to look for work and to give our sons a better life."

The earlier Christmas Eve caravan once numbered about 6,000 migrants from Venezuela, Cuba and Central America. But after New Year's Day, the Mexican government persuaded them to give up their trek, promising they would get some kind of unspecified documents.

By the next week, about 2,000 migrants from that caravan resumed their journey through southern Mexico, after participants were left without the papers the Mexican government appeared to have promised.

The migrants wanted transit or exit visas allowing them to take buses or trains to the U.S. border. But they were given papers restricting holders to Mexico's southernmost Chiapas state, where work is scarce and local residents are largely poor. By last week, only a hundred or two had made it to the border between neighboring Oaxaca state and the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, mainly on buses.

Mexico in the past let migrants go through, trusting they would tire themselves out walking along the highway. No migrant caravan has ever walked the full 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) to the U.S. border.

U.S. officials in December discussed ways Mexico could help stem the flow of migrants at a meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

López Obrador confirmed that U.S. officials want Mexico to do more to block migrants at its border with Guatemala, or make it more difficult for them to move across Mexico by train or in trucks or buses — a policy known as "contention."

Mexico felt pressure to address the problem after U.S. officials briefly closed two vital Texas railway border crossings, claiming they were overwhelmed by processing migrants. That put a chokehold on Mexican exports heading to the U.S. and on grain moving south for Mexican livestock.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said the spike in border crossings seen in December across the southwest U.S. border coincided with a period when the "immigration enforcement agency in Mexico was not funded,."

López Obrador later said the financial shortfall that led Mexico's immigration agency to suspend deportations and other operations had been resolved and some deportations were later resumed.