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WED: Gov unveils 50-year water plan and partnership with Google to find leaks, + More

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her State of the State address at the opening day of an annual legislative session in the House of Representatives in Santa Fe, N.M., on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Andres Leighton)
Andres Leighton
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her State of the State address at the opening day of an annual legislative session in the House of Representatives in Santa Fe, N.M.

Spring a leak? Google will find it through a new partnership aimed at saving water in New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico is teaming up with Google to hunt for leaky water pipes using satellite imagery as the drought-stricken state prepares for a future in which growing demand puts more pressure on already dwindling drinking water supplies.

State officials made the announcement Tuesday as they rolled out a 50-year plan that includes nearly a dozen action items for tackling a problem faced by many communities in the western U.S., where climate change has resulted in warmer temperatures and widespread drought.

New Mexico is the first state to partner with Google for such an endeavor, state officials said, noting that the payoff could be significant in terms of curbing losses and saving municipalities and ratepayers money over the long term.

The water plan notes that some systems in New Mexico are losing anywhere from 40% to 70% of all treated drinking water because of breaks and leaks in old infrastructure.

The plan calls for using new technology and remote sensing techniques to conduct an inventory of water loss across more than 1,000 public water systems in the state this year. Aside from being able to detect leaks in real time, the information will help to prioritize repair and replacement projects, officials said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Native American leaders and other experts gathered at the state Capitol to provide an overview of the plan, which has been years in the making. Lujan Grisham, who had campaigned more than four years ago on creating a long-term plan to guide management of the finite resource, warned that New Mexico will likely have 25% less water available in five decades.

Lujan Grisham, who is entering her second term, praised residents for existing conservation efforts but said New Mexico has to do better and be more creative about tapping what she called "an ocean of brackish water." That water, she said, can be used for industrial purposes so that businesses can continue to contribute to the state's economy while limiting impacts on drinking water supplies.

She pointed to computer chip manufacturer Intel, which for years has been recycling the water it uses at its factory near Albuquerque.

"We don't need to make that choice between safe drinking water and your business," the governor said. "We have the chance here to do both and that's exactly the path we're on."

Some environmental groups have raised concerns about Lujan Grisham's plan to underwrite development of a strategic new source of water by buying treated water that originates from the used, salty byproducts of oil and natural gas drilling. They contend that it will help to encourage more fossil fuel development in what is already the No. 2 producing state in the U.S.

Water from oil and gas drilling can be viable for certain applications, and all industries — including oil and gas — have to reduce their overall use and protect current supplies, the governor said Tuesday.

State lawmakers who attended the governor's news conference vowed that the budget being hashed out during the current legislative session will include more money for water infrastructure projects. One proposal calls for funneling another $100 million to the state water board to disperse for shovel-ready projects.

In 2018, New Mexico rolled out a water plan that included details about policies at the time, historical legal cases and regional water plans. While it offered an inventory of the state's needs, critics said it fell short of laying out a concrete path for how to solve New Mexico's water problems.

Aside from addressing antiquated infrastructure, New Mexico's new plan calls for cleaning up contaminated groundwater, spurring investments in desalination and wastewater treatment, and improving mapping and monitoring of surface and groundwater sources.

Rebecca Roose, the governor's senior infrastructure adviser, described the plan as a set of guideposts that can help the state keep moving forward on water policy and infrastructure investments.

"We see a path forward around our water conservation, around making sure we have the water availability that we need — driven by science — cleaning up and protecting our water and watersheds," she said. "I think this is going to live and evolve and grow."

New Mexico child welfare secretary confirmed amid the agency’s mounting abuse and neglect investigations - Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News

The state Senate confirmed Teresa Casados as secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department after hours of contentious hearings Wednesday. She has led the department since last April.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports Casados received mixed reactions from lawmakers in a hearing before the Senate Rules Committee and then the full Senate. Her confirmation comes as CYFD is embroiled in accusations of abuse and neglect of the children in its care.

When asked whether the agency is in crisis, Casados acknowledged, “there is a crisis across the state."

A recent report urged the state to take “immediately action” to resolve the issues that include high caseloads and a stack of thousands of abuse and neglect investigations.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca read a newspaper featuring a story about the report during the hearing, according to the New Mexican. Meanwhile, Majority Leader Peter Wirth expressed appreciation that Casados was willing to take on what he called “probably the most important and most difficult job” in state government.

Bill banning ‘source of income’ discrimination fails in narrow House committee vote - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

A push to prohibit landlords across the state from turning away tenants whose rent is partially paid by government subsidies narrowly failed in a legislative committee meeting Monday afternoon.

The bill would add “source of income” to a list of protected categories in the New Mexico Human Rights Act, alongside race, sexual orientation and other characteristics on which it is illegal to discriminate. It would mean that landlords could not legally turn away tenants who carried Section 8 vouchers or other subsidies.

Rep. Kathleen Cates (D-Rio Rancho), whose day job is as a real estate agent, sponsored the legislation and spent more than an hour defending the bill as one of many tools needed to address the ongoing housing crisis in New Mexico. She said refusing tenants based on having rent subsidies is just the latest version in a long history of housing discrimination, based in part on an assumption that tenants with vouchers are bad tenants.

The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted 6-5 against sending the bill forward, with two Democrats and four Republicans voting against it. Cates said in an interview Tuesday that as much as she cares about her legislation, she won’t re-introduce the bill this session. She hopes November elections will mean a shakeup in the committee next year.

“I will absolutely reintroduce it. But this year, I would have to reintroduce it with that specific group in the committee,” she said. “And I don’t believe any member of that committee is willing to change their mind.”

Dozens of advocates spoke up on both sides of the legislation, including leaders with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness in favor of the bill, and lobbyists for the New Mexico Apartment Association and realtors associations against it.

Federal voucher programs often have a deadline by which a recipient must find housing or risk losing them. A report by the Legislative Finance Committee last year found that, statewide, 18% of federal housing vouchers go unused. In Gallup, Rio Arriba County and Albuquerque, more than a quarter go unused. One of the reasons was a “lack of landlords willing to accept vouchers,” according to the report.

“Source of income” discrimination has already been banned in Bernalillo County, Albuquerque and Doña Ana County. Elsewhere in the state, including Santa Fe, it’s common for online apartment listings to contain the phrase “No Section 8 allowed.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham included the bill on her list of priorities for the session, allowing it to be heard this 30-day session despite not being budget-related.

It’s another one of her housing-related priorities that has yet to advance through a legislative committee. A bill she supported that would create a statewide housing office was pulled from a committee late Friday afternoon, as well, and has not been re-introduced.

The discrimination bill received pushback from lobbyists for the New Mexico Apartment Association, landlords and realtor groups, who spoke at the hearing to say it would impose an unnecessary paperwork burden and force them to rent to unruly tenants.

Supporters say a statewide ban could curb homelessness, reduce the concentration of poverty in certain neighborhoods and prevent people who received Section 8 vouchers from running out of time.

The debate in the committee centered primarily on whether changing the state’s Human Rights Act to ban “source-of-income discrimination” would have implications outside of the rental market, including for mortgage lenders or employers, and whether child support, alimony or other non-labor income sources would apply.

Several members of the committee also said they saw the legislation as government overreach in how landlords conduct their businesses. Rep. Mark Duncan (R-Kirtland) said a bad experience with one tenant when he was a landlord prompted him to turn away tenants with vouchers.

“One day a lady that I had been renting to let her wife beater husband back in, and he destroyed my property,” he said. “That was the last Section 8 I ever took.”

Duncan didn’t provide additional details behind his allegation. Cates said in an interview she was shocked by his comment, which she said showed the prejudicial mindset that is typical of some landlords, one that has echoed over decades with different groups of people.

In the committee, she responded that anecdotes like Duncan’s can’t be used to justify discrimination.

“I know the horror stories, and they are real. They are not made up. And I understand that,” Cates told the committee. “But I can say that about every type of protected class. Does that mean that I’m allowed to discriminate (on) them based on those stories? I cannot.”

At least 11 current lawmakers, not including Duncan, report ownership of residential properties, according to a review last year of legislative financial disclosures by the Santa Fe Reporter.

A court employee alerted police oversight board about cop’s offer to fix DWI case months before FBI raids - By Elise Kaplan, City Desk ABQ

More than two months before the FBI raided the homes of Albuquerque Police Department DWI officers and the office of a local defense attorney, the Second Judicial District Court alerted oversight agencies to possible “questionable conduct” of one of the officers.

In early November, Katina Watson, the Court Executive Officer of the Second Judicial District Court, notified the Civilian Police Oversight Agency and the Disciplinary Board of the New Mexico Supreme Court that one of the court’s former employees had a concerning exchange with an officer when he was arrested for DWI in August.

“We did not question or conduct any sort of internal investigation; however, we have been alerted that there may be questionable conduct by the arresting/citation officer,” Watson wrote in a letter to the CPOA. “More specifically, that the arresting/citation officer put Mr. Barron in contact with a specific attorney, possibly named ‘Rick,’ who if hired, would ensure that no court case would be filed in court by APD.”

The officer who made the arrest was Honorio Alba. The Albuquerque Journal has reportedthat the home of Clear’s paralegal, Ricardo “Rick” Mendez, was also raided by the FBI.

“While we do not have first-hand knowledge of what communications and actions have taken place, we are reporting this information out of concern,” Watson wrote.

Alba, along with three other officers—Joshua Montano, Harvey Johnson, and Nelson Ortiz and a supervisor—are being investigated by the FBI along with defense attorney Thomas Clear. No charges have yet been filed.

The former court employee, a certified court monitor, was pulled over in August for driving while intoxicated. According to a citation, the 25-year-old was going 83 miles an hour in a 55 mile per hour zone with his headlights and tail lights off. He failed to stay in his lane multiple times, nearly struck a vehicle, drove over the sidewalk and had “bloodshot watery eyes and an odor of alcohol emanating from facial area,” Alba wrote.

The citation was not filed in court until November 13, 2023—ten days after CEO Watson sent in a complaint. It’s unclear why it was delayed.

The case was ultimately dismissed on January 18 “in the interest of justice,” along with more than 150 others that had been handled by Alba, Montano, Johnson and Ortiz.

A spokesperson for the District Court said “we believe the letter to CPOA speaks for itself.” She said the employee was with the court from April 2019 to the end of September 2023.

The Interim Executive Director of the CPOA did not immediately respond to questions about whether the complaint was investigated and whether it was shared with other agencies.

Bill to ban guns at polling places in New Mexico advances with concerns about intimidation - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A Democratic-backed bill to ban firearms at polling places and near ballot drop boxes won the endorsement of New Mexico's state Senate in response to concerns about intimidation and fears among poll workers in the runup to the 2024 election.

The bill now moves to the state House for consideration after winning Senate approval on a 26-16 vote, with all Republicans and one Democrat voting in opposition. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signaled her support in putting the bill on a limited agenda for a 30-day legislative session.

A dozen states including Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Georgia prohibit guns at voting locations, as legislators in several other states grapple with concerns about the intersection of voting and guns in a polarized political climate. As votes were tallied in the 2020 presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, armed protesters carrying guns gathering nightly outside offices where workers were counting the votes in states including Arizona, Nevada and Michigan to decide who won the White House.

"Given where we are as a country with elections, having guns (kept) out of polling places in my opinion — and I respect that there's a difference of opinion on this — but I think it makes a lot of sense," said Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, cosponsor of the bill to ban concealed and open carry of guns within 100 feet (30 meters) of the entrance of a polling place.

Republican senators in the legislative minority highlighted their opposition, proposing unsuccessful amendments to exempt rural counties or concealed gun permit holders from the gun ban at polling places. Colorado in 2022 banned the open carry of firearms — but not concealed weapons — at polls.

State Sen. Gregg Schmedes of Tijeras, a conservative political stronghold with a strong culture of gun ownership, said the bill would "disproportionately disenfranchise" Republican gun owners who are "genuinely afraid of going into gun-free zones."

Guns already are prohibited at New Mexico schools that often serve as Election Day voting sites, along with extensive Native American tribal lands. The bill would extend similar restrictions to a variety of other polling locations on Election Day and during a weekslong period of in-person early voting, from storefront voting centers to houses of worship. Guns would be banned within 50 feet (15 meters) of drop boxes for absentee balloting during voting periods.

The proposed gun restrictions would be punishable as a petty misdemeanor by up to six months in a county jail, a $500 fine or both.

A similar bill won Senate approval in last year but stalled without a House floor vote. The new version provides exceptions and some leeway for people to leave guns in a personal vehicle while voting, and outside of shopping mall voting centers where people may be carrying a gun incidentally as they run other errands.

A 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling expanding gun rights in the so-called Bruen decision has upended firearms restrictions across the country as activists wage court battles over everything from bans on AR-15-style rifles to restrictions in so-called "sensitive" locations.

"Polling places are one of the lanes within the Bruen decision, where Justice Clarence Thomas clearly said there is a historical precedent for a state stepping in to regulate firearms," Wirth said.

On the Senate floor, Wirth said the bill responds to political constituents working at polling places in 2022 who felt intimidated by people who brought in guns —- though without violations of criminal statutes against intimidation at polling places.

House GOP takes party-line vote toward Mayorkas impeachment as border becomes 2024 campaign issue - By Lisa Mascaro And Rebecca Santana, Associated Press

House Republicans voted along party lines after midnight Wednesday to move toward impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for a "willful and systematic" refusal to enforce immigration laws as border security becomes a top 2024 election issue.

The Homeland Security Committee debated all day Tuesday and well into the night before recommending two articles of impeachment against Mayorkas to the full House, a rare charge against a Cabinet official unseen in nearly 150 years, as Republicans make GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump's hard-line deportation approach to immigration their own.

The committee Republicans voted in favor, while the Democrats unified against, 18-15.

"We cannot allow this man to remain in office any longer," said Chairman Mark Green, R-Tenn.

The impeachment articles charge that Mayorkas "refused to comply with Federal immigration laws" amid a record surge of migrants and that he has "breached the public trust" in his claims to Congress that the U.S.-Mexico border is secure.

The full House could vote on Mayorkas' impeachment as soon as next week. If approved, the charges would go to the Senate for a trial, though senators may first convene a special committee for consideration.

With an unusual personal appeal, Mayorkas — who is deep in Senate talks on a border security package — wrote in a letter to the committee that it should be working with the Biden administration to update the nation's "broken and outdated" immigration laws for the 21st century, an era of record global migration.

"We need a legislative solution and only Congress can provide it," Mayorkas wrote in the pointed letter to the panel's chairman.

Rarely has a Cabinet member faced impeachment's bar of "high crimes and misdemeanors," and Democrats on the panel dismissed the proceedings as a stunt and a sham that could set a chilling precedent for other civil servants snared in policy disputes by lawmakers who disagree with the president's approach.

"This is a terrible day for the committee, the United States, the Constitution and our great country," said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the committee's ranking Democrat.

Referring to Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan, Thompson said the "MAGA-led impeachment of Secretary Mayorkas is a baseless sham."

The House's proceedings against Mayorkas have created an oddly split-screen Capitol Hill, as the Senate works deliberately with the secretary on a bipartisan border security package that is now on life support.

The package being negotiated by the senators with Mayorkas could emerge as the most consequential bipartisan immigration proposal in a decade. Or it could collapse in political failure as Republicans, and some Democrats, run from the effort.

Trump, on the campaign trail and in private talks, has tried to squelch the deal. "I'd rather have no bill than a bad bill," Trump said over the weekend in Las Vegas.

President Joe Biden, in his own campaign remarks in South Carolina, said if Congress sends him a bill with emergency authority he'll "shut down the border right now" to get migration under control.

"I've done all I can do," Biden told reporters Tuesday before departing for a campaign-related trip to Florida. "Give me the power" through legislation, which he said is something he's asked "from the very day I got in office."

The Republicans are focused on the secretary's handling of the southern border, which has experienced a increasing number of migrants over the past year, many seeking asylum in the U.S., at a time when drug cartels are using the border with Mexico to traffic people and ship deadly fentanyl into the states.

Rep, Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., a Trump ally often mentioned as a possible vice presidential pick, called it an "invasion."

Republicans contend that the Biden administration and Mayorkas either got rid of policies in place under Trump that had controlled migration or enacted policies of their own that encouraged migrants from around the world to come to the U.S. illegally via the southern border.

House Speaker Mike Johnson said Biden and Mayorkas have "created a catastrophe" on the border, and he criticized the emerging Senate package. The GOP leader said the president is now trying to turn the blame back on Congress for failing to update immigration laws.

The Republicans also accused Mayorkas of lying to Congress, pointing to comments about the border being secure or about vetting of Afghans airlifted to the U.S. after military withdrawal from their country.

"It's high time" for impeachment, said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who called Mayorkas the "architect" of the border problems. "He has what's coming to him."

The House impeachment hearings against Mayorkas sprinted ahead in January while the Republicans' separate impeachment inquiry into Biden over the business dealings over his son Hunter Biden dragged.

Democrats argue that Mayorkas is acting under his legal authorities at the department and that the criticisms against him do not rise to the level of impeachment.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York called the proceedings a "political stunt" ordered up by Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a Trump ally, who pushed the resolution forward.

During the hearing, Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., pointed to Trump's comments echoing Adolf Hitler that immigrants are "poisoning the blood" of the U.S. and to his proposals for militarizing the border as extreme, arguing the impeachment proceedings were "all about trying to get Donald Trump re-elected."

Debate dragged into the night as Democrats tried and failed to amend the resolution.

Mayorkas never testified on his own behalf during the rushed impeachment proceedings — he and the committee couldn't agree on a date — but in his letter he drew on his own background as a child brought to the U.S. by his parents fleeing Cuba and on his career spent prosecuting criminals.

"Your false accusations do not rattle me and do not divert me" from public service, he wrote.

Green, the Republican committee chair, disparaged Mayorkas's letter as an "11th-hour response" to the committee that was "inadequate and unbecoming of a Cabinet secretary."

It's unclear if Republicans will have the support from their ranks to go through with the impeachment vote in the full House, especially with their slim majority and with Democrats expected to vote against it.

Last year, eight House Republicans voted to shelve the impeachment resolution proposed by Greene, though many of them have since signaled being open to it. The committee approved a revised version.

Legal experts, including Jonathan Turley and Alan Dershowitz, have said the criticisms of Mayorkas do not rise to impeachable offenses.

If the House does agree to impeach Mayorkas, the charges would next to go the Senate. In 1876, the House impeached Defense Secretary William Belknap over kickbacks in government contracts, but the Senate acquitted him in a trial.


Associated Press writer Josh Boak contributed to this report.

White House-hosted arts summit explores how to incorporate arts and humanities into problem-solving - By Darlene Superville, Associated Press

The Environmental Protection Agency will assign artists to treasured bodies of water in the United States under a new program announced Tuesday at a White House-sponsored conference on exploring ways to use the arts and humanities as another instrument for problem-solving.

Leaders from government, the arts, academia and philanthropy gathered in Washington for "Healing, Bridging, Thriving: A Summit on Arts and Culture in our Communities." Panel discussions focused on turning to the arts and humanities to solve challenges, from improving health to bridging divides.

The National Endowment for the Arts and the White House Domestic Policy Council hosted the daylong conference, which was the product of a September 2022 executive order from President Joe Biden.

Neera Tanden, who advises the Democratic president on domestic policy issues, said in an interview with The Associated Press before the summit that the arts help "people to see each other and understand how we're connected," which can help "mend the social fabric of the country."

Maria Rosario Jackson, the NEA chair, in a separate interview said the conference is an "unprecedented opportunity for people from different sectors to come together and lift up and explore some of the things that are possible when one thinks of the arts as not being confined to a narrow sector, but woven and integrated into other things we care about."

Discussions focused on using the arts and humanities to improve health and infrastructure and promote a healthy democracy. Participants included soprano Renee Fleming and actor Anna Deavere Smith. Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, also participated.

Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Water, announced the first-ever artist-in-residence program "to unleash the power of arts and culture to support water restoration and climate resilient efforts around the country."

To start, artists will be embedded in national estuaries and urban waters federal partnerships in six regions of the country: Seattle, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, greater Philadelphia, Boston and the New York-New Jersey area. Each watershed will receive $200,00 to support the artist.

Jackson and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra will co-chair a new government-wide working group on the arts, health and civic infrastructure, working with federal agencies to find ways to include the arts and humanities in these areas. HHS and the NEA have a long history of working together to improve health using the arts, including through music, Becerra said.

NEA is also committing $5 million for an initiative to support the work of artists and arts organizations that contribute to the health and well-being of individuals and communities.

Separately, the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities are collaborating on United We Stand: Connecting through Culture, an initiative that leverages the arts and humanities to combat hate-fueled violence. The program was launched in 2023, a year after Biden convened a similarly named summit at the White House focused on countering violence motivated by hate.

NEH committed $3 million to the program in 2023, and NEA is offering an additional $2 million.

Shelly Lowe, chair of the NEH, said art has an important role to play in the humanities.

"Art gives you a good sense of people's cultures. That's through painting, that's through food, that's through performances and music," Lowe said in an interview before the summit. "They're so tied together it's hard to separate the two."

Biden's executive order said the arts, humanities and museum and library services are essential to the well-being, health, vitality and democracy of the nation.

"They are the soul of America," Biden wrote in the order, adding that, under his leadership, they "will be integrated into strategies, policies and programs that advance the economic development, well-being and resilience of all communities, especially those that have historically been underserved."

Emhoff, a former Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer, helped close the summit. He said that as a practicing attorney he saw "first hand how art and film and music can help build and foster community."

"Arts help us build empathy, strengthen mutual understanding and inspire change, and that's why, especially at a time like this, the time that we're facing right now, we need to use the arts and humanities to help us counteract ideological extremes so we can build human connections." he said.