TUES: Bill to carry governor’s Strategic Water Supply initiative tabled, + More
Bill to carry governor’s Strategic Water Supply initiative tabled 8-1 - By Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
Members of the Senate Conservation Committee voted 8-1 to table a stripped-down bill creating a market for treated brackish water, likely ending the road for one of the major priorities forGov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in the 30-day session.
Chair Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos), who sponsored the bill, was the lone dissenting vote. After it failed, she joked that “we don’t have friends here,” garnering a laugh from the committee members.
WHAT WAS THE BILL?
In the State of the State and further appearances, Lujan Grisham originally asked for $500 million in severance tax bond sales, the sale of which would be used to buy treated brackish (salty) groundwater, and oil and gas wastewater. The state would act as a “middleman” for sale to manufacturing and industry.
After that measure was excised from the capital outlay package this weekend, a much narrower bill emerged.
The Senate Bill 294 substitution before the Senate Conservation Committee requested $100 million in severance tax sales, for the purchase of treated brackish water.
The hearing on Tuesday morning lasted more than an hour. It was the first look at a bill with details for the governor’s proposal, since capital outlay is wrapped into closed-door negotiations until a final bill is released and voted on.
INTRODUCTION AND OPPOSITION
Stefanics was joined by co-sponsor Sen. Bill Sharer (R-Farmington), State Engineer Mike Hammond, New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney and Rebecca Roose, the governor’s infrastructure czar.
Kenney opened the meeting with a request for passing the legislation.
“I won’t take up much of your time other than to say that being bold, being brave and forging new pathways in protecting freshwater, while diversifying our economy is what we’re doing here today,” he said.
Hammond said the legislation affords a position to “study, investigate, encourage industrial utilization of non-potable freshwater within our state,” and help the state prepare for a more arid future.
Ashley Leach, the director for the State Board of Finance, also voiced support.
In the middle of public comment, Stafanics asked if any members from industry were present to speak on behalf of the bill, no one came forward. Only government agency heads and division employees spoke in favor of the bill.
In public comments, a water expert and lobbyists representing environmental groups requested tabling the bill, raising concerns about the rush to push forward the bill in the final days.
“I want to tell you that this bill is the wrong thing to do for New Mexico at this time of water crisis,” said Norm Gaume, a water expert and former Interstate Stream Director.
As a member of the public, Gaume offered an amendment to the bill to add language from the Water Security Planning Act, which passed the legislature in 2023. That amendment was not taken up by any lawmaker, nor was it acted upon.
The bill raised lingering questions around brine disposal, and wasn’t vetted by communities, said Tricia Snyder, who spoke on behalf of conservation nonprofits New Mexico Wild, Amigos Bravos and the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club.
Further concerns included that there is currently not enough data on aquifers, since the state’s aquifer mapping project has not been fully funded since it passed the legislature in 2019. Snyder said there are few answers for unintended consequences of removing brackish water.
“Deep aquifers are unlikely to be replenished in our lifetime, it is therefore very important decision-makers operate with caution, since this change cannot be undone,” she said.
Doug Meiklejohn, with Conservation Voters New Mexico, said the bill did not have any language regarding how brackish water pumping may impact its legal agreements with other states, which share rivers in compact agreements with New Mexico.
Alejandria Lyons, representing a coalition of environmentalists, said “we fear that creating a market value of brackish water will eventually lead to demand and exploitation of another non-renewable resource.”
BACK AND FORTH FROM THE COMMITTEE
Questions from lawmakers on the committee displayed skepticism but also confusion about the bill’s function.
Sen. Bill Soules (D-Las Cruces) asked who owns brackish water.
The answer from Nat Chakeres, general counsel at the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer, is that the public owns water in deep aquifers.
“If it’s deeper than 2,500 feet, generally, nobody really has been able to put that to use and so that you still have to get a permit to ensure safe drilling, but it belongs to the public, anybody can tap into that,” Chakeres responded.
Soules asked why any business would allow for the state to be a middleman, rather than water suppliers selling directly to manufacturers.
Kenney responded, “It is hard to wrap your head around this theoretical concept,” then likened the government’s actions to spurring pharmaceutical companies to produce vaccines for a population.
After further back and forth, Kenney told the lawmakers, “By being in the middle, we are facilitating a market that doesn’t exist today, if it did, we wouldn’t be here because they’d be building infrastructure, and they’re not.”
Sen. Steven McCutcheon II (R-Carlsbad) engaged in a back and forth with Kenney and Hammond. He attempted to nail down the specifics of the market model, and expressed concerns about salty water permitted for use in more shallow aquifers.
McCutcheon put forward an amendment to use “non-potable water,” in places of brackish water in the bill. That failed on party lines.
Roose said the amendment was unfriendly as “non-potable water” would be expansive enough to allow oil and gas wastewater back into the bill.
Sen. Carrie Hamblen (D-Las Cruces) asked Hammond multiple times about concerns on current aquifers, or how to ensure safely drilled wells into brackish aquifers, to prevent commingling in drinkable aquifers.
Hammond said that further monitoring and permitting how the wells would be a focus of the agency.
Sharer shared closing remarks advocating for the bill just before the vote, saying that concerns over “unproven technologies,” is too cautious.
“If we’re unwilling to try something, we’ll never get anywhere,” he said.
The committee voted 8-1 to table, most likely killing the bill for this session.
In explaining his no vote, Sen. Harold Pope (D-Albuquerque) likened the debate to his time in the Air Force working on weapons, saying the debate was skimming around the “known unknowns,” and needed more discussion.
“We’re not even getting into the unknown unknowns,” Pope said. He then concluded, “I suggest we keep working on this, let’s get all the stakeholders involved, I believe we are going to go in this direction, I just can’t support this bill as it.”
Bill to establish a 7-day wait for gun sales headed to Gov. Lujan Grisham - Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico
The New Mexico House of Representatives approved changes to a seven-day waiting period for most gun sales, sending the proposal to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk.
Although the House previously passed House Bill 129 on Feb. 2, it had to agree with the changes made when it passed the Senate. Representatives did so after an hour-and-a-half of debate on Monday night in a 36-32 vote.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 7 amended the bill to not require the wait on sales to people holding federal firearms licenses or concealed handgun licenses, law enforcement agencies, between two certified police officers authorized to carry a gun, and between immediate family members.
On the House floor, lead sponsor Rep. Andrea Romero (D-Santa Fe) explained the bill also exempts sales to people who hold a concealed handgun license issued by other states that have reciprocity with New Mexico.
The committee also exempted gun silencers from the waiting period.
The full Senate on Saturday night amended the bill to ensure delays in background checks wouldn’t prevent sales.
“By instituting this waiting period between purchasing and acquiring firearms, we can prevent temporary moments of crisis from becoming tragedies and save lives,” Romero said in a news release after the vote.
“Having a waiting period on the books will also help law enforcement make sure firearms don’t fall into the wrong hands by providing more time to run background checks,” she said.
New Mexico gets its first cold case unit - By Megan Myscofski, KUNM News
New Mexico is getting its first dedicated cold case unit. Attorney General Raúl Torrez announced the unit, which will focus on homicide and sexual assault cases, at a press conference Tuesday.
The unit currently has three full-time law enforcement agents. It will use forensic genetic genealogy methods to identify suspects.
The New Mexico Department of Justice has already accepted six cases. They include two from the 80s, three from the 90s and one from the 2010s.
More information about the cases can be found at the unit’s website. The department is also encouraging people with information about those cases to call its tipline, which can also be found at the website.
Man who fatally stabbed New Mexico officer had long criminal record, police say - Associated Press
A man who fatally stabbed a police officer in southern New Mexico over the weekend had a long criminal record, authorities said Tuesday.
The death of Las Cruces patrol Officer Jonah Hernandez marked the first on-duty death among officers in the 96-year-old history of the city's police department, officials said.
"We will mourn the loss of our brother forever," Las Cruces police Chief Jeremy Story said at a Tuesday news conference.
Authorities initially received a call Sunday afternoon that Armando Silva, 29, was trespassing on private property at a Las Cruces business, Story said.
Hernandez was dispatched without any backup after the call from the property owner. Story said Silva attacked Hernandez with a large kitchen knife. A witness retrieved a gun from his car and fatally shot Silva before calling on the officer's radio for help, Story said.
Hernandez, 35, suffered a least one stab wound and died at a local hospital.
Story said Silva had a long history of violent crime and mental illness.
"He was convicted of serious violent crimes and spent some time in prison," Story said. "He violated his probation and parole multiple times."
Court records show Silva was sentenced in 2017 to three years in prison after pleading guilty in a domestic violence case and, in 2019, he cut off his GPS bracelet and was found to be in possession of drugs.
A public safety assessment filed in early 2023 showed Silva had both prior misdemeanor and felony convictions and had failed to appear in court previously.
Story declined to identify the witness but said police aren't recommending any charges against him. Prosecutors ultimately make that determination.
Hernandez was a former resident of El Paso, Texas, who had served with Las Cruces Police Department for two years. He is survived by his wife and two sons, ages 2 and 10, plus his parents and two siblings, authorities said.
Law enforcement agencies from across New Mexico helped escort Hernandez's body to El Paso on Monday night. Funeral services were pending.
Las Cruces is one of New Mexico's largest cities and was founded in 1928. It's located about 225 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and some 45 miles northwest of El Paso.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement Monday that she was " horrified to hear of the murder of a young officer in Las Cruces."
"This loss is felt acutely by every first responder and their families," she said.
On Tuesday, Lujan Grisham ordered all state flags be lowered to half-staff from Wednesday through sundown of Feb. 19 in honor of Hernandez.
How did live ammunition get on Alec Baldwin's 'Rust' set? The armorer's trial will focus on this - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
The scheduled trial next week of a movie weapons supervisor in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer by Alec Baldwin may hinge on an enduring mystery: How did live ammunition find its way onto the set of a film set where it was expressly prohibited?
Investigators recovered six live rounds of ammunition from a box, a bandolier, a gun belt and other locations on the set of the Western movie "Rust," including the round that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded director Joel Souza.
Special prosecutors say they'll present "substantial evidence" at the trial that movie armorer Hannah Gutierrez-Reed unwittingly brought live rounds onto the set when she first began work on the film.
They say that includes photos showing that live rounds were present on the set days before Hutchins was killed. They also plan to present testimony that, months prior to the shooting, Gutierrez-Reed had looked for and purchased live .45-caliber ammunition.
"Ms. Gutierrez is not charged with intentional homicide, she is charged with homicide based on negligence," special prosecutor Kari Morrissey said in a recent court filing. "The tragedy occurred due to a series of negligent acts given that live rounds were on set well before October 21, 2021. Her ongoing negligent acts created numerous opportunities for live rounds to go undetected."
Gutierrez-Reed has pleaded not guilty to the involuntary manslaughter charge.
Flimsy is how her attorneys describe the evidence that she might have unknowingly brought live rounds on set, saying it falls far short of standards for prosecution.
Her attorneys also accuse prosecutors of compromising a crucial trial witness by handing over privileged communications about their case to the Albuquerque-based dummy ammunition supplier for "Rust" — whom they contend is the source of live ammunition that made its way onto the set. A civil lawsuit by Gutierrez-Reed against ammunition supplier Seth Kenney was dismissed in August and can't be refiled.
Much of the evidence about ammunition on set — culled from sources including thousands of text messages between "Rust" crew members — has not been made public under commonplace rules of evidentiary discovery prior to trial.
The proceedings against the armorer hold implications for Baldwin, the lead actor and co-producer on "Rust." He has pleaded not guilty to a charge of involuntary manslaughter and could face trial later this year. "Rust" assistant director and safety coordinator David Halls pleaded no contest to unsafe handling of a firearm and received a suspended sentence of six months of probation, agreeing to cooperate in investigations of the shooting.
Prosecutors allege that Gutierrez-Reed eventually loaded a live round into the gun that Baldwin discharged during the October 2021 rehearsal, killing Hutchins, and that the tragedy was a consequence of lax oversight of ammunition.
Baldwin has said he assumed the gun had only inert dummy rounds inside that can't fire and that someone else is responsible.
But the indictment against Baldwin provides two alternative standards for prosecution, one based on the negligent use of a firearm and another tied to negligence without due caution or "circumspection," also defined as "total disregard or indifference for the safety of others." Legal experts say the latter standard could broaden the investigation beyond Baldwin's handling of the gun. A date has not been set for Baldwin's potential trial.
"Rust" used an operable revolver. Industry-wide guidance, under a bulletin that applied to "Rust," says that "live ammunition is never to be used nor brought onto any studio lot or stage." It also says to "treat all firearms as if they are loaded."
Crew members also say Bonanza Creek Ranch, the movie set location where Hutchins was shot, forbade the presence of live ammunition on its property.
State workplace safety regulators say Gutierrez-Reed was responsible for storage, maintenance and handling of firearms and ammunition on set and for loading firearms with blanks that have a charge but no projectile, or inert dummy rounds.
Live rounds are typically distinguished from dummy rounds by a small hole in the dummy's brass cartridge, indicating there is no explosive inside, by a missing or dimpled primer at the bottom of the cartridge, or by shaking the round to hear the clatter of a BB that is inserted inside.
Live ammunition has made its way onto U.S. movie sets with severe consequences in just a handful of instances.
Actor Brandon Lee died in 1993 after he was shot in the abdomen while filming a scene of "The Crow." Lee was killed by a makeshift bullet that remained in a gun from a previous scene. The production ended up paying a $55,000 fine to federal regulators.
In 2005, federal regulators fined Greystone Television and Films $650 after a crew member was shot in the thigh, elbow and hand. It turned out that balloon-breaking birdshot rounds were in the same box as the blanks that were supposed to be used in rifles.
In New Mexico, a scathing report from state regulators about the "Rust" shooting said the production company did not develop a process for ensuring live rounds were kept away from set and failed to give the armorer enough time to thoroughly inventory ammunition.
Prosecutors want the regulators' conclusions kept out of the trial because it might be used argue that "Rust" management was responsible for safety failures and not Gutierrez-Reed.
Heated and disparaging exchanges between defense counsel and prosecutors in recent pretrial court filings include accusations of "vindictive," unconstitutional prosecution tactics. Special prosecutors Kari Morrissey and Jason Lewis are pursuing additional felony charges of tampering with evidence on allegations that Gutierrez-Reed handed off a baggie of possible narcotics to another crew member in the aftermath of the shooting to evade prosecution and took a video of herself bringing a gun into a Santa Fe bar weeks before the fatal shooting.
Defense attorney Jason Bowles says prosecutors are using trumped-up charges to pressure Gutierrez-Reed to make a false confession regarding the source of live ammunition on the film set.
"The state has always been open to resolving Ms. Gutierrez's cases," special prosecutor Morrissey responded in a court filing, "on one condition — that she take responsibility for the fact that she unknowingly brought live ammunition onto the set of 'Rust.'"
New Mexico Senate endorses budget bill emphasizing savings during oil sector windfall - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press
New Mexico would set aside well over $1 billion to guarantee tuition-free college and sustain government spending in case its oil production bonanza fades in the transition to cleaner energy sources under an annual spending plan endorsed by the state Senate on Monday.
The 31-10 Senate vote sends the bill back to the House for concurrence on amendments. The Democratic-led Legislature has until noon Thursday to send a budget bill to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who can approve or veto any provisions.
The bill as amended would increase annual general fund spending by $653 million, or 6.8%, to $10.2 billion for the fiscal year running from July 2024 through June 2025.
The boost in state spending is dwarfed by more than $1.3 billion in general fund transfers to new endowments and trusts designed to bolster scholarships for college and professional training, housing construction, outdoor conservation programs and autonomous Native American education programs.
Legislators anticipate a $3.5 billion budget surplus for the coming fiscal year, driven largely by oil and natural gas production in the Permian Basin that overlaps southwestern New Mexico and western Texas.
Republican state Sen. William Burt of Alamogordo urged colleagues to support the bill "because oil and gas won't always be there for us."
"We've got to look farther than the next few years. We've got to look at the long ... future of New Mexico," said Burt, one of six Republicans who voted for the spending bill.
The budget plan includes a new $959 million trust to permanently underwrite tuition-free college without fees for New Mexico residents — an initiative championed by Grisham since taking office in 2019. Public scholarships still are supported in part by lottery ticket sales.
The bill allocates $512 million to a "government results and opportunity" trust that would underwrite a variety of new programs during a three-year vetting period before future funding is guaranteed.
Another $75 million fund would help state and local governments compete for more federal infrastructure spending from the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration's signature climate, health care and tax package.
A conservation fund established in 2023 would get a $300 million infusion. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said that would guarantee annual distributions of about $21 million to an array of conservation programs at state natural resources agencies, from soil enhancement programs in agriculture to conservation of threatened and big-game species.
A revolving loan fund to finance construction would receive a $175 million infusion to expand both housing and commercial building inventory.
"New Mexico, you are not a poor state," said state Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup, the Senate's lead budget negotiator, urging colleagues to endorse the budget and its investment strategy.
Democratic state Sen. Bill Soules of Las Cruces voted for the bill but cautioned that the state shouldn't lose sight of such urgent concerns as childhood poverty as it builds up savings and investments. The bill includes funding for universal free school breakfasts and lunches.
"Are we afraid of the future and so afraid that we're going to put money away for the future instead of addressing the needs today?" Soules said. "Making sure children don't go hungry in New Mexico, aren't abused and have a place to sleep at night — all of those are our obligations."
Major annual spending increases include a 6.1% boost to K-12 public school funding, to $4.4 billion.
Medicaid spending would increase by $180 million, or 11%, as pandemic-era federal subsidies for the program recede and New Mexico increases payment rates to medical providers, including care for women with newborn children. The budget bill also increases pay by 3% for state employees and staff at K-12 schools, state colleges and public universities at an annual cost of $214 million.
It would funnel more money to rural hospitals, literacy programs, state police salaries, safety-net programs for seniors and road construction and maintenance.
Several provisions of the budget are contingent upon approval of companion legislation:
—New Mexico would become the 14th state to ensure paid time off to workers when they're seriously ill or to care for newborns and loved ones under a bill that advanced Monday toward a decisive House floor vote after Senate approval. The budget would provide at least $24 million to launch the program, which funds leave through a combination of employee and employer contributions.
—Final passage is still pending on changes that would reduce personal income taxes across the earnings spectrum, collect more taxes on investment income, and provide tax credits toward the purchase of new and used electric vehicles that can be combined with federal subsidies. State government would forgo about $220 million in annual income. The bill passed the Senate on a 26-13 vote Monday, and awaits a House concurrence vote.
—Final approval also was pending Monday on several new endowments and trusts.
Gov’s half-billion bid on Strategic Water Supply wobbles - By Danielle Prokop,Source New MexicoGov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s $500 million plan to create a market for treated brackish water, and oil and gas wastewater, faces an unexpected time crunch after it was struck this weekend from a list of long-term funding proposals.
The governor’s much-touted “Strategic Water Supply” will now have to face the gauntlet of committees and chamber votes with a few days left in the session.
Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup), who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, told Source New Mexico Sunday that the measure was removed from the capital outlay package, which is scheduled to go before the Senate Finance Committee later today.
“It’s in flux,” Muñoz said in the interview, adding that the Strategic Water Supply bill will contain more details about the proposal.
Capital outlay projects – which involve local improvement and construction projects – are often wrapped into the budget process, and are approved in one fell swoop.
Muñoz expressed misgivings about the state’s plans to make water into a commodity, and said he wants more information, considering it’s a half-billion dollar request.
Maddy Hayden, a spokesperson for the governor, confirmed the Strategic Water Supply is no longer in the capital outlay package, and that a bill will be brought forward. There was no further comment on the bill’s chances.
It’s unclear what chamber the bill will be introduced in, and which lawmaker would be the sponsor. No new bill was introduced Sunday before the Senate adjourned. The deadline to introduce legislation passed on Jan. 31. However, the water initiative can be brought forward by amending an already-filed bill.
This marks a shift from Lujan Grisham’s optimism at a press conference Friday that the measure was funded in the capital outlay package, and that she would continue to push for future water funding.
“You should expect me to push harder on some of that, the strategic water supply is a really important first step to making sure that we’re creating revenue that we can then apply to protecting our drinking water and freshwater,” Lujan Grisham said on Friday.
The governor warned of a more expensive future.
“I think that we’re going to have to do a lot more on water in general, water is going to cost every state including this one, hundreds of billions of dollars,” she told Source NM.
‘A LOT OF MONEY TO SPEND ON SOMETHING THAT’S NOT PROVEN YET’
The $500 million-proposal has prompted fierce pushback from climate groups and advocates, who said that neither the treatment science nor the state’s water data is sufficient.
For every barrel of oil, New Mexico produces four barrels of produced water, according to the Office of the State Engineer. The water contains contaminants such as sand, dissolved oils, radioactive materials, hydrocarbons, and proprietary additive chemicals used in fracking.
Melissa Troutman, a climate and energy advocate for WildEarth Guardians, said that the state still doesn’t have guidance from scientists about treatments that will work beyond small, laboratory experiments.
“It’s a terrible, very risky investment by the state on unproven technology, and nobody’s asking for the science,” Troutman said. “Half a billion dollars is a lot of money to spend on something that’s not proven yet.”
Troutman is also a member of the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium, a private-public entity that’s supposed to provide the data for using oil and gas wastewater outside of the industry. The consortium’s working groups have not met recently, Troutman said.
On Sunday, Troutman said she’s looking forward to seeing more information on the governor’s water initiatives in a bill, if and when it arrives.
“I like that it’s becoming its own thing, it certainly deserves to have a larger conversation around it,” Troutman said.
Julia Bernal (Sandia), the executive director of Pueblo Action Alliance, said the effort to treat produced water is a “bailout for the oil and gas industry,” and focuses too much on making a profit off of the solution rather than scaling back use of fossil fuels.
“It’s this backwards thing because oil and gas is causing climate change, yet, we’re also going to rely on that same industry to implement a just transition, I mean, that just doesn’t make sense for me,” Bernal said.
While Bernal supports efforts to improve clean up and even examine brackish water (salty water found in deep aquifers), she said the plans to do so are vague and missing water data.
“I don’t think anybody should be sure about it, because studies need to be done” she said. “Even with desalinated water plants, we have to ask ‘where is that waste going to go?’ I don’t know, will the state build new pipelines to transport waste from here to there?”
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty at this point,” Bernal said.
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE STRATEGIC WATER SUPPLY?
Lujan Grisham first announced the plans for the Strategic Water Supply during a November climate summit in Dubai.
Treated produced water could be used for building a “clean energy economy” by replacing water used in solar and wind manufacturing, she said, adding the water could be used for hydrogen fuel production – which has failed before in previous sessions.
Since then, few details have been shared.
The initiative is a cornerstone of the long-awaited 50-year water plan Lujan Grisham announced in January. The 23-page document that came with the announcement, does not elaborate on legislative action beyond securing $500 million in severance tax bonds for investment. The plan notes in a “return on investment” that the state would have 100,000 acre feet of “new water” by 2028, but does not provide any supporting documentation for that figure.
The water plan said the effort “will reduce risk for private companies looking to build desalination and produced water treatment facilities to convert brackish groundwater and oil and gas sector wastewater to valuable resources.”
In December, the New Mexico Environment Department announced it would be updating rules to allow for pilot projects for treating brackish, produced and wastewater treatment projects. Those projects are closed, meaning they can’t be discharged into surface waters or aquifers.
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary James Kenney and State Engineer Mike Hamman have made presentations before the legislature promoting the idea during the session.
In a Jan. 22 presentation to the Senate Finance Committee, Kenney said the state government would be “a middleman” in purchasing treated oil and gas wastewater or desalinated brackish water from contractors who treat it, and provide it for industrial uses.
“The state will ideally have a match for every barrel produced, there would be a consumptive use of that water,” Kenney told lawmakers. “So it would never fit into the scenario that it would be discharged into the environment.”
In that January meeting, Muñoz called the idea of making the brackish and produced water a commodity “absolutely scary.”
Paid Family and Medical Leave bill passes Senate - By Susan Dunlap,New Mexico Political Report
UPDATE, 2/12/24, 3:30 p.m.: Senate Bill 3 passed the House Health and Human Services Committee Monday. It now heads to the House floor.
A bill that seeks to provide several weeks of paid family and medical leave for workers in the state passed the state senate by a 25 to 15 vote late Friday night after several amendments.
SB 3, sponsored by Senate Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, would enable an employee to take paid time off for family or medical leave. One of the changes to the bill alters how much time an employee can request. Under the bill, an employee can apply for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to welcome a new child but, if the bill is enacted, an employee can request up to nine weeks for paid medical leave for the first two years of the program.
To qualify for medical leave, the employee would need to have a severe medical condition along with supporting material from a medical provider about the condition, as well as third party verification. An employee can also take up to nine weeks of medical leave when the need arises to care for a family member or person close to them who has a severe medical condition.
The vote fell along party lines except for state Sen. George Muñoz, a Democrat from Gallup, who sided with Republicans to vote against the bill. Muñoz was the only Democrat to speak against the bill during the four-and-a-half-hour debate.
The current version of the state budget, HB 2, contains a $36 million appropriation for startup costs for the program. Beginning in January 2026, employer and employee contributions, set at 0.4 percent and 0.5 percent respectively, will begin, if the bill is enacted. There are exceptions: Employers with four or fewer employees will not need to contribute to the fund, though the employees will. Self-employed individuals can opt out. Employers who have a comparable program can also opt out. Employees who make $168,000 a year or more can opt out.
The bill requires the Department of Workforce Solutions, which would administer the program, to hire an actuarial company to audit the fund and provide a report to the legislature each year. The bill also includes a cap of increasing the premiums to 0.1 percent per year if solvency issues arise. The department would have a year to promulgate rules with the help of an advisory committee to advise the secretary of Workforce Solutions during the rule-making process. During that year, the department will also educate and train businesses on the program’s requirements if the bill is enacted. The program would begin taking applications for leave on January 1, 2027.
Another change to the bill, an amendment made by state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, was to change the number of individuals who would sit on the advisory committee from 15 to eight. That group of eight, if the bill is enacted, will be made up of four representatives of the workforce and four representatives from the business community.
Cervantes’ amendment also eliminated the leave option for family of active-duty service members to prepare for a relocation. The amendment also eliminated the eight-hour minimum leave requirement and added a requirement that an employee must provide a 20-day notice when possible. The amendment also changed the 90-day work requirement before an employee taking leave receives job protection to 180 days or six months.
Cervantes said that as a small business owner himself, this aspect of the bill had concerned him. He said that if an employee invests in his business by working there for six months, then he is ready to invest in the employee by providing job protection while the employee takes paid leave.
Cervantes’ amendment passed the senate by a unanimous vote of 40-0.
Stewart said the amendments to the bill on Friday are to allay some concerns from some members of the business community who have been in vocal opposition to the bill. Stewart said her cosponsors in the House have been in conversation for the last few weeks with some of the business opponents to the bill and the bill sponsors arrived at the compromises, put forth through the amendments she and Cervantes made.
Stewart said that for the first two years – from 2027 to 2029 – the state would consider the solvency of the fund and then, if the fund remains solvent, an employee could request medical leave up to 12 weeks. She said that if the solvency is not met within two years, then the paid medical leave will remain at up to nine weeks.
Stewart introduced an amendment to the bill, to say that when an employee works for a temporary company, the temporary company pays the employer contribution of the premium, not the company who the temporary employee is working for.
The amendment also cleaned up some language to say that an employee can only take paid leave once during a calendar year to ensure paid leave does not happen twice within a 12-month period.
Stewart’s amendment passed the senate by a vote of 25-15 along party lines.
Republicans argued against the bill, with the primary theme being that this bill is a mandate, that it will harm small business owners in New Mexico and that individuals will take advantage of the program.
State Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, called it a “difference in worldview.”
Stewart said that in states that have already passed a paid family and medical leave bill, there is very little fraud reported. She said the bill bans employees found to have committed PFML fraud from applying for benefits for three years. She said the Department of Workforce Solutions will verify claims and that the department will require a third-party verification of the qualifying event. In addition, an employer has the right to appeal the determination.
“Not all states have that and we added it as an additional check against fraud,” Stewart said.
She said that the department can also bring its own action to go after fraudulent claimants.
Stewart also countered the argument that small businesses do not want a paid family and medical leave policy. She said that she and the other sponsors have found support in the small business community for the program.
The bill heads next to the House.
New Mexico officer fatally stabbed before a witness shoots and kills suspect, police say - Associated Press
A New Mexico police officer was fatally stabbed over the weekend while responding to a trespassing report and a witness to the attack apparently shot and killed the suspect before calling on the officer's radio for help, authorities said Monday.
The fatal stabbing and shooting took place late Sunday in Las Cruces, about 225 miles (360 kilometers) south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and some 45 miles (75 kilometers) northwest of El Paso, Texas.
Las Cruces police said Patrol Officer Jonah Hernandez, 35, was stabbed at least once Sunday afternoon and died at a hospital where he was taken.
The suspect in the stabbing, a 29-year-old man, was believed to have been shot and killed by the same witness, according to police. They said the witness used the officer's police radio to call for help afterward.
The name of the suspect was being withheld until his relatives could be notified, police said. The identity of the witness also wasn't immediately released.
It was unclear whether the attack occurred at a home or business and whether the witness lived at the address or was a passer-by. But police said more information would be released at a news conference Tuesday.
Hernandez was a former resident of El Paso, Texas, who had served with the Las Cruces police for two years. The department said Hernandez is survived by his widow and two sons, ages 2 and 10.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement Monday that she was "horrified to hear of the murder of a young officer in Las Cruces" and "this loss is felt acutely by every first responder and their families."