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MON: Food benefits available for residents impacted by NM wildfires, + More

A flattened house that was destroyed by the South Fork Fire is shown in the mountain village of Ruidoso, N.M., Saturday, June 22, 2024.
Andres Leighton
/
AP
A flattened house that was destroyed by the South Fork Fire is shown in the mountain village of Ruidoso, N.M., Saturday, June 22, 2024.

Food benefits available for residents impacted by NM wildfires- KUNM News

The New Mexico Health Care Authority announced Monday that New Mexicans affected by the South Fork and Salt fires may be eligible for food benefits under their Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

This applies to residents in Lincoln and Otero County, including the Mescalero Apache tribe — they can apply starting on Wednesday July 10, 2024 and have until Wednesday July 17, 2024 before the benefits close.

At Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s request, the state has received federal approval to appropriate these benefits to the 18 thousands residents that were impacted by the fires. This includes community members who live or work in the following Lincoln County zip codes: 88355, 88345, 88346, and 88312, as well as those in Otero County, including the Mescalero Apache Reservation zip code of 88340.

Kari Armijo, Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico Health Care Authority, said, “We want to assure New Mexicans that we are here to support them during this challenging time.”

Impacted residents can apply for D-SNAP at the following locations:

Applications will be accepted from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, starting Wednesday, July 10, through Wednesday, July 17. Please note that all sites will be closed on Saturday, July 13.
On Sunday, July 14, D-SNAP sites will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the Call Center will be closed.

Residents unable to drive to the D-SNAP locations may call 1-800-283-4465 to apply by phone, document their case, and verbally attest their information.

Review of prescribed fires finds gaps in key areas as US Forest Service looks to improve safety - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Two years after the U.S. Forest Service sparked what would become the largest and most destructive wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history, independent investigators say there are gaps that need to be addressed if the agency is to be successful at using prescribed fire as a tool to reduce risk amid climate change.

The investigation by the Government Accountability Office was requested by U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández after communities in her district were ravaged in 2022 by the Hermit's Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.

The congresswoman wanted to know what factors the Forest Service had identified as contributing to the escape of prescribed fires over the last decade and whether the agency was following through with reforms promised after a pause and review of its prescribed burn program.

The report made public Monday notes there were 43 escapes documented between 2012 and 2021 out of 50,000 prescribed fire projects. That included blazes in national forests in more than a dozen states, from the California-Nevada border to Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, North Carolina and Arkansas.

With the U.S. Forest Service and other land management agencies tapping into federal infrastructure and inflation reduction funding to boost the number of prescribed burn operations over the next 10 years, Leger Fernández said it's more important than ever to ensure they are doing it safely.

The congresswoman was visiting northern New Mexico over recent days, appreciating how things have greened up with summer rains. But the forests are still tinder boxes, she said.

"We need to address our forest, but we need to do it in a responsible way," she told The Associated Press. "When you play with fire, there is no margin for error."

The Forest Service ignites about 4,500 prescribed fires each year, reducing fuels on about 1.3 million acres. It's part of a multi-billion dollar cleanup of forests choked with dead trees and undergrowth.

There have been mixed results as federal land managers have fallen behind on some projects and skipped over some highly at-risk communities to work in less threatened ones, according to a 2023 AP review of data, public records and congressional testimony.

However, the Forest Service said in a response to the GAO that it is making progress and generally agrees with the findings made public Monday. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore wrote that his agency will create and implement a corrective action plan to address the gaps.

Moore also noted 2023 marked a record year for treatments of hazardous fuels on forest lands and his agency was on track to offer more training to build up crews who can specialize in prescribed burn operations.

"The agency is using every tool available to reduce wildfire risk at a pace and scale which will make a difference within our current means," Moore wrote.

The GAO reviewed volumes of documents over several months, interviewed forest officials and made site visits over many months. The investigation found the Forest Service has taken steps toward implementing several immediate recommended changes following the Hermit's Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. That included developing a national strategy for mobilizing resources for prescribed fire projects.

There were dozens of other actions the agency identified as part of its 2022 review, but the GAO found "important gaps remain" as the Forest Service hasn't determined the extent to which it will implement the remaining actions, including how or when.

The GAO is recommending the Forest Service develop a plan for implementing the reforms, set goals, establish a way to measure progress and ensure it has enough resources dedicated to day-to-day management of the reform effort. It also pointed out that the Forest Service in agency documents recognized the reforms will require major changes to practices and culture.

Leger Fernández said she hopes change will come quickly because wildfires are becoming more expensive and more dangerous.

"They are killer fires now. They move very fast, and people cannot get out of the way fast enough," she said. "And I think that kind of massive emergency that they are will lead to faster change than you might normally see in a large federal bureaucracy."

Judge rules Alec Baldwin's role as co-producer not relevant to trial over fatal set shooting - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Alec Baldwin 's role as a producer of the Western film "Rust" isn't relevant to the involuntary manslaughter trial over a fatal shooting on set, a New Mexico judge decided Monday.

The move is a major setback for prosecutors just as trial was about to begin. They had planned to present evidence that as a producer, Baldwin bore a special responsibility — well beyond that of the actor holding the gun — for the dangerous environment that led to the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins during a rehearsal.

"I'm having real difficulty with the state's position that they want to show that as a producer he didn't follow guidelines and therefore as an actor Mr. Baldwin did all of these things wrong that resulted in the death of Ms. Hutchins because as a producer he allowed these things to happen," Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer said. "I'm denying evidence of his status as a producer."

Special prosecutor Erlinda Johnson argued unsuccessfully to allow evidence that Baldwin's "role as a producer made him keenly aware of his responsibilities on set" for safety. "It goes to Mr. Baldwin's knowledge, knowing that his conduct on set was negligent," she said.

In the courtroom Monday, Baldwin sat between lead attorneys Luke Nikas and Alex Spiro. He appeared to listen intently, taking occasional notes on a yellow legal pad and handing written messages to an attorney. Baldwin wore glasses and close-cropped hair.

The trial starts July 9 with jury selection and is scheduled to last 10 days.

Last week, the judge cleared the way for crucial firearms experts for the prosecution to testify about Baldwin's handling of the revolver and whether the gun was functioning properly prior to the fatal shooting.

On Monday, the judge sided with prosecutors to exclude at trial the summary findings from a state workplace safety investigation that places much of the blame on assistant director Dave Halls. Halls has pleaded no contest to negligent use of a firearm and may be called to testify at Baldwin's trial.

Prosecutors say the workplace safety investigation was incomplete, unreliable and glossed over Baldwin's responsibilities in the fatal shooting.

Rust Movie Productions paid a $100,000 fine to resolve violations of state safety regulations that were characterized as "serious" but not willful, under a 2023 settlement agreement. Several witnesses to the workplace safety investigation are likely to be called to testify at Baldwin's trial.

Prosecutors also will be able to present at trial graphic images of Hutchins' injuries from an autopsy report, over objections from the defense, as well as police lapel camera video of the immediate aftermath of the shooting as medics arrived on set to treat the wounded Hutchins and Souza.

Baldwin is charged with a single felony count of involuntary manslaughter punishable by up to 18 months in prison if he's convicted.

Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, the armorer on set, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Hutchins' death and sentenced to 18 months in prison. She is appealing the conviction.

In October 2021, Baldwin was rehearsing a cross-draw maneuver with the revolver when the gun went off, killing Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty and claims the gun fired accidentally after he followed instructions to point it toward Hutchins, who was behind the camera. Unaware the gun contained a live round, Baldwin said he pulled back the hammer — not the trigger — and it fired.

Baldwin's attorneys successfully sought to bar discussion at trial of fatal gun incidents on movie sets, including actor Brandon Lee's death from a shot to the abdomen while filming a scene from "The Crow" in 1993. In that instance, a makeshift bullet was mistakenly left in a gun from a previous scene and struck Lee while filming a scene that called for using blank rounds.

Prosecutors have agreed not to elicit testimony about "The Crow," but also contend that Baldwin knew about safety risks posed by guns — even when live rounds are not present.

Marlowe Sommer said she'll allow just a single reference at trial to the fact that blank rounds without a projectile can be fatal. Attorneys for Baldwin argue that it was inconceivable that live rounds would wind up on set.

Prosecutors want to exclude a letter signed by crew members that disputes the characterizations of the "Rust" set as chaotic or dangerous prior to the fatal shooting.

Another pretrial motion might defuse snipping between the prosecution and defense teams. Prosecutors want the judge to preclude accusations of "prosecutorial misconduct" and "personal attacks."

Marlowe Sommer said discussion at trial of prosecutorial misconduct will be limited to testimony analysis of the gun in the fatal shooting and FBI forensic testing that damaged the firing mechanism. Defense attorneys argue that may have destroyed possible exculpatory evidence.

The judge ruled evidence and arguments designed to garner sympathy for Baldwin won't be allowed at trial, including indications of remorse or the impact of events on his family. Prosecutors say those arguments have no bearing on determining guilt.

Baldwin is a three-time Emmy winner who has gone from star and leading man to bit player to scene stealer, at times going years without a major role in a hit film or show. But he's remained a household name for nearly 35 years, largely on the strength of his real-life personality: as an outspoken liberal, talk-show guest and the king of all "Saturday Night Live" hosts.

Here’s how much councilors, commissioners and school board members make - Elizabeth McCall, City Desk ABQ 

This story was originally published by City Desk ABQ 

At the last City Council meeting, Councilor Klarissa Peña proposed an amendment to change the way salary increases work so all councilors receive a raise at the same time.

Currently, some make more than others after the Citizens’ Independent Salary Commission — the commission that determines their salaries — decided last year that councilors needed a raise.

The 87% raise increased the councilors’ salaries by $29,000, but it only went into effect after an election, meaning those who were already in office will not receive the increase until 2026 due to the staggered council district elections.

This means councilors in Districts 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 — whose term began in 2022 — are paid less than councilors in Districts 2, 4, 6 and 8 — whose term began in 2024.

Peña’s amendment states that if the commission chooses to implement another salary increase, all councilors will receive it at the same time. If it passes, the amendment will not go into effect until 2026, meaning it would not apply to the current council.

“I am one of the councilors that gets paid about half of what some of the other councilors get paid,” Tammy Fiebelkorn said during the meeting. “I would love to see us spend some time thinking through how to fix this problem of pay inequality on council, but certainly not something I think we need to rush through tonight.”

Most of the councilors agreed with Fiebelkorn but said they were voting against the amendment in order to give it further review so it can be discussed when the council convenes in August.

Here’s how much Albuquerque city councilors make:

  • Louie Sanchez, District 1: $33,660 
  • Joaquín Baca, District 2: $62,843 
  • Klarissa Peña, District 3: $33,660
  • Brook Bassan, District 4: $62,843 
  • Dan Lewis, District 5:  $35,860 (council president salary)
  • Nichole Rogers, District 6: $62,843 
  • Tammy Fiebelkorn, District 7: $33,660 
  • Dan Champine, District 8: $62,843 
  • Renée Grout, District 9: $33,660 

Bernalillo County commissioners each make $39,106 annually plus benefits.
Albuquerque Public Schools board members are not paid a salary but they receive a per diem of $95 if they attend a meeting for four hours or more or $45 if they attend a meeting for less than four hours.

Fewer beds and smaller earnings will hurt New Mexico hospitals as new state law goes into effect - By Leah Romero,Source New Mexico

Smaller New Mexico hospitals will soon start missing out on government funding due to their fewer number of beds and smaller financial performance.

Senate Bill 17 signed into law earlier this year is set to go into effect this summer, redefining how the state calculates its portion of the Medicaid match for hospitals. The Healthcare Quality Delivery and Access Act establishes that 60% of the state’s match is based on “Medicaid service volume” or beds while 40% is based on performance, which is determined by the Health Care Authority based on reports from the hospitals.

“Ultimately, the bill aims to improve and increase access to healthcare services within the state. However, hospitals that do not have significant Medicaid service volume will not see much benefit,” reads a Legislative Finance Committee report.

According to the report, smaller hospitals with fewer beds care for fewer Medicaid patients, compared to bigger hospitals with a larger capacity to treat Medicaid patients.

“Given the structure of the act, hospitals most at risk of down-sizing may not see much benefit. Generally speaking, hospitals that are not fiscally-challenged will receive the bulk of the financial aid based on bed count,” the report reads. “Ultimately, the act does not target hospitals that are financially struggling, and instead helps larger hospitals which are generally already profitable.”

The LFC report uses Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital in Gallup as an example. The smaller hospital lost around $20 million in 2022 and will receive about $6.5 million from the new law.

Rehoboth has made headlines recently by being ordered to pay over $100 million in medical malpractice damages. The civil case was filed in 2019 following a patient’s botched hernia surgery left them with life-long complications.

“This will not cover the full extent of the losses that Rehoboth faces and they will still have a negative net margin of more than $13 million,” the LFC report reads.

On the other hand, the larger Eastern New Mexico Medical Center reported a profit of about $80 million in 2022 and will receive over $37 million from the law. The report said if the Roswell hospital’s earnings remain on track, it could see over $117 million in combined profits and matched funding from the state.

Twelve New Mexico hospitals which qualify for funding under the new law reported net losses in 2022. Four of them will not receive enough state match funding to turn a profit. These include Rehoboth, Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, Santa Fe Medical Center, and Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Albuquerque.

In Southern New Mexico, Artesia General Hospital reported a nearly $3 million loss in 2022 and is only projected to receive $5.6 million in match funding. The hospital will be profitable at $2.7 million, which is low compared to other larger hospitals in the region.

The report also noted that public funds made up about 70% of total hospital revenue in 2022 and this number is projected to reach 74% by 2025. These include funding from Medicaid, Medicare, Medicare Advantage and state subsidies.

“As the state continues to increase hospital subsidies, New Mexico is in a unique position to ensure hospitals use their revenue to improve patients’ outcomes and access to healthcare,” the report reads.

During a Legislative Health & Human Services Committee meeting this week, Rep. Tara Lujan (D-Santa Fe) said the report raised several “red flags” for the lawmakers.

“We don’t always have all the answers when we come up with legislation. But I knew that we worked together with institutions, with legislators, with the executive office particularly on this bill,” Lujan said. “It looks like we need to make some adjustments.”

When asked by Rep. Pamelya Herndon (D-Albuquerque) about solutions the legislature should consider, LFC Analyst Allegra Hernandez said lawmakers need to make sure there are measures in place to hold hospitals accountable, and to improve care.

She added that the goal should be to make sure New Mexico hospitals are in a financially “healthier place” in five years, and that she does not believe Senate Bill 17, as it is currently written, will do that.

Hernandez offered one solution – the rural emergency hospital designation through Medicare. This designation was established through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 by Congress. The idea is that smaller, often rural hospitals would transition to become a rural emergency hospital and only offer emergency care to patients. This would limit access to broader services for patients seeking care.

“The rural emergency designation possible by (Medicare) is one potential answer, although it’s not necessarily the most popular answer as it would close hospital beds and only allow for emergency services,” Hernandez said.

Hospitals that choose to transition to this designation would receive another 5% in Medicare funds and a monthly facility payment of about $272,000. According to the LFC report, Guadalupe County Hospital is the only hospital in the state that has chosen to make this transition.

“The state and hospitals will likely need to continue to make difficult decisions about when it is necessary to close hospitals or sections of hospitals,” Hernandez said. “(The rural emergency designation) is an option, although, as I said, it is controversial,” Hernandez said.

Post-debate polling puts New Mexico in play for Trump if Dems stick with Biden -City Desk ABQ

This story was originally published by City Desk ABQ

A leaked poll from a Democratic-leaning firm, the first public poll data following President Joe Biden’s disappointing performance in last week’s presidential debate, shows Biden losing support in key battleground election states and even puts a few reliable Democratic voting states in play – including New Mexico.

The poll by Democratic firm OpenLabs — first reported Tuesday by the online politics outlet Puck News and later by Bloomberg News and others — shows Biden losing support among voters in the most contested states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona and Nevada.

But samples of voters in reliably Democratic New Mexico also registered declining support for Biden who polled even with Trump with 40% support in the state when a third-party candidate was included.

Still, 45% of Democratic voters sampled support the president staying in the race while 40% prefer he step aside for another candidate. For his part, Biden told supporters he has no plans to withdraw as the Democratic nominee.

Also on Tuesday, a new post-debate CNN poll found that 75% of voters think the Democrats would have a better chance of winning in November if another candidate was at the top of the ticket.

The leaked OpenLabs polling presentation did not include data indicating the number of voters polled in New Mexico, nationally or the margin of error for either group.

Communities support Las Vegas in ongoing water crisisLas Vegas Optic, NPR

Numerous communities around Northern New Mexico are supporting Las Vegas as it grapples with a water crisis brought on by flooding over a wildfire burn scar.

The Las Vegas Opticreports the cities of Santa Rosa and Santa Fe as well as Bernalillo County have shipped in water.

Española has been providing sandbags as summer monsoons promise more rain and tankers have also come from as far as Louisiana bringing water.

The New Mexico National Guard has been on hand to help with distributions. Las Vegas has been able to maintain its water supply and expand it slowly.

Mayor David Romero warned that even though the city is building up its current supply, another storm could put Las Vegas back where it was two weeks ago with no water.

The city’s water treatment plant was overwhelmed when flooding on the burn scar of the 2022 Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak Fire sent mudslides into the Gallinas River.

An official with the Federal Emergency Management Agencytold NPR a new temporary filtration system should be up and running soon.