FRI: Lottery Scholarship Will Cover Full Tuition, Redistricting Advisory Panel Takes Shape, + More

Jun 4, 2021


New Mexico Scholarship Program To Fund Full Cost Of TuitionAssociated Press

New Mexico's lottery scholarship program in the next academic year will cover full tuition for eligible in-state students at public and tribal colleges and universities for the first time since 2015, the state Higher Education Department announced.

The scholarship will be funded at $63.5 million in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, a 30% increase, with the additional money coming from several sources, officials said Thursday.

The scholarship paid full tuition for eligible students from 1996 to 2015 before it was reduced to levels as low as 60% due to circumstances that included rising tuition rates.

For the coming year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appropriated $15.5 million to shore up the scholarship, while $37 million will come from projected lottery ticket sales. The rest of the money will be carried over from last year, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

"This is what is needed at the tail end of a pandemic," Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said.

Officials are discussing ways to keep the scholarship at the 100 percent mark beyond next year, Rodriguez said.

New Mexico Moves Ahead With Review Of Contamination At BasesAssociated Press

New Mexico is several months into an investigation to determine the extent of contamination at two U.S. Air Force bases, and state officials said Friday that the work is on track to be completed by summer 2022.

Environment Secretary James Kenney said his department has reviewed data, drafted analysis and sampling plans, and visited areas around Cannon and Holloman air bases. Once the study is done, the department will evaluate the next steps based on the risk to public health, available funding and any actions taken by the federal government at that point.

The state sued in 2019, saying the federal government has a responsibility to clean up plumes of toxic chemicals left behind by past military firefighting activities.

New Mexico officials consider the contamination "an immediate and substantial danger" to the surrounding communities of Clovis and Alamogordo. They say sampling has shown the levels of contamination — linked to a class of chemicals known as PFAS — exceeds lifetime health advisory levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Similar contamination has been found at dozens of military sites across the U.S. and has triggered hundreds of lawsuits. Growing evidence that exposure to the chemicals is dangerous has prompted the EPA to consider setting a maximum level for PFAS in drinking water nationwide.

Redistricting Advisory Panel Takes Shape In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Retired state Supreme Court Justice Edward L. Chavez will lead a citizen redistricting committee to develop proposed changes to political district boundaries across New Mexico.

Chavez was appointed to the leadership role on Friday by the State Ethics Commission.

Districts are redrawn every 10 years after the Census count to adjust for population shifts. New Mexico will draw new maps for three U.S. House districts as well as the state Senate, House and Public Education Commission that oversees charter schools.

The redistricting panel will hold a series of public meetings as it develops detailed proposals. Its recommendations will be presented to the Legislature and will not be binding.

Chavez was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 2003 by Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. Chavez authored the unanimous 2013 Supreme Court decision that cleared the way for gay marriage in New Mexico and then retired from the court in 2018.

The redistricting committee will have seven members. Four are picked by House and Senate leaders from both major parties. The State Ethics Commission appoints the chair as well as two members that are not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican parties.

States including New Mexico will have new discretion in the redistricting process under a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts is none of its business.

Recent elections put Democrats in firm control of the process in New Mexico under a Democratic governor and supermajorities in the Statehouse, and a Democrat-dominated Supreme Court.

New Mexico's current voting districts were drawn in 2012 by a state district court after former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a plan from a Democratic-led Legislature. The court's goal was to minimize partisan leanings and keep intact communities with similar cultural, economic or geographic concerns.

Mistrial Declared In Case Of Rio Arriba County SheriffSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A state district judge on Friday declared a mistrial in the case of Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan after jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

The 60-year-old sheriff was facing charges of harboring or aiding a felon and bribing a witness in connection with a 2017 incident. He was accused of helping former Española City Councilor Phillip Chacon evade police after a high-speed chase and telling a sheriff's deputy who witnessed some of his actions not to tell anyone.

Lujan's attorney had argued that the sheriff had no knowledge of the charges against Chacon at the time.

Española police began pursuing Chacon after he attempted to back into a police vehicle and failed to pull over despite the officer's use of lights and sirens, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported. The chase reached speeds up to 110 miles per hour before officers abandoned the pursuit due to the danger to the community.

Lujan is alleged to have gone to Chacon's house after Chacon evaded police, told him to gather his belongings and took him away instead of surrendering him to police.

Former Rio Arriba County Deputy Cody Lattin testified that he encountered Lujan on the road and Lujan told Lattin to follow him to Chacon's home so Lattin could help serve a restraining order requiring Chacon to leave the premises.

Lattin told jurors that he believed Chacon should have been taken directly to Española police but feared for his job if he reported the incident.

Special Prosecutor Andrea Reeb pointed to recordings of phone calls Lujan made to the dispatch center the night of the incident as evidence Lujan was trying to protect Chacon. She said the sheriff might not have known the exact charge Chacon was accused of, but he knew what he did was wrong.

"Any officer would be arrested for taking somebody that was wanted and getting them away from that situation," she said.

Defense attorney Jason Bowles pointed to inconsistencies in the testimony of some of the state's witnesses, including two officers who pursued Chacon that night.

"You can't convict someone in this country on this amount of speculation," he told jurors.

Lujan is also awaiting trial on three misdemeanor counts of resisting, evading or obstructing an officer in another case involving Chacon in which he is alleged to have shown up drunk at Chacon's house in March 2020 as police were executing a search warrant and tried to take over the operation from local officers and New Mexico State Police.

Haaland Sends Recommendation On Utah Monuments To President - By Brady McCombs, Associated Press

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has made her recommendation about whether to reverse former President Donald Trump's decision to downsize two sprawling national monuments in Utah, but details of her decision were not released.

The Interior Department gave her report to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, according to a court filing Thursday in a legal battle that began more than three years ago after Trump's decision.

U.S. Department of Justice attorneys mentioned the report as part of a request to have until July 13 to address the judge's question about whether the legal battle has become a moot point.

Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz declined to provide any information about the report.

Haaland traveled to Utah to visit the monuments in April as she became the latest cabinet official to step into a public lands tug-of-war that has gone on for years. She is the first Indigenous official to get involved in the decision.

A string of U.S. officials has heard from advocates for expanding national monuments to protect archaeological and cultural sites, and from opponents who see such moves as federal overreach.

Biden asked Haaland to research whether the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante should be restored. Native American tribes supported the creation of Bears Ears by President Barack Obama, but Republican state leaders opposed it. Grand Staircase is older but has long been a point of contention for conservative state leaders who consider both monuments U.S. government overreach.

Bears Ears was downsized by 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante cut by nearly half under the Trump administration.

The reductions paved the way for potential coal mining and oil and gas drilling on lands that used to be off-limits, though such activity has been limited because of market dynamics.

Bears Ears covers lands considered sacred to Native Americans where red rocks reveal petroglyphs and cliff dwellings and distinctive twin buttes bulge from a grassy valley.

Interior officials told Utah Gov. Spencer Cox that the report had been given to the White House but didn't provide any information about the findings, said his spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce.

Cox and other prominent Utah Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, have expressed concern with the review. They met with Haaland on her visit. Cox has said the state would likely sue if the monuments are enlarged without approval from Congress.

Pat Gonzales-Rogers, executive director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said the group found out about the report being done from the court filing and hasn't been provided any additional information. The coalition remains hopeful that the Biden administration will reverse Trump's decision.

"We're standing on the sidelines, but with great optimism," Gonzales-Rogers said.

Mexico To Use US-Donated Vaccines Along BorderAssociated Press

Mexican officials said Friday they will use 1 million U.S. doses of the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine to inoculate people along the border.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the vaccinations along Mexico's northern border with the United States is part of an effort to fully reopen border crossings, which are currently restricted to essential travel.

"There is going to be a special vaccination plan in the border communities of our country on the northern border, with the aim of getting border transportation back to normal," López Obrador said.

Mexican officials said they will have to obtain another 2 million doses of the one-shot vaccine — which they might purchase from Johnson & Johnson — to vaccinate the 3 million border residents between 18 and 40.

Presumably, those over 40 will be covered by Mexico's regular nationwide campaign, which does not use Johnson & Johnson, although the shot has been approved for use in Mexico.

On Thursday, an official said some might also be used at coastal resorts frequented by Americans, but that possibility was not included in the plan announced Friday. The announcement came on the same day that Mexico City announced the gradual lifting of a partial coronavirus lockdown that began more than a year ago.

López Obrador said U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told him the United States would send the vaccines, but did not specify when.

Mexican cities on the border lag far behind their counterparts on the U.S. side in vaccinating their populations. But goods and people move constantly across the border.

It is not clear how plans to give priority to border areas would play in other parts of Mexico that have been much harder hit by the pandemic.

Mexico has so far received 42.3 million doses of five different types of vaccines, not including Johnson & Johnson, and administered 32.8 million of those doses. That is still vastly insufficient for a country of 126 million.

Mexico has suffered over 228,000 test-confirmed deaths related to COVID-19, but even government officials acknowledge Mexico's true pandemic death toll is far higher because many people have died at home or never got a test. A preliminary analysis of excess deaths suggests COVID-19 deaths now stand at over 350,000, giving Mexico one of the highest per capita rates in the world.

In Mexico City, hospital occupancy rates and new cases have fallen low enough that capacity bans on venues like theaters, gyms and sports stadiums can now gradually be lifted. However, mask wearing will still be required in most indoor public spaces.

Noisy Protest Disrupts Governor's 1st Reelection Rally - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Morgan Lee Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham revved up her campaign for reelection in 2022 with an opening rally at an outdoor museum amphitheater, where the sound of protesters just outside threatened to drown out a series of public speakers.

Inside, the rally displayed a unified front in support of the governor among top Democratic elected officials, from Attorney General Hector Balderas to the two top ranked legislators in the state House and Senate. Aside from members of her Cabinet, other prominent Democrats and some Native American leaders, the venue never filled up and many seats were left empty.

A few dozen protesters gathered outside the Albuquerque Museum and took aim at Lujan Grisham's mask mandate and pandemic-related public health orders. A sign said, "Governor, we are not your subjects."

Chants, sirens and cries of "lock her up" — a chant that has targeted Democrats in the past, including Hillary Clinton — threatened to drown out the speakers.

"No amount of noise will intimidate," Lujan Grisham said in brief comments, shouting over the ruckus. "Be proud you are a Democrat, believe in science, put New Mexicans first, and keep investing in building a better state."

Democratic Party Chairwoman Jessica Velasquez urged people watching the speech in person and online to match each bullhorn burst from protesters with donations to the governor's reelection campaign.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez praised the governor's approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

"She answered with courage and because of that, how many lives have been saved," she said.

Outside, a man on a bullhorn asked, "Who wants to impeach the governor?" Protesters responded with cheers.

Lujan Grisham has been lambasted over the past year for her response to the pandemic, which has included some of the most stringent public health orders in the nation. Critics have ranged from business owners to parents concerned about the loss of classroom time and access to sports and other extracurricular activities.

Early contenders for the Republican nomination to take on Lujan Grisham in 2022 include Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block.

The last incumbent governor to lose reelection in New Mexico was Democrat Bruce King, who was defeated in 1994 by then-Republican Gary Johnson.

Invitations to watch the Thursday evening event went out to campaign supporters, touting the Democratic governor's accomplishments on issues ranging from tax policy to recreational cannabis since taking office in January 2019.

But Lujan Grisham's Cabinet officials are confronting criticism over an estimated $250 million overpayment of unemployment benefits amid limited oversight of fraudulent claims, the use of an auto-deleting messaging app at the state's child welfare agency and missed deadlines for the state to receive federal education funds.

Lujan Grisham signed legislation this year that expands two kinds of tax benefits for working and low-income families, along with a one-time $600 income tax credit or rebate to low-income workers. 

That relief is estimated at about $185 million in its first year.

She also signed legislation to raise the surtax on health insurance premiums by about $150 million annually. Some of those funds will be used to help lower monthly health insurance premiums for low-income individuals and employees of small businesses.

Newly signed marijuana reforms will establish legal cannabis sales by April 1, 2022. Starting June 29, people 21 and over can legally possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana.

There is no indication that Lujan Grisham will have Democratic challengers for her party's nomination.

The state Democratic Party is riding high after a lopsided win in Tuesday's special congressional election to fill an Albuquerque-based seat vacated by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. State Rep. Melanie Stansbury beat Republican state Sen. Mark Moores by about 24 percentage points.

However, political observers noted that the outcome in a district that has been controlled by Democrats for more than a decade won't automatically translate to the rest of the state, where conservative Hispanic Democrats, independent voters and rural residents can swing elections.

Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said historical trends also point to more Republican governors being elected nationally during the midterm and that presidential approval ratings and Lujan Grisham's own approval among New Mexico residents will play a role. 

"It's hard to know what's going to happen there," Atkeson said. "In the next six months, we could see some real inflation or we could have a crisis in manufacturing and depending on how long that takes to run its course, those big picture items could be very harmful to her."

Atkeson also acknowledged frustration over the pandemic, noting that the pace of economic recovery will likely be a consideration for voters next year if the effects continue to linger.

Albuquerque Sunport Restoring Some Flights Nixed By Pandemic Associated Press

With more people getting COVID-19 vaccines, the Albuquerque International Sunport is restoring some flights to its operation.

City officials announced Thursday that several flight routes will be added back at the Albuquerque airport and other flights will increase their frequency.

Among the returns is Delta Air Lines will resume non-stop service this weekend between the Sunport and Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport in Minnesota. Meanwhile, jetBlue will boost its non-stop flights to New York City from two to four times weekly to daily until July. Then the flight will be available five times per week until the end of the summer.

Officials say the Sunport has seen the most passenger traffic since before the pandemic in recent weeks. During the worst of the pandemic, traffic was down by 97%.

Navajo Nation Reports 13 Additional COVID-19 Cases, 4 Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported 13 additional COVID-19 cases and four more deaths from the virus as of Thursday.

Since the pandemic began, more than 30,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,328 deaths from the virus have been reported on the vast reservation that covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who accompanied his 13-year-old son as the youth received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Thursday, said people should get vaccinated. 

Vaccinations are available during drive-thru events or by appointments at health care facilities across the reservation.

Audit Deems New Mexico Staff Payments Unconstitutional Associated Press

A state auditor in New Mexico has warned the Legislature that a plan to pay $300 to legislative staffers who worked in the Capitol this year is unconstitutional.

State Auditor Brian Colón said his office told the Legislature that the state Constitution prohibits giving extra compensation to a public servant after services are rendered, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

"I've got to hold everybody accountable when it comes to the law," Colón said, noting that auditors have warned other public bodies that payments would violate the state Constitution.

The warning was in response to legislation passed in this year's 60-day session that calls for a one-time $300 "compensation adjustment" for employees working in the Capitol during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill is set to take effect later this month, and up to $165,000 would be paid out after that.

Legislative Council Service Director Raul Burciaga said he is unable to halt the payments, because the legislation was passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Democratic state Sen. George Muñoz, who is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the legislation was intended as a gesture of thanks to staff members and not a violation of law.

The provision at issue prohibits enacting a law "giving any extra compensation to any public officer, servant, agent or contractor after services are rendered or contract made." However, the state Constitution does not prohibit providing extra pay for current work.

Demand Rises For New Mexico Pandemic Small Business Loans - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico state finance authorities have said that demand appears to be building for minimum-interest loans aimed at helping small businesses that lost income or experienced major disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic.

New Mexico Finance Authority CEO Marquita Russel told a panel of state legislators on Wednesday that about 865 businesses have applied for loans worth a combined $65 million since the program was overhauled in March.

Reforms to the state's small business recovery loan program, signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in early March, doubled the maximum individual loan amount to $150,000 and broadened eligibility after businesses expressed a limited appetite for the original program.

"That program, as a result of the changes made to it, really had some traction and we've seen a great deal of interest," Russel said.

The federal government has closed out its paycheck protection program that provided forgivable loans to businesses beginning in April 2020. Restaurants are still in line for federal relief under the Biden administration's $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package.

New Mexico's small business recovery loans are repaid at half the prime rate of interest that commercial banks charge their most creditworthy customers, with zero interest accrued during the first year. Repayment installments are not due for the initial three years.

The program was originally created during a June 2020 special session of the Legislature as the pandemic took hold and state emergency health orders shut down a variety of nonessential businesses that could not operate remotely.

Under original terms of program, the state lent out $41.7 million through about 880 approved applications.

The current application period runs through May 31, 2022, on a first-come basis. The finance authority can lend up to $500 million.

New Mexico Wildfire Forces Closure Of Gila Cliff Dwellings Associated Press

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument will close this weekend while crews continue efforts to contain a wildfire in the Gila National Forest.

The National Park Service said Thursday that the Cliff Dwellings will shut down beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday and until further notice.

The lightning-caused blaze, which was first reported May 20, has burned roughly 60 square miles.

Firefighters will conduct burn-out operations west of the Cliff Dwellings on the so-called Johnson Fire. The hope is to reinforce fire lines and keep the blaze from getting to the Cliff Dwellings or the community of Gila Hot Springs.

Previously, fire officials were allowing controlled burning while monitoring any potential threat to the Cliff Dwellings, a treasured pre-Colombian settlement preserved in rock.

Fire officials say they will allow burning that is healthy for forests, but are monitoring the threat the Johnson Fire may pose to the nearby Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a treasured pre-Colombian settlement preserved in rock.

Trails into the Gila closed Tuesday to protect public safety.

Fire season in New Mexico is on track to be even hotter and drier than usual, with lower flow in many of its rivers.

US Seeks Bids To Manage Underground Nuclear Waste Dump - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. Energy Department is seeking bids to manage the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository amid efforts to rebound from a pandemic-related slowdown and as work continues to replace the facility's ventilation system following a 2014 radiation release that forced a nearly three-year closure.

The agency issued its final request for proposals for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Wednesday. The four-year contract to manage the southern New Mexico facility is worth about $3 billion and includes six one-year extension options.

The current contract with Nuclear Waste Partnership is set to expire next April. The company plans to bid again.

The repository is central to the federal government's multibillion-dollar program for cleaning up Cold War-era waste left over at sites around the country that were involved in bomb making and nuclear research.

State environmental regulators recently concluded a virtual public meeting on proposed permit changes that watchdog groups have said could open the door to expanded operations at the repository. It will be months before a final decision is made.

While federal law limits the kind of waste that can be shipped to the repository, opponents have said the U.S. Energy Department is looking to expand the mission to include high-level and other types of waste.

Watchdog groups and other critics have accused the federal government and Congress of stalling numerous efforts to open other repositories and find other solutions to both defense-related waste and spent nuclear fuel that's piling up at commercial nuclear power plants around the U.S.

The repository has been in operation for more than two decades, having received nearly 12,900 shipments and disposing of the waste in vaults that have been mined out of a salt formation deep underground. The idea is that the shifting salt will eventually entomb the radioactive tools, clothing, gloves and other debris that make up the waste.

Wyoming Smokejumper Dies Of Injuries Suffered In New MexicoAssociated Press

A Wyoming smokejumper has died of injuries suffered last month while fighting a wildfire in New Mexico, the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday.

Tim Hart of Cody, Wyoming, suffered a hard fall on May 24 while responding to a fire in Hidalgo County, New Mexico. He was flown via air ambulance to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where he died Wednesday evening, the agency said.

"Our hearts go out to Tim's family, loved ones, friends, fellow Forest Service employees, and the entire wildland fire community and I ask that you keep them in your thoughts and prayers during this time of sorrow while respecting the family's privacy," Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in a statement.

Hart, 36, was working for the West Yellowstone Smokejumpers based in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana at the time of his death.

He had been a wildland firefighter since 2006, working in North Carolina, Arizona, Oregon, Wyoming and Nevada. He joined the smokejumper program in 2016 and worked his rookie season in Idaho, the agency said. He was based in Montana beginning in 2019.

The cause of his hard fall is still being investigated, said Marna Daley, spokesperson for the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

California Man Sentenced For Assaulting Flight Attendants Associated Press

A California man has been sentenced to six months in prison for assaulting two flight attendants while traveling from San Diego to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico announced the sentencing Wednesday of 43-year-old Alton James Johnson of Yuba City, California. James pleaded guilty to the assault on Jan. 12.

Prosecutors said in a plea agreement that Johnson repeatedly touched a female flight attendant on her legs during a December 2019 flight. She asked him to stop and he then grabbed her by the buttocks.

Prosecutors say a second flight attendant stepped in to help and he grabbed that attendant by the arm.

The U.S. Attorney's Office says Johnson admitted in the plea agreement to having been under the influence of alcohol but in control of his actions.