MON: Court Rules State Does Not Have To Compensate Businesses, Cliff Dwellings Closed, + More

Jun 7, 2021


Pandemic Ruling Finds State Not Obligated To Compensate Business - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The state Supreme Court ruled Monday that there is no constitutional or statutory requirement to compensate businesses for financial losses due to emergency public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ruling in favor of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham scuttles about 20 lawsuits against her administration.

The original plaintiffs argued that aggressive health restrictions from the administration constituted a regulatory taking much like the taking of land for public works projects. The governor urged the Supreme Court to block the lawsuits.

In a unanimous opinion from Justice Shannon Bacon, the court said that current public health orders "are a reasonable exercise of the police power to protect the public health."

"Occupancy limits and closure of certain categories of businesses, while certainly harsh in their economic effects, are directly tied to the reasonable purpose of limiting the public's exposure to the potentially life-threatening and communicable disease," the decision said.

The high court noted that the Public Health Emergency Response Act does provide for compensation for the emergency appropriation from businesses of health care supplies, a health facility or any other property.

New Mexico's emergency health restrictions have been among the most aggressive in the nation, shutting down in-person learning at K-12 schools for more than a year, intermittently closing in-person restaurant service and locking down many public venues and non-essential businesses for months on end.

At the same time, Lujan Grisham also has signed into law a variety of grants, loans and tax breaks for businesses. State finance authorities are currently fielding applications or up to $500 million in minimal-interest loans for small businesses and $200 million in development grants designed to underwrite new employment in the private sector.

The largest proposed relief measure for businesses remains in limbo after Lujan Grisham vetoed a $600 million contribution of federal aid to the state unemployment insurance trust do avoid future payroll tax increases.

A. Blair Dunn, an attorney for a coalition of small businesses ranging from an amusement park to a rural auction house, accused the state Supreme Court of overstepping its authority in denying compensation to businesses.

Oral arguments took place at the Supreme Court in January, with New Mexico mired in high infection rates as initial doses of the vaccine were deployed.

Albuquerque To Launch Plan To Invest In Black Businesses Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The mayor of Albuquerque plans to release details this month of a plan to invest $1 million in the city's Black community.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Monday that Mayor Tim Keller will elaborate on the investment program during the city's Juneteenth Festival.

It's been a year since Keller first proposed funding for Black-owned businesses in response to the racial reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

The proposal was approved by the Albuquerque City Council after lengthy talks about how the money would be allocated.

Sarah Wheeler, a city spokeswoman, told the newspaper the city has been working closely with the Black business community and other partners on a plan.

The One Albuquerque Fund, a foundation supported by the city, will be tasked with administering the grants.

Gay Albuquerque Councilors Say Pride Event Excluded ThemAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller is facing criticism for failing to include two openly gay city councilors at a recent Pride month event.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that neither Pat Davis nor Diane Gibson was present last week when Keller raised a rainbow flag, a symbol of Pride, outside City Hall with members of the LGBTQ community.

Both Davis and Gibson confirmed that they were not invited.

Davis tweeted "Inclusivity is not a photo op."

Gibson told the newspaper she did not expect to be invited because Keller has a history of not including her at events in her own district.

Lorena Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said anyone was welcome to the public flag event. She says the city shared the event details with various LGBTQ organizations who then promoted it.

US Wildlife Managers Tout Wolf Cross-Fostering Efforts - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A record 22 captive-born Mexican gray wolf pups have been placed into dens in the wild in the southwestern U.S. to be raised by surrogate packs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Monday.

The agency called this year's cross-fostering season a success, saying the endangered predators that have been part of the fostering program over the last six years have helped to boost genetic diversity among the wild population in New Mexico and Arizona.

Officials said that over the last two months, nine pups were fostered into three different packs in eastern Arizona and 13 were placed with five packs in western New Mexico. Last year, 20 pups were placed into dens in the wild.

Jim deVos, the Mexican wolf coordinator with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said in a statement that the fostering program is built on partnerships with private organizations that are part of a nationwide captive breeding effort.

The captive-born pups came from litters at facilities in New Mexico, Texas and Missouri.

"Without this important partnership, genetic recovery would be essentially impossible," he said. "Importantly, we are now seeing Mexican wolves that have been fostered producing litters themselves."

Cross-fostering involves placing pups less than 14 days old from captive breeding populations into wild dens with similarly aged pups to be raised as wild wolves. Officials said cross-fostered pups have the same survival rate — about 50% — as wild-born pups in their first year of life.

According to the wolf recovery team, at least 12 of the wolves fostered over the years are still alive and surviving in the wild. Seven of these wolves have reached breeding age and four have subsequently produced pups in the wild.

Since pups are too young to mark when fostered, officials said only those that are recaptured can be confirmed as being alive, so it's likely more have survived.

Some environmentalists questioned those numbers and said cross-fostering doesn't go far enough to put the species on track for recovery. The Center for Biological Diversity is among those pushing for wildlife managers to release breeding pairs along with their pups as bonded family packs.

Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity suggested that captive-born, well-bonded packs released into the wild have a lower mortality and disappearance rate than cross-fostered pups. He also raised concerns about illegal killings, noting that the fate of many of the 50 pups placed into wild dens between 2016 and 2020 is unknown.

"Aside from whatever is ailing cross-fostered pups in the short term, (the Fish and Wildlife Service's) failure to address illegal killing casts a pall on genetic conservation of released wolves no matter what manner of release is employed," Robinson said in an email.

The most recent survey of Mexican wolves determined there were at least 186 of the animals spread between New Mexico and Arizona. Over the last five years, the wild population has nearly doubled.

Meanwhile, ranchers in the recovery area have said they are continuing to see more livestock killed by the wolves despite efforts to scare the animals away. They have been vocal with their opposition to more wolf releases, including one planned at Ted Turner's ranch in southwestern New Mexico.

Drought-Stricken Nevada Enacts Ban On 'Non-Functional' Grass - By Sam Metz AP / Report For America

In Sin City, one thing that will soon become unforgivable is useless grass.

A new Nevada law will outlaw about 31% of the grass in the Las Vegas area in an effort to conserve water amid a drought that's drying up the region's primary water source: the Colorado River.

Other cities and states around the U.S. have enacted temporary bans on lawns that must be watered, but legislation signed Friday by Gov. Steve Sisolak makes Nevada the first in the nation to enact a permanent ban on certain categories of grass.

Sisolak said last week that anyone flying into Las Vegas viewing the "bathtub rings" that delineate how high Lake Mead's water levels used to be can see that conservation is needed.

"It's incumbent upon us for the next generation to be more conscious of conservation and our natural resources — water being particularly important," he said.

The ban targets what the Southern Nevada Water Authority calls "non-functional turf." It applies to grass that virtually no one uses at office parks, in street medians and at entrances to housing developments. It excludes single-family homes, parks and golf courses.

The measure will require the replacement of about 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) of grass in the metro Las Vegas area. By ripping it out, water officials estimate the region can conserve 10% of its total available Colorado River water supply and save about 11 gallons (41 liters) per person per day in a region with a population of about 2.3 million.

"Replacing non-functional turf from Southern Nevada will allow for more sustainable and efficient use of resources, build resiliency to climate change, and help ensure the community's current and future water needs continue to be met," said Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger.

The ban was passed by state lawmakers with bipartisan support and backing from groups like Great Basin Water Network conservation group and the Southern Nevada Homebuilders' Association, which wants to free up water to allow for projected growth and future construction.

When the ban takes effect in 2027, it will apply only to Southern Nevada Water Authority jurisdiction, which encompasses Las Vegas and its surrounding areas and relies on the Colorado River for 90% of its water supply.

As the region has grown, the agency has prohibited developers from planting grass front lawns in new subdivisions and has spent years offering some of the region's most generous rebates to owners of older properties — up to $3 per square foot (0.1 square meters) — to tear out grass and replace it with drought-tolerant landscaping.

Water officials have said waning demand for those rebates has made bolder measures necessary. The legislation also mandates the formation of an advisory committee to carve out exceptions to the ban.

Other cities and states have enacted temporary grass bans during short-term droughts, but Nevada is the first place in the country to put in place a regional ban on certain uses of grass.

The ban came as the seven states that rely on the over-tapped Colorado River for water — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming — reckon with the prospect of a drier future.

Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two reservoirs where Colorado River water is stored, are projected to shrink this year to levels that would trigger the region's first-ever official shortage declaration and cut the amount allocated to Nevada and Arizona.

Water officials in both states have said that even with the cuts, they'll still have enough water to accommodate projected population growth, but are working to limit certain kinds of consumption.

In Arizona, farmers in Pinal County south of Phoenix have had to stop irrigating their fields because of the cuts. Nevada stands to lose about 4% of its allocation, although the state has historically not used its entire share.

Jemez-Area Ranch Purchase To Expand Santa Fe National Forest - Associated Press

The federal government plans to purchase a private ranch in the Jemez River Valley to expand the Santa Fe National Forest in northern New Mexico.

Acquisition of the 3.1 square miles will both protect land rich in natural and cultural resources and provide public access to areas of the forest currently difficult to reach, officials said Friday in a statement announcing the purchase.

The land consists of two parcels on both sides of the river and is nestled between spires of volcanic tuff and red rock mesas, the statement said.

The parcels are within the congressionally designated Jemez National Recreation Area and have legal access from State Route 4. 

Forest managers estimate the sale will close in the coming year. 

The Forest Service is buying the property through a conservation fund that was fully established when the Great American Outdoors Act passed last year.

"The Forest Service's acquisition of this incredible landscape near Jemez Springs adds immeasurably to one of New Mexico's most valued places," U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, said.

The statement also included endorsements by Pueblo of Jemez Gov. Michael Toledo, Jr. and Roger Sweet, mayor of the Village of Jemez Springs.

2 Homicides In Albuquerque; Motorcyclist Shot Then Crashed – Associated Press

Police were investigating two suspected homicides in Albuquerque on Sunday, including one involving a motorcyclist who appeared to have been shot before crashing.

Police questioned but released two people at the scene of the other killing of a man early Sunday on the west of town where shots were fired and one man died, police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said.

Officers who were called to an area near Broadway and Coal avenues at about 1:30 a.m. found a male motorcyclist who was suffering from a gunshot injury and later died at a local hospital, Gallegos said.

About 10 minutes later, police responded to reports of shots fired in the 7300 block of Blue Avena where a man was found dead at a residence, he said.

There's no indication the killings were related. No other details have been released.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument Closes Due To Fire - Associated Press

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico is closed to the public while crews conduct a burnout operation to reduce the risk of a wildfire burning toward the monument and the nearby community of Gila Hot Springs.

Officials said the closure of the monument located 32 miles north of Silver City took effect Saturday and will continue until further notice.

Burnout operations are a fire suppression technique in which fire is set along the inside edge of a control line or natural barrier to consume unburned fuel between a wildfire and the control line.

As of Sunday a wildfire in the area had burned over 64 square miles of timber and tall grass in the Gila Wilderness on the Gila National Forest.

Lightning started the fire May 20 about 11 miles west of the monument.

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 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 in all, also including attorney and former Democratic Senate majority leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, who served 24 years in the Legislature before a 2016 election loss. He was tapped for the post by Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf.

Four committee members are picked by House and Senate leaders from both major parties. The State Ethics Commission appoints the chair as well as two members who 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.

New Mexico Moves Ahead With Review Of Contamination At Bases - Associated 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.

Navajo College Accepts Biden's COVID-19 Vaccination Goal - Gallup Independent, Associated Press

A college on the Navajo Nation has accepted President Joe Biden's challenge to get students and others vaccinated against COVID-19 by July 4.

Diné College Incident Command Director Velveena Davis said COVID-19 remains a threat to the Navajo Nation, "so the college would like to do its part to expand the efforts of having our employees and students vaccinated."

The college wants to ensure the safety and wellness of its campuses as they transition to in-person operations, Davis said.

The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday reached out to higher education institutions on behalf of Biden, asking them to play a role in reaching a 70% nationwide vaccination goal by July 4. 

In another development, the Navajo Nation Council on Thursday approved a resolution to reopen tribal parks, businesses in the parks and the tribal zoo and museum 

The resolution now goes to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who has 10 days to act on the measure, the Gallup Independent reported.

Unruly Passenger Forces LA-To-Nashville Flight Diversion - Associated Press

A flight from Los Angeles to Nashville was diverted to New Mexico on Friday afternoon after a passenger tried to break into the cockpit, Delta Air Lines said.

The "unruly" man made the unsuccessful attempt on the locked cockpit aboard Delta Air Lines Flight 386 but other passengers and crew managed to detain him, the airline said.

Video taken aboard the plane shows the zip-tied and shoeless man surrounded by passengers and crew members as he repeats over and over again: "Stop this plane!" He finally was picked up and hauled to the back of the plane, which was diverted to Albuquerque International Sunport.

"The plane landed safely and the passenger was removed by police and the FBI. He is in custody now," Delta said in a statement.

No one was injured, and the FBI is investigating the incident.

Frank Fisher, spokesman for the FBI in Albuquerque, confirmed that the agency had responded to a report of a plane diverted to the city's airport but said there had been no threat to the public. He said no other information was immediately available.