MON: First Lady To Visit N.M. And Navajo Nation, Proposed Utility Merger Spurs Concerns, + More

Apr 19, 2021

  

Proposed New Mexico Utility Merger Spurs Numerous Concerns - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Consumer advocacy groups, environmentalists and the New Mexico attorney general's office are raising concerns about a proposed multibillion-dollar merger of the state's largest electric utility with a U.S. subsidiary of global energy giant Iberdrola.

The groups have filed testimony with state regulators ahead of hearings that begin next month.

It will be up to the Public Regulation Commission to determine if the merger provides meaningful benefits to Public Service Co. of New Mexico customers and if it would be in the public interest.

Some groups say PNM shareholders will benefit from the proposed transaction and that it could end up stifling competition for renewable energy development in New Mexico.

Groups intervening in the case contend that PNM executives and shareholders will reap the benefits of the proposed transaction with Connecticut-based Avangrid, as the company is offering only $2.5 million in economic development funds and 100 new jobs.

A similar acquisition last year of El Paso Electric Co. by an investment firm resulted in $100 million to promote economic development in the utility's service area. That included $20 million over 20 years in New Mexico — eight times more than what Avangrid is proposing for a deal that involves a utility with a larger customer base and infrastructure that includes transmission and access to eastern New Mexico's lucrative wind resources.

Negotiations are ongoing among the groups involved in the case. Rebuttal testimony is due Wednesday.

PNM will be on the hook for making significant capital investments as it aims for carbon-free electricity generation over the next two decades. Experts have said the utility could benefit from a merger due to Avangrid's credit standing and access to capital markets. Meanwhile, Avangrid wants to build its assets within the U.S. utility sector.

Andrea Crane, a financial consultant who is testifying on behalf of the attorney general's office, suggested that the proposal falls short of meeting the general goals for New Mexico's energy future: electrification for all, cost-effective greening, economic development and respect for the customer.

The benefits are "woefully inadequate to demonstrate that the merger, as currently proposed, is in the public interest," she wrote.

She recommended that rate credits for customers be boosted fourfold and that economic development funds should be around $80 million.

The proposed merger agreement also includes a provision that requires PNM to seek regulatory approval to abandon its ownership in the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant, which serves customers throughout the Southwest U.S. The utility filed the paperwork to do so earlier this year.

PNM wants to recoup from customers $300 million in abandonment costs and has proposed transferring its share to a Navajo energy company. Consumer groups say that wouldn't be fair to ratepayers, and environmentalists and Native American activists say the proposal would violate provisions of New Mexico's Energy Transition Act by allowing the plant to continue operating.

The recommendations by the attorney general's expert call for PNM to absorb the costs related to the Four Corners plant, that Iberdrola be a party to the merger and that the Public Regulation Commission's regulatory jurisdiction be protected.

"It's a complicated issue that's going to take a lot of review by all parties involved," Commission Chairman Stephen Fischmann told the Santa Fe New Mexican. "There's all kinds of potential outcomes, and as commissioners, we have to keep an open mind. … And our charter is the public interest."

Attorney General Hector Balderas said Monday he supports the idea of the merger given Avangrid's focus on renewable energy, but he's concerned the deal would result in overwhelming profit for PNM that would leave the state. He said he wants to ensure benefits to consumers and that underserved New Mexicans have access to clean energy.

Other critics have concerns about high payouts for officers and departing executives, noting that at minimum they would be valued at more than three times the rate credits that PNM's 538,000 customers would see.

Scott Hempling, a public utilities analyst who also is testifying for the attorney general, stated that the goal was value for shareholders and that customers were relevant only as sources for that value. He said Avangrid will pay $4.3 billion to shareholders as part of the agreement.

In radio advertisements, PNM is touting the merger as a way to move the state closer to its renewable energy goals and create more jobs. Under the state's energy law, investor owned utilities must be 100% carbon free by 2045.

As for critics' concerns about shareholder benefits outweighing those of customers, the utility said customers are paying for a service while shareholders carry the risk that comes along with making investments needed to produce and deliver electricity.

PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval said in a statement that Avangrid is committed to continuing PNM's operations and contributions to the community. He called the $24.6 million in rate credits for customers "a gesture of goodwill."

Critics say just over one-third of the rate credits would end up trickling down to residential customers because they would be allocated based on how much electricity is used. It would amount to about 55 cents per customer.

Public Regulation Commission staff members also have reservations about the proposal as currently structured, saying it would likely "chill a competitive climate" for renewable energy development in the state.

Bernalillo County Sheriff To Run For Albuquerque MayorAssociated Press

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales is making a pitch to be Albuquerque's next mayor.

Gonzales declared his candidacy in an official online campaign video Monday.

The sheriff, who was born in Albuquerque, says Mayor Tim Keller has failed to improve the city. Gonzales says the violent crime rate has soared above the national average.

He says he will release proposals in the coming weeks to address issues such as homelessness and help for small businesses.

Gonzales, a Democrat like Keller, was re-elected to a four-year term as sheriff in 2018.

Keller announced last month that he would run for mayor again.

The mayoral election will take place in November.

Police Say Drug Activity Caused Albuquerque Apartment Explosion – Associated Press

Authorities say a man accused of manufacturing drugs in an Albuquerque apartment was injured in an explosion.

Albuquerque police say the suspect was transferred to a burn unit in Texas on Sunday with critical injuries.

Police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos Jr. said reports of an explosion and unexploded pipe bomb at the Rio Volcan Apartments came in Sunday evening.

All residents were evacuated.

A police bomb squad determined that the explosion was caused by the use of butane to make narcotics.

There were no other injuries reported.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue arson investigators are now leading the investigation.

Authorities have not released the suspect's name.

No details about the amount of damaged sustained by the apartment complex have been given.

First Lady Jill Biden To Visit Albuquerque, Navajo Capitol - Associated Press

First lady Jill Biden's office announced Saturday that she will visit the U.S. Southwest in the coming week, with stops planned in New Mexico's most populous city and the Navajo Nation's capitol in Arizona.

The announcement said Biden will travel to Albuquerque on Wednesday and visit Window Rock, Arizona, on Thursday and Friday.

The announcement did not elaborate on the scheduled visit but said additional information will be forthcoming.

Navajo Nation Has No COVID-Related Deaths For 7th Day In Row - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation now has had a week of reporting no additional COVID-19 related deaths on the vast reservation where safety precautions like a mask mandate and daily curfews remain. 

The tribe on Saturday night reported no new deaths for the seventh consecutive day and just two new confirmed cases of the coronavirus. 

The latest numbers brought the pandemic case total to 30,357 with the death toll remaining at 1,262. 

Tribal officials say 16,477 people have recovered from COVID-19 thus far. 

The tribe had been easing into reopening but that slowed somewhat after coronavirus variants were confirmed on the reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. 

Tribal officials urged residents to stay vigilant.

High Court Seems Ready To Send Virus Funds To Alaska Natives - By Jessica Gresko, Associated Press

The Supreme Court seems inclined to say that hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief money should benefit Alaska Natives, rather than be spread more broadly among Native American tribes around the U.S.

The justices were hearing arguments Monday in a case involving the massive pandemic relief package passed last year and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump.

The $2.2 trillion legislation earmarked $8 billion for "Tribal governments" to use to cover expenses related to the pandemic.

The question for the court is whether Alaska Native corporations, which are for-profit corporations that provide benefits and social services to more than 100,000 Alaska Natives, count as "Indian tribes."

The federal government set aside more than $530 million for the corporations, but the funds have been tied up as a result of lawsuits by Native American tribes. If the tribes win, the disputed funds would be distributed among 574 federally recognized tribes both in and outside Alaska.

The case is important not only because of the amount of money it involves but also because Native Americans and Alaska Natives have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

On Monday, the justices agreed that Congress could have chosen clearer language in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to describe who should get money. But both conservative and liberal justices also seemed to conclude that Congress intended Alaska Native corporations to get funds.

During about an hour and a half of arguments the justices heard by phone because of the pandemic,  Justice Samuel Alito suggested it would be "absurd" for the law to be read as not covering the so-called ANCs. And Justices Clarence Thomas and Justice Neil Gorsuch suggested Congress could have chosen other language if it intended to exclude them.

Justice Elena Kagan called it "implausible" that Congress intended to leave ANCs out. And Justice Stephen Breyer seemed ready to excuse Congress' grammar and conclude they should be covered.

"I've never heard of a canon that says you have to use perfect grammar, or even that you have to use good grammar when you are a member of Congress," Breyer said.

Part of the issue for the justices is that Alaska is unique. Unlike in the lower 48 states, Alaska Native tribes aren't situated on reservations. Instead, Native land is owned by Alaska Native corporations created under a 1971 law. The for-profit corporations run oil, gas, mining and other enterprises. Alaska Natives own shares in the corporations, and the corporations provide a range of services from healthcare and elder care to educational support and housing assistance.

Arguing for the federal government, Matthew Guarnieri told the justices that the "settled understanding for the last 45 years has been that ANCs are eligible to be treated as Indian tribes." Doing differently would be a "dramatic departure from the status quo," he said. A lower court's decision in favor of the Native American tribes "threatens to shut ANCs out of a wide range of important federal programs," he said.

Guarnieri acknowledged the language Congress used could have been clearer: "I'm not going to sit here and say that this is the best possible way to draft a statute," Guarnieri said. Kagan replied: "Well, I think we can all agree on that."

Alaska has more than 200 federally recognized tribes, but many are "small and remote and not well-suited to distribute certain benefits," the Alaska Native corporations argue. Moreover, many Alaska Natives are not affiliated with recognized tribes, the corporations say.

After the CARES Act was passed, three groups of tribes sued to prevent payments to ANCs. They argue that under the language of the law, only federally recognized tribes qualify for the aid and ANCs do not because they are not sovereign governments as tribes are. A trial court ultimately disagreed, but a unanimous panel of the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the decision.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations agreed that the CARES Act makes the corporations eligible for the relief money. A decision in the case is expected by the end of June, when the court traditionally begins its summer break.

High Court Takes Up Case On Virus Relief Funding For Tribes - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that will determine who is eligible to receive more than $530 million in federal virus relief funding set aside for tribes more than a year ago.

More than a dozen Native American tribes sued the U.S. Treasury Department to keep the money out of the hands of Alaska Native corporations, which provide services to Alaska Natives but do not have a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

The question raised in the case set for oral arguments Monday is whether the corporations are tribes for purposes of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which defines "tribes" under a 1975 law meant to strengthen their abilities to govern themselves.

The case has practical impacts. Native Americans have been disproportionately sickened and killed by the pandemic — despite extreme precautions that included curfews, roadblocks, universal testing and business closures — and historically have had limited financial resources. About $530 million of the $8 billion set aside for tribes hasn't been distributed.

"But it also seems to me there have been bigger conceptual questions posed about who or what is an Indian tribe that have come out of this particular case and conflict," said Monte Mills, director of the Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana. "I think that's really been the source of a lot of concern or divisiveness."

Lower courts have parsed language in the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, other federal laws and congressional intent, and arrived at different conclusions. A U.S. District Court found Alaska Native corporations can be treated as tribes for limited purposes, while a federal appeals court said they're not eligible for the CARES Act funding.

The corporations, formed under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, own most of the Native land in the state and serve as economic engines for Alaska Natives who are shareholders by birthright. The corporations also have non-Native shareholders.

They've argued that a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court could have broad impacts for services they provide to Alaska Natives. The Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act is incorporated into dozens of statutes that cover language preservation, education, workforce development, economic development, housing and health care.

It allows tribal governments or other entities on behalf of tribal governments to provide those types of services under contract with the federal government to Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

The corporations argue they are interconnected with Alaska Native villages that aren't able to reach everyone, particularly in more urban areas of Alaska. 

"It feels a little bit like standing at the edge of a cliff and we may fall off, the fact that our services that we have relied upon for more than 40 years will potentially be gone based on a decision of this court," said Jaeleen Kookesh, an enrolled member of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska who works for Sealaska Corp. "It just feels like we may fall and have nothing left to catch us." 

Tribes argue the corporations, known as ANCs, simply aren't eligible for financial assistance meant for tribal governments that have direct responsibility for their citizens regardless of where they live.

"ANCs do not stand in the shoes of Alaska's federally recognized tribes, and allowing them to compete with tribal governments for scarce funding exclusively set aside for governments would represent a monumental and unprecedented shift in the legal status of ANCs," attorneys for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota wrote in court documents.

Three tribes in a related case are vying for a portion of the $530 million, alleging in lawsuits that they were shortchanged by millions of dollars when the Treasury Department used federal data that showed they had zero citizens or less than their own enrollment figures. A hearing in that case, led by the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, is scheduled next week. 

The latest federal virus relief package that President Joe Biden signed last month includes $31 billion for Indian Country, including $20 billion that will go directly to tribal governments and will not include Alaska Native corporations. The federal government is consulting with tribes on how to disburse the funding that must be used by the end of 2024.

Mills said the Supreme Court case is being watched around Indian Country and by those who study and practice federal law pertaining to Native Americans and Alaska Natives. More than one-third of the 574 federally recognized tribes are in Alaska.

"It just highlighted the continuing problems and burdens posed by a legacy of federal Indian law on tribal communities," he said. "That's a reason for folks outside of Indian Country to recognize this. It speaks to the broader issues of racial and social justice that are front and center right now."

Pandemic Fuels Business And Politics For GOP Nominee - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The Republican nominee for a vacant congressional seat in New Mexico is bringing an unusual perspective to the national discourse over pandemic restrictions and federal relief.

Mark Moores, a state senator and co-owner with his wife of the Roswell-based medical diagnostic testing business Pathology Consultants of New Mexico, has been on the front lines of efforts to trace the spread of the coronavirus since the early days of the pandemic. The laboratory received about $1.8 million in federal payroll-support loans that may not have to be repaid.

As the pandemic took hold, Pathology Consultants operated one of a handful of high-volume testing machines used to analyze nasal swab samples and detect the genetic material of the COVID-19 virus.

"I bring a strong, unique perspective on that, having been on the front lines of the battle," said Moores, who recalled donning protective equipment to help technicians at drive-thru coronavirus test sites. "We did rapid response (coronavirus testing) at nursery schools, universities. We did a number of businesses around the state."

COVID-19 test results have been used by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration to track the virus amid aggressive emergency health orders that limit business activity, and to shut down businesses with repeated infections. 

Documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show that the governor's office scrambled to obtain precursor chemicals for Pathology Consultants to continue virus testing in May 2020.

Moores now says those efforts to restrict business activity have gone too far, as he competes with five other candidates for a vacant Albuquerque-based congressional seat in a June 1 special election. He favors an immediate reopening of the economy in a state that is leading nearly all others in the deployment of vaccines.

New Mexico still requires face masks in public and limits crowding in businesses and indoor spaces, based on each county's virus infections and test positivity rate.

"As the pandemic wore on, we saw that it was time to open up and allow businesses to open safely," Moores said. "These businesses wanted to open, they wanted to get back to work. .... People did not want handouts, and they just wanted to get back out and running."

The 50-year-old legislator and former college football lineman backed a failed bill this year to limit the governor's authority to prolong pandemic health emergencies. He has combined a conservative voting record on social issues such as abortion with support for major business recovery initiatives by the state that provide minimal-interest loans and $300 million in grants to wounded businesses.

He also voted in favor of pandemic-relief legislation that provides a $600 tax credit or rebate to low-income workers and a four-month tax holiday to restaurants.

Moores confirmed through campaign staff that Pathology Consultants accepted $1,845,800 through the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program in two forgivable loans in 2020 and 2021.

He described the federal aid as a financial bridge that helped his 70-year-old business avoid layoffs and continue to track the virus. Orders for diagnostic medical testing dried up at the outset of the pandemic as New Mexico officials suspended nonessential medical procedures. 

"We were shut down — about an 80% reduction in business between hospitals and medical offices," Moores said.

He said it is still unclear whether Pathology Consultants will repay the federal loan. Those loans can be forgiven when spending is focused primarily on payroll, while including a variety of expenses linked to the pandemic.

"We are going through the process right now to see if we qualify for it," Moores said in a telephone interview.

A rival candidate for the 1st Congressional District seat condemned Moores for potentially profiting from COVID testing and receiving federal pandemic assistance.

"This is just more of the partisan hypocrisy that we have come to expect," Aubrey Dunn Jr., a former state land commissioner and an independent candidate for the congressional seat, wrote in an email.

Moores says he and his company "saved lives during the middle of the pandemic and trying to politicize that is the lowest kind of politics."

Deb Haaland left Congress to serve as secretary of the Interior Department, prompting the special election for a seat that has been held by Democrats since 2009. State Democratic Party leaders nominated state Rep. Melanie Stansbury to run for the seat. Absentee balloting begins May 4.

___

This story has been corrected to say New Mexico state Sen Mark Moores, voted for pandemic-relief legislation that provides a $600 tax credit or rebate to low-income workers and a four-month tax holiday to restaurants, not against it.

Southern New Mexico National Forest Sets Fire Restrictions - Associated Press

The Lincoln National Forest in southern New Mexico is restricting campfires and other potential starters of wildfires because of high fire danger tied to ongoing drought conditions. 

The Stage One restrictions implemented Friday include prohibitions on campfires or other fires except in a Forest Service-provided grill or other fire structure and smoking outside buildings, enclosed vehicles, developed recreation sites or cleared areas at least 3 feet in diameter. 

Fire Staff Officer David Bales says the criteria used to determine when to modify fire restrictions include current and predicted weather, fuel moistures, fire activity and available firefighting resources.

The forest service's announcement of the restrictions said abandoned campfires are a major cause of wildfires each year. 

"Always keep enough water on hand, and a tool to drown and stir fires. If it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave," it said. 

State Police: Gun-Brandishing Man Fatally Shot After Pursuit - Associated Press

Authorities say law enforcement officers fatally shot a 22-year-old Roswell man when he brandished a gun outside a bank as he tried to run away after an attempted traffic stop and vehicle pursuit. 

The New Mexico State Police said it was investigating the fatal shooting that involved two Roswell city police officers and a Chaves County sheriff's deputy. 

The state agency identified the man killed Thursday as Victor Ivan Barron. 

According to a State Police statement, the incident started when a sheriff's sergeant tried to pull over a pickup that then drove off, prompting the pursuit. 

The statement said Barron was shot after he pulled into a bank's parking lot, got out and started to run. 

No officers were injured.

Albuquerque Officer Fatally Shoots Man Involved In Dispute - Associated Press

The Albuquerque Police Department says an officer fatally shot a man who had earlier fired a gun during an altercation stemming from a domestic dispute Friday night. 

Officers responding to the reported gunshot tried for about an hour to get the man to surrender peacefully before an officer fired at least one shot, killing the man. That's according to a brief statement released by Sgt. Tanner Tixier, a department spokesman. 

No identities were released and no additional information was immediately available on the circumstances of the incident, including what prompted the officer to fire. 

The statement said a multi-agency task force is investigating the incident.

The Albuquerque Journal reports this was the second fatal APD shooting this year. Two additional people have died in custody over the last few weeks. 

US West Prepares For Possible 1st Water Shortage Declaration - By Sam Metz Associated Press/Report For America

U.S. water officials are projecting the man-made lakes that store water used throughout the American West will fall to historically low levels and trigger an official shortage declaration for the first time. 

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released projections last week forecasting that less Colorado River water will fill Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which would force cuts to Arizona and Nevada under agreements negotiated by seven states, including New Mexico. 

By November 2022, the agency projects Lake Mead could drop to levels that could threaten the ability to generate electricity at Hoover Dam. 

The April projections don't have a binding impact because federal officials use the forecast released each August to make decisions about how to allocate river water.



 

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