THURS: Attorney General Investigating Utility Costs, State Sues Over Cleanup At LANL, + More

Feb 25, 2021



New Mexico AG Opens Inquiry Into Utility Costs During Freeze - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's top prosecutor has opened an inquiry into utility costs during a winter blast that plunged New Mexico and other states into a deep freeze.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas says the weather emergency caused tremendous damage and he wants to ensure New Mexicans won't be further harmed by skyrocketing bills.

His office set a deadline of Friday for utilities to provide analyses of customer impacts and options for addressing the potential price shock. The utilities also are being asked to explain to their customers the circumstances and the steps being taken to mitigate the situation.

Utility executives testified Thursday before a panel of state lawmakers that they were able to cushion some of the blow by shifting from natural gas to fuel sources.

El Paso Electric tapped nuclear power from Arizona and fuel oil units, while Public Service Co. of New Mexico relied on the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station to meet demands.

Still, the executives acknowledged that higher natural gas prices ultimately will trickle down to customers through increases in their monthly bills.

The utilities plan to seek regulatory approval to spread the costs over 12 to 24 months to keep bills as low as possible.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, chair of the Senate Conservation Committee, said Thursday that some of her constituents have seen their monthly bills this winter increase by as much as 800%. She said a federally funded program to help low-income people with their energy bills won't go far enough because the assistance amounts to only a couple hundred dollars for the season.

“If we start talking about low-income and moderate-income individuals being saddled with a bill they cannot pay, we don't have any protections here,” she said. “This is a shortcoming in our statutes.”

Executives with El Paso Electric, Xcel Energy and PNM told New Mexico lawmakers that they tried to prepare but were still forced to buy some natural gas on the spot market.

Nationally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. already have announced that they would be looking into utility and transmission operations during the cold weather. Some members of Congress separately called for federal investigations into possible price gouging as natural gas spot prices spiked and millions of homes and businesses dealt with power outages.

With Xcel buying roughly half of its natural gas off the spot market, the company said preliminary estimates put the total cost for New Mexico and Texas customers at about $2 million. Profits from sales to other providers in the Southwest Power Pool will help offset that, but customers could still see their monthly bills increase by about $7 over a two-year period.

New Mexico Gas Co. officials said it's too early to know the impact on its customers' bills. They did say they would work with state regulators to minimize the effects to the greatest extent possible.

Under PNM's cost adjustment clause, there's a 5% cap on changes in customer bills.

Tom Fallgren, PNM's vice president for generation, said the utility had learned lessons from a record freeze in 2011 so equipment was winterized and protocols were in place for a situation like the one in mid-February. By having contracts already in place and making other preparations, he said PNM saved about $15 million for customers.

The utility executives talked about the benefits of being able to source natural gas from other areas and the ability to switch to other fuels to continue meeting demands. They said that kind of diversification will be key to avoiding problems in the future.

Fallgren said they're all on a path to get to 100% carbon-free generation but the manner in which that electricity is provided and its reliability will be critical. For example, he said, current battery storage technology is good for several hours but noted that some weather events can last days.

"I go back to that obligation to serve," he said. "As we look at the different generation providing opportunities, is it just a low-cost option that's available when it's available or does it also have the obligation to serve when these critical time periods come? I think if you look over the history of the electrical grid, we've always been making that trade-off of that cost versus that obligation to serve."

New Mexico To Boost Vaccines For Seniors, Vulnerable Groups - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico health officials said Thursday they have a plan to boost COVID-19 vaccinations among older people and other vulnerable populations.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said during an online briefing that the plan calls for increasing shots among seniors by 10% over the next two weeks. The effort will include more outreach by providers, walk-in and locally scheduled clinics and the use of mobile vaccination teams.

Collins said more doses also will be allocated over the next three weeks to areas of the state that are considered particularly vulnerable based on the rate of infection and a series of factors that range from household income and minority status to the availability of housing and transportation.

She pointed to McKinley County as an example of one of the more at-risk spots in New Mexico.

"Really we're looking at taking a portion of our doses and ensuring that they go to those vulnerable populations," she said. "But keep in mind we're getting more doses each week so it's not like we're taking away doses from any one group. It's just that we're being very strategic about allocating to the most vulnerable."

According to the state's latest data, about 1 in 10 New Mexicans have been fully vaccinated and about 20% of the population has received the first shot.

Collins said the state is among the top three in the U.S. when it comes to distribution rates and is No. 1 in terms of using those vaccines most efficiently. That means the shots are going to places where they can do the most to stop spread and prevent death, she said.

New Mexico's positivity rate and daily case totals have been declining in recent weeks, but health officials acknowledged during the briefing that public health restrictions such as mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing continue to play a larger role in the downward trends than vaccinations.

Dr. David Scrase, head of the New Mexico Human Services Department, said it's still a "winning combination" to have vaccinations outpace new daily cases by more than 30 times.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also outlined the changes to the state's color-coded risk system, saying great progress has been made and each of the state's 33 counties now have a positivity rate below 10%.

That metric — along with the per-capita case rate — is used to determine whether counties are classified as red, yellow, green or turquoise and can relax more public health restrictions.

Under the newest low-risk category, indoor dining and occupancy rates at retail businesses, large entertainment venues, churches, gyms, bars and clubs is expanded. Gatherings of up to 150 people also are allowed. Four counties are in that turquoise category.

"It doesn't mean the virus is gone and it doesn't mean all the risk is gone," the governor said. "... We really do have to continue to be incredibly dedicated to all of the public health measures."

New Mexico Bill Would Mandate Anti-Racism School Training - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The New Mexico Legislature is considering a bill that would support African-American education.

The Black Education Act would allocate $200,000 to create an advisory council and educational liaison position within the Public Education Department. That would complement existing advisory bodies for Native American and Hispanic education.

The Black Education Act would also mandate basic anti-racism training for public school staff and increase the production of educational materials about Black culture for high school and college classes.

The proposal comes as Black New Mexico residents are increasingly represented in the legislative and executive branches.

The bill is sponsored by Harold Pope Jr.,  New Mexico's first Black state Senator and fellow Democrat and Majority Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton. Both are from Albuquerque.

It's the latest effort by Black leaders in the Legislature to combat systemic racism. Another bill aims to protect African Americans in schools by prohibiting discrimination based on traditional hairstyles.

New Mexico Court Rules Rape Protections Endure After DeathAssociated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that legal protections against rape extend to victims who are unable to express consent — including the dead.

The high court on Thursday upheld a rape conviction against a Clovis man accused of stabbing a woman and then raping her dead body. Lorenzo Martinez was convicted of murder and rape in the 2017 stabbing death of a 57-year-old woman.

Attorneys for Martinez argued that New Mexico law requires that a rape victim be alive at the time of the crime for rape statutes to apply. New Mexico has no law against defiling a corpse.

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed the murder conviction against Martinez despite a medical diagnosis of schizophrenia. He may be eligible for parole in 30 years.

If released, he would have to register as a sex offender for life and serve a term of parole from five years to life.

New Mexico Goes To Court Over Slow Cleanup At Us Nuclear Lab - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico is going after the federal government for failing to make progress on cleaning up contamination left behind by decades of bomb-making and nuclear research at one of the nation's premier labs.

In a civil complaint Wednesday, the state says a plan by the U.S. Energy Department lacks substantive targets for dealing with waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The state is seeking to end a 2016 agreement that was meant to guide cleanup at the lab. The state's top environmental official says court supervision is needed to renegotiate the terms to protect the community and environment.

Federal officials didn't immediately respond to questions about the complaint.

The legal action comes as Los Alamos prepares to ramp up production of the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear weapons as part of a congressional mandate.

The work will be split between the lab in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The facilities face a deadline of making 80 cores per year by 2030, with the first 30 due in five years.

Watchdogs and environmentalists have voiced concerns that the plutonium work will create a new stream of waste that will have to be managed and disposed of when the Energy Department has had trouble cleaning up the legacy waste that remains from the Cold War era.

Aside from pushing for a more robust cleanup schedule, New Mexico is asking the court to issue a $333,000 civil penalty for the Energy Department's lack of compliance related to the existing consent order.

State officials said they have tried to resolve the issues with the agency through a dispute resolution process that began in October. The parties couldn't agree on a plan, and negotiations ended in January.

According to the complaint, hazardous and radioactive substances on lab property exceed standards and pose health risks to nearby communities and contaminated groundwater poses a long-term threat to state drinking water sources.

The filing also says Indigenous communities aren't able to engage in cultural uses of their lands near lab property and that recreational and economic activities in the area are at risk.

High Court Rejects 'Warrior Gene' Defense As Unreliable - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The state Supreme Court has upheld a murder conviction against a man who claimed a "warrior gene" made him predisposed to impulsive acts of violence.

In a unanimous decision, justices ruled that a lower court was justified in excluding evidence about a theory that lacks scientific reliability in the conviction of Anthony Blas Yepez for killing an elderly Santa Fe man in 2012.

The Supreme Court says evidence of mere genetic susceptibility to a given mental condition is not relevant on the issue of deliberate intent to kill.

Defense attorneys say Yepez was incapable of forming the intent.

Jet Pilot Reports Unidentified Object In New Mexico Skies Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

American Airlines has said a pilot flying a passenger jet sent a radio transmission reporting an unidentified object flying at high speeds in the skies above northern New Mexico during a flight from Cincinnati to Phoenix last Sunday.

A recording of the pilot's transmission was made by Steve Douglass, who calls himself a stealth chaser. The Federal Aviation Administration did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment but American Airlines confirmed the recording's authenticity.

The FBI told the Albuquerque Journal that it is aware of the pilot's transmission. White Sands Missile Range spokesperson Scott Stearns says the southern New Mexico facility did not conduct tests on Sunday.

Kirtland Air Force Base spokeswoman Lally Laksbergs said "We have no knowledge of this. We're not aware of anything.”

Douglass said that when the military conducts flight tests, it notifies the FAA, which makes sure there are no commercial airline flights in the area.

He added: "If the military can't explain what it is, what's flying out there that we don't know about?"

Navajo Police Say Officers Fatally Shoot Suspect Pointing Gun Associated Press

Navajo Nation police department says officers fatally shot an armed suspect who allegedly pointed a gun at them.

The department said the incident occurred Wednesday in St. Michaels, Arizona, after officers responded to a report of an armed suspect.

According to a department statement, the suspect drove off, prompting a pursuit that ended when police used a tire-deflation device to disable the suspect's vehicle.

The statement said the suspect got out of the vehicle and then was shot after pointing a gun at the officers. No identities were released.

The incident was being investigated by the tribal Department of Criminal Investigation and the FBI.

House Speaker Fencing Still Needed At New Mexico Capitol Associated Press

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf says security fencing that encircles the state Capitol building will remain in place through the end of the current legislative session on March 20 on the advice of state security officials including New Mexico State Police.

Egolf told news media in a video conference on Thursday that the fencing has had a "deterrent effect" and that he sees no reason to deviate from the advice of state security officials.

The fencing and road barricades were put in place in response to security concerns in the wake of the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump in an effort overturn the results of the presidential election.

Pro-Trump protests that day outside the Statehouse in Santa Fe were peaceful as lawmakers and staff evacuated the building.

The state Capitol is closed to the public as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, with hearings conducted largely online.

Republican legislators this week requested removal of the chain-link fences with concrete barriers, arguing that no threat was evident and that there shouldn't be a perception that government leaders are afraid of the state's citizens.



New Mexico Adds Least-Restrictive COVID-19 Tier - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico is revising its color-coded risk system by adding a new color that signifies when counties can ease even more pandemic-related restrictions.

The red-yellow-green system now includes turquoise. State health officials said Wednesday that counties reach that category by meeting certain health criteria for four consecutive weeks.

It allows for expanded indoor dining and the operation of entertainment venues like theaters, bars and clubs. All but four of the state's 33 counties already have seen test positivity and new case rates decline and have emerged from the strictest lockdowns — earning favorable yellow, green and now turquoise ratings on the color-coded map.

The Albuquerque Journal reported four counties achieved this turquoise status Wednesday – Catron, Harding, Sierra and Union.

State health officials and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have pointed to ongoing efforts to drive down transmission rates — mask-wearing and limiting social contact — along with vaccinations for the reasons New Mexico has seen its daily case numbers and spread rates decline in recent weeks. The governor on Wednesday called it "solid progress."

Republicans have been critical of the Democratic governor's handling of the pandemic, saying countless businesses have been forced to close and unemployment continues to climb as a result. State lawmakers are considering proposals that would provide economic aid amid the ongoing pandemic.

Senate Republicans sent a letter to the governor last week, urging her to revise the framework for reopening more of the state. They called the latest changes a small step in the right direction.

House Republican Whip Rod Montoya said Lujan Grisham still needs to do more: "It is time for the governor to stop playing with crayons, when she should be getting kids back into the classroom and New Mexicans get back to work."

Under the state's system, a color is assigned based on the risk level in a particular county. The risk is determined by two key metrics: a test positivity rate below 5% and a new per-capita case rate of fewer than 8 per 100,000.

A county that meets one of the benchmarks over a two-week period may operate at the yellow level. A county that meets both is considered green, while those that fall short of both are red.

The state also announced it was recategorizing businesses that had previously been considered close-contact recreational facilities and were closed no matter a county's color. Now, those businesses will be allowed to operate at limited capacities depending on their new category and the risk level of the county in which they operate.

For entertainment venues such as racetracks, concert halls, movie theaters and sports venues, they can operate at 33% capacity indoors and 75% outdoors under the turquoise level. Lower capacities would be allowed at the green and yellow levels.

Separate from the revised tier system, state parks, which had previously been open only for day-use for New Mexico residents, will now be open to all for camping with reservations and day-use.

Navajo Nation Reports 25 New COVID-19 Cases, But No Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Wednesday reported 25 new confirmed COVID-19 cases with no additional deaths. 

The latest numbers bring the total number of cases on the reservation to 29,602 since the pandemic began. 

There have been 1,152 reported deaths that were related to COVID-19. The Navajo Department of Health on Monday identified 21 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Feb. 5-18. 

That's an increase from last week's 15 communities, but down from 75 communities with uncontrolled coronavirus spread last month.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez said even those who have been fully vaccinated need to continue taking precautions to avoid spreading COVID-19. 

The tribe has a nightly curfew in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to limit the spread of the virus. 

Tribal health officials said more than 16,000 people have recovered from COVID-19 on the reservation and nearly 244,000 tests have been administered.

New Mexico Legislature Approves Tax Holiday For Restaurants - Associated Press

A bill is on its way to the governor that would provide a four-month tax holiday to restaurants and a $600 rebate to low-income workers.

The state House gave final approval Wednesday to a pandemic economic relief bill on a 66-1 vote.

The bill calls for a $600 tax credit or rebate for people earning about $15 an hour and works as a rebate to those who owe less than $600 in taxes. Republicans first suggested the financial aid during a special legislative session last year.

The tax holiday on gross receipts taxes applies to restaurants, bars, food trucks, small breweries and more.

The bill's sponsors include Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has voiced support for the initiative.

Other proposed relief measures would channel $200 million in grants to businesses who lost income during 2020 amid the pandemic and aggressive emergency health restrictions.

New Mexico Legislators Push For More Spending, Business Aid - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The Democrat-led state House of Representatives has voted to increase state spending on public education, health care and relief to businesses in efforts to chart a financial path out of the coronavirus pandemic.

The House endorsed Wednesday a $7.39 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 on a 60-10 vote with some Republicans in opposition.

The budget bill would increase annual general fund spending by $332 million, or nearly 5% of current spending obligations. It now moves to the Senate for consideration and possible amendments.

State government income is surging on a rebound in oil prices and increased production.

The bill includes a 1.5% pay raise for public employees in state government, public schools and state colleges and universities.

Spending on public education would increase by 5.5% to nearly $3.4 billion annually. Many lawmakers in the Democrat-dominated Legislature also want to shore up state spending on Medicaid amid a surge in enrollment in the federally subsidized health care program for the needy.

The budget proposal is linked to a package of pandemic-related economic relief that would provide $200 million in grants to businesses for rent and mortgage obligations and provide a $600 tax rebate to low-wage workers.

The spending plan would provide four months of state taxation relief for restaurants and pay off $325 million in debt racked up by the state unemployment trust fund -- avoiding an increase in payroll taxes on businesses to make up the difference.

The budget proposal also takes aim at reducing a waiting list for services for youths with severe mental and physical disabilities.

It would dedicate more money to teen suicide prevention, and dedicate at least $20 million in new spending to college affordability programs.

Republican House minority leader Jim Townsend voted for the budget plan after expressing reluctance about base salary increases for public workers.

The Legislature has until March 20 to send a budget plan to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.


This version corrects that Townsend voted for the budget bill.

Education Officials Seek Flexibility On Student Testing - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

Education officials in New Mexico want flexibility in federal testing requirements for students.

The U.S. Department of Education said it won't exempt states from testing students, as it did last spring. But it said it would consider allowing tests to be shorter, done remotely and carried out as late as the fall.

New Mexico's head of public education says he will likely ask to test fewer students in a representative sample that can be reliable for parents and policymakers.

Low-income and rural students have generally had the hardest time learning this year because of limited access to devices and the internet. School administrators fear those students also would be the hardest to assess remotely, skewing results and underestimating learning challenges from the pandemic year.

Addressing a public legislative forum Tuesday, Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said his team will try to get results that capture all student experiences, even if not every student is assessed.

New Mexico school districts are currently working on plans for how to assess students. Albuquerque Public Schools have proposed no state testing for grades 3-8 and opt-in testing for older grades.

New Mexico Republicans Ask To Remove Barriers Around Capitol Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Republican lawmakers in New Mexico have asked that the state remove protective barriers erected around the state Capitol following the Jan. 6 insurrection during which supporters of former President Donald Trump broke into the U.S. Capitol building.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Republicans in the New Mexico legislature asked the Legislative Council on Tuesday to remove the fences around the facility arguing that "the threat has not materialized."

Six Republican leaders in the state legislature sent a letter to the top Democratic lawmakers that said the fencing "creates the perception that our government leaders are afraid of the state's citizens and there is a division between those who govern and the general public."

Director of the Legislative Council Service Raul Burciaga says that he is reviewing the request and plans to meet with Democratic leaders to discuss the issue.

Since the legislative session began in January, state police officers and New Mexico National Guardsmen have patrolled the Capitol and checked ID for everyone entering the building.

The state Capitol is closed to the public due to health restrictions implemented due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Army Weapon Built In Albuquerque To Be Tested By 2024 Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The Army has announced plans to conduct field-testing of a new microwave weapon designed to protect military bases from incoming drones as early as 2024.

The announcement came after an on-site demonstration at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that the system called the Tactical High Power Operational Responder provides protection against multiple targets that simultaneously threaten military installations.

Kelly Hammet heads the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate that built the system and says the Army intends to invest as a partner starting in October.

Field testing will start by 2024 and deployment is not expected until at least 2026.

The laboratory spent $15 million to build THOR in cooperation with Albuquerque-based engineering firm Verus Research and global firms BAE Systems plc and Leidos. It first demonstrated the system in 2019.

Program manager Amber Anderson previously said the system works like a flashlight, with a wave that spreads out to disable anything within its electromagnetic cone.

'Better Call Saul' To Film Final Season Soon In New Mexico - Associated Press

"Better Call Saul," the prequel spinoff to the hugely successful series "Breaking Bad," will begin production in New Mexico on its sixth and final season beginning in March. 

White Turtle Casting officials told the Albuquerque Journal that production will begin in the second week of March, and the agency is looking for stand-ins for the series. 

Pre-production is currently underway, and the crew is being quarantined and tested for the upcoming start.

Production originally was set for March 2020, but it was moved due to the pandemic. 

There will be 13 episodes in the final season although no air date has been confirmed. 

"Better Call Saul" has been shot in New Mexico since 2015.