Officials: New Mexico To Receive About $9B From Relief Bill - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Democratic members of the state's congressional delegation on Wednesday pointed to the estimated $9 billion that New Mexico is expected to receive from the massive federal pandemic relief package as an unprecedented opportunity to lift the state out of poverty.
Beyond the vaccine rollout and grants for small businesses, they said the funding will go toward everything from direct payments for individuals to investments in broadband and clean water projects, debt relief for Hispanic and Native American farmers and an expansion of the child tax credit.
Tribal communities and public schools will see over $1 billion each, while the state and local governments will share about $2 billion.
The Democrats billed the federal aid package as an answer to poverty, saying it will address inequities that were brought to light during the pandemic by creating universal benefits and lifelong assistance. Lujan Grisham made the bold claim that about one-quarter of New Mexico families would immediately be "lifted out of poverty" due to the economic assistance and tax credits included in the legislation.
"There are no words to describe the impact that has on a state that has long had extreme and persistent poverty," she said during a virtual news conference. "This is exactly the investment that we have always deserved and that we need now more than ever."
The Democrat-led Legislature took immediate steps Wednesday to pull $1.63 billion in federal relief into its budget plan for the coming fiscal year that starts on July 1. The state Senate's lead budget writing committee tentatively assigned $600 million to pay off debts to the state unemployment fund, a move that would prevent a spike in payroll taxes on businesses.
Other likely relief expenditures include economic development grants and roadway infrastructure, with about $440 million still unassigned.
The Legislature has until March 20 to send the spending plan to the governor, who can veto measures line by line.
Fellow Democratic U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández also touted the package, saying they're still crunching the numbers to see what overall effects it will have on the state. They also pointed to provisions that will boost vaccination efforts around the country along with testing, contact tracing and scientific research.
"So in a very real way, I believe that today is the beginning of the end of this pandemic," Heinrich said.
But Republicans have been critical of the expansive relief package, arguing that Democrats have been misleading the public.
U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, New Mexico's sole Republican member of Congress, said in a statement that less than 9% of the $1.9 trillion bill goes to combatting the virus while $12 billion goes overseas and more than $500 billion goes to bailout states and cities that imposed lockdowns.
"With the end of this difficult time now in sight, we should be focused on reopening our communities and getting our children back in school as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this bill does nothing to make either happen any faster," Herrell said.
New Mexico state government income already is rebounding on a surge in oil prices and production.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz said the state expects to finish the coming fiscal year with a $1.8 billion surplus, or nearly 24% of annual spending obligations — not including the newly assigned federal relief funds.
While many New Mexico schools already are working toward resuming in-person classes next month, the Democrats said 95% of the $1.2 billion earmarked for public schools in the state will help pay for things like sick leave, technology, air filtration upgrades and outdoor classrooms.
The relief bill comes as more New Mexico counties have seen their spread rates and the number of new daily per-capita cases decline. On Wednesday, state officials announced 14 counties had reached the top two tiers of its color-coded system, meaning they can ease more restrictions on commercial and day-to-day activities.
However, more than half of the state's 33 counties remained in the yellow category. Mora, Taos and Torrance counties were among those that slipped from green back to yellow over the last two weeks. Guadalupe County in a rural part of east-central New Mexico was the only one classified as red.
New Mexico has reported more than 187,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began a year ago, while the statewide death toll has topped 3,830.
One in four New Mexicans has received at least their first shot, while the latest state data shows about 15% have been fully vaccinated.
While the federal spending bill includes $20 billion for the national vaccination program, Lujan Grisham said it's too early to say exactly how that money will trickle down to New Mexico. She said she's hoping for more supplies and expanded distribution.
Policing Reforms Gain Momentum In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
New Mexico lawmakers advanced a bill toward a final Senate vote to eliminate police immunity from prosecution in state courts on civil rights violations ranging from racial discrimination to illegal search and seizure and freedom of speech violations.
On a 5-4 vote, a Senate committee on judiciary affairs endorsed the proposed New Mexico Civil Rights Act that also would apply to allegations against local government and public schools. Individual employees would not be liable for judgements.
The bill builds on recommendations from a commission chartered last year by the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham amid nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice. The House has endorsed the legislation.
Local law enforcement agencies and insurance authorities for schools and local government have vigorously opposed the initiative, warning of higher insurance rates and related tax hikes. Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe said Wednesday that the Legislature should instead invest more money in police training.
Gregory Shaffer, director of the New Mexico Counties Insurance Authority, warned of "potentially crippling risk" for local governments, only to be pressed by skeptical Democratic senators for more details on the limits of insurance payouts.
The bill as amended on Wednesday caps civil rights violation financial awards at $2 million per individual plaintiff.
Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces said insurance coverage for local governments exceeds that threshold, especially for a large county.
"It's already got $10 million of insurance available to settle what might be up, let's say, a federal civil rights claim," Cervantes said.
Bill co-sponsor and Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said the bill is narrowly tailored to individual rights guarantees and won't apply broadly to grievances about employment or school funding.
"The bill is being brought because we want to improve access to justice for New Mexicans whose rights have been denied to them," he said.
Also Wednesday, the state House endorsed a bill to overhaul how New Mexico police officers are certified and disciplined to try to improve accountability in misconduct investigations.
The House approved the bill from Rep. Moe Maestas of Albuquerque on a 44-22 vote to shift the oversight of misconduct reviews away from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and abolish the commission that reviews disciplinary proceedings against officers.
In their place would be a new certification board, attached to the Department of Public Safety, with the authority to revoke, suspend and reinstate officers' licenses.
Maestas said the system for reviewing misconduct allegations is ineffectual and plagued by delays. He says the academy has a backlog of about 130 complaints.
"These officers are not getting resolution; there's too much anxiety with these allegations hanging over you," Maestas told House colleagues.
In committee hearings, he said misconduct proceedings are "not fair to the public, who demanded in every city and town in this country police accountability."
The new nine-member certification review board would include retired officers from a municipal police department, sheriff's department and tribal police agency, as well as a retired judge, a criminal defense attorney and two more attorneys who represent individuals and agencies in civil rights litigation.
The bill also seeks to repeal the state Peace Officer's Employer-Employee Relations Act in an effort to streamline misconduct investigations. The American Civil Liberties Union favors that push and says the law impedes police accountability investigations.
Shaun Willoughby of the Albuquerque Police Officers Association said police deserve the current protections. "They can use the bathroom, they don't get yelled at," he said.
Law enforcement groups have opposed the legislation, though some acknowledge negotiating parts of the bill with Maestas.
Republican state Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque, who's a retired police officer, called the measure a "knee-jerk reaction" to a backlog of misconduct reviews and objected to rescinding protections for police.
"There are other provisions in there that are important, like what political activity an officer can be engaged in and not engaged in," Rehm said.
Under the bill, the state Law Enforcement Academy would narrow its mission to the initial training and certification of officers.
The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.
From Bus Drivers To Prom, New Mexico Schools Work To Reopen - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America
Educators across New Mexico are preparing to welcome K-12 students back to the classroom full-time now that teachers are becoming prioritized for vaccines and state leaders are offering students the option to study in-person five days a week by April 5.
There are logistics to sort out, from identifying teachers with health risks to rehiring furloughed bus drivers. But on the whole, school administrators told The Associated Press in a series of interviews that they are jubilant.
"We're ecstatic to get to come back 100%. Not sure we'll get all the kids back, you know, some will still choose to work remotely, but we're ecstatic," said Superintendent Todd Lindsay of the Carrizozo Municipal School District in southern New Mexico.
Pojoaque Superintendent Sondra Adams got the news while on spring break as she was visiting her daughter and grandsons in South Carolina. She spent much of the evening holding remote meetings with staff.
"I have a lot running through my head," said Adams. "Our buildings are prepared, our staff on campus are prepared."
Just a few weeks ago, the district decided to stay remote-only and had to tell athletes they wouldn't have a season. Now she'll have to survey parents to see who wants to remain in remote learning. She also has to give staff with disabilities a chance to request exemptions from in-person learning. In districts of a similar size, there have only been a handful of requests.
Adams is grateful the district got to skip experiments with hybrid learning, in which teachers were expected to teach students in-person and remotely simultaneously.
"By going full in-person it's really much easier," she said.
In the tiny Corona school district in Lincoln County, all 63 students have been attending school in-person full time since September under an exception to the public health order for districts with less than 100 students.
Superintendent Travis Lightfoot said he's happy that other districts get to return to in-person learning, too. And he wants larger schools to know that in-person learning during the pandemic has been easier than he and his staff thought.
"We were a bit apprehensive of how students were going to react to having to wear masks for the entire day of instruction," Lightfoot said. "But yet, I think our kids were so excited to get back and to get that social interaction that we really haven't had any issues with students not complying with safety protocols."
There have been no reported cases of COVID-19 among staff or students at Corona, he said.
With just over 100 students, the Carrizo district didn't qualify for the exception and has been grappling with hybrid learning.
"We're ready. Only problem is I'm short bus drivers right now," he said.
In Las Cruces, the community is mourning the recent loss of Superintendent Karen Trujillo, who was struck and killed by a car while walking her dogs. She was known for guiding the district through multiple crises and building consensus.
It's unclear how many Las Cruces families want to go back to school in person, and the school board still needs to weigh in on a plan for ramping up in-person learning.
"I think it's cautious excitement," said district spokeswoman Kelly Jameson. "A lot of leaders in the district are struggling to provide a plan that keeps everyone happy. That was one of the legacies of Dr. Trujillo — she created a model that addressed every student and every teacher during this unprecedented pandemic."
She said students are already asking about prom and if there will be graduation ceremonies, but more clarification will be needed from state officials.
There are still questions about higher education.
New Mexico Sen. George Muñoz said it's time for public universities to quickly reopen in-person learning, noting that public schools have scheduled an April return to classrooms in his hometown of Gallup, a trading post community on the edge of the Navajo Nation that has been badly battered by COVID-19.
He suggested that colleges are locking in cost savings without adequately preparing for in-person learning.
"We will look at numbers and see if they (state universities) are overfunded for the year," said Muñoz, chairman of the lead Senate budget-writing committee.
Unsalaried New Mexico Lawmakers May Ask Voters For Paycheck - By Morgan Lee Associated Press
Voters would decide whether to provide salaries to New Mexico lawmakers who are paid only for expenses and travel under a proposed constitutional amendment.
The House voted 44-24 on Tuesday to endorse the amendment and send it to the Democratic-led Senate. Republicans were unified in opposition. Support from a majority of senators would send the amendment to a statewide vote.
Proponents say salaries might rein in conflicts of interest as legislators juggle outside work and Statehouse duties.
Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf is confronting an ethics complaint this year for sponsoring and voting on a bill to allow civil rights lawsuits in state court without fully disclosing that his law firm stands to profit from the changes. He calls the accusations a deliberate distraction.
A senator is promoting marijuana legalization while providing legal representation to recreational cannabis businesses, and five senators received pandemic recovery grants under a program approved by lawmakers in December.
Advocates for legislative salaries also say the change would encourage a more diverse pool of candidates that might include more working parents and fewer retirees. Opponents say it would forever change the frontier character of New Mexico's part-time Legislature that convenes for as few as 30 days a year.
Previous efforts to give the Legislature professional status have stalled in the state Senate.
The House-approved initiative would create an oversight commission to set the salaries of lawmakers, statewide elected officials, district judges and governor-appointed members of the state utilities commission.
Lawmakers receive a daily stipend of about $160 when the Legislature is in session, along with some mileage reimbursements for travel to Santa Fe and remote committee hearings.
New Mexico Senate Passes Early Juvenile Parole Bill - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America
The New Mexico state Senate is advancing a bill that would allow minors who commit serious crimes to be eligible for parole earlier than criminals sentenced as adults.
The bill would enshrine Supreme Court rulings that have found life sentences without parole violates the constitutional rights of adolescents, including for crimes such as murder.
If passed, the New Mexico bill would allow juvenile offenders to have a parole hearing within 15 years of their initial sentence.
The bill would apply to youth aged 14-17 convicted of serious crimes including murder. If passed, it could affect around 90 inmates in the state.
New Mexico Ban On Traps And Wildlife Poisons Clears Senate - Associated Press
A New Mexico measure that would prohibit traps, snares and wildlife poisons from being used on public land has passed the Senate.
The legislation cleared the chamber late Tuesday despite four Democrats from rural areas breaking with their party and voting against it.
It must still get through the House before lawmakers adjourn in less than two weeks.
Environmentalists and animal advocacy groups say New Mexico needs to join neighboring states to ban what they described as cruel and outdated practices.
Rural residents and wildlife conservation officers say trapping is still an important tool for managing wildlife and protecting livestock.
Under the legislation, violations of the proposed trapping ban would be misdemeanors, punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and/or jail time of less than one year.
Each individual trap, snare or application of poison would constitute a single violation, and a court could require restitution to be paid to the state's wildlife management agency.
Man Charged In NJ Slaying, Questioned In 4 New Mexico Deaths - By Susan Montoya Bryan And David Porter Associated Press
A man considered a person of interest in the deaths of his ex-wife and three other people in New Mexico has been charged with a separate killing in New Jersey.
Authorities in Gloucester County say they have charged 47-year-old Sean Lannon with murder, robbery and other offenses in the death of 66-year-old Michael Dabkowski in Dabkowski's East Greenwich home on Monday.
Lannon was arrested in St. Louis on Wednesday morning.
He is a person of interest in the deaths of his ex-wife and three men whose bodies were found last week in a vehicle at the Albuquerque International Sunport airport garage.
It was not clear on Wednesday if Lannon had an attorney.
Funeral Services Planned For Late Las Cruces Superintendent - Associated Press
Funeral services for late Las Cruces Public Schools Superintendent Karen Trujillo will remain private because of capacity restrictions intended to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Trujillo was hit and killed by a minivan last month while walking her dogs.
Community members will be able to attend the Saturday funeral procession from Baca's Funeral Chapel to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary before the private rosary and funeral Mass, The Las Cruces Sun-News reported Tuesday.
The procession is scheduled to leave the chapel at 9:20 a.m. and arrive at the cathedral at 9:30 a.m. Mourners are expected to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, such as social distancing and wearing masks.
Trujillo was school superintendent in New Mexico's second-largest city of Las Cruces and a former leader of the state Public Education Department.
No charges are being filed against the driver of the vehicle that struck her after investigators determined it was traveling within a safe range of speed and Trujillo was walking in the roadway, authorities said.
The rosary and funeral Mass will be livestreamed by Las Cruces Public Schools. Private, graveside burial services are scheduled for Monday.
Navajo Nation Reports 13 More COVID-19 Cases, 1 More Death - Associated Press
The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 13 additional COVID-19 cases and one more death from the virus as a downward trend in infections and hospitalizations continues.
The latest numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 29,900 confirmed cases and 1,205 known deaths since the pandemic began a year ago.
The Navajo Department of Health identified eight communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 on Tuesday.
That compares with 75 communities having an uncontrolled spread of the virus in January.
Health facilities on the reservation and in border towns are conducting drive-thru vaccine events or administering doses by appointment.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said home is still the safest place for people be despite the relaxing of some restrictions in neighboring states, including Arizona.
A daily curfew from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. and a mask mandate remain in effect for residents of the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Western States Chart Diverging Paths As Water Shortages Loom - By Sophia Eppolito and Felicia Fonseca Associated Press/Report for America
As persistent drought and climate change threaten the Colorado River, several states that rely on the water acknowledge they likely won't get what they were promised a century ago.
But not Utah.
Republican lawmakers approved an entity that could push for more of Utah's share of water as seven Western states prepare to negotiate how to sustain a river serving 40 million people. Critics say the legislation, which the governor still must sign, could strengthen Utah's effort to complete a billion-dollar pipeline from a dwindling reservoir that's a key indicator of the river's health.
Other states have had similar entities for decades, but Utah's timing raised questions about its commitment to conservation and finding a more equitable way of surviving with less.
"There's a massive disconnect all centered around climate change," said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, which opposed the legislation. "The other six basin states know the Colorado River is dropping, and they know they have to decrease their usage, while Utah is running around in this fantasy."
The river supplies Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico as well as a $5 billion-a-year agricultural industry. As the states face a dire environmental future and negotiations over a new plan to protect the waterway from drought, it's forced a shift in thinking.
The goal of renegotiating is figuring out how to use less, "not staking out political turf to try to figure out how to use more," said John Fleck, director of University of New Mexico's Water Resources Program.
"It's just not clear Utah has a willingness to do that," he said.
The six members of the Colorado River Authority of Utah would oversee the state's negotiations on the drought plan and other rules that expire in 2026. Opponents worry parts of the legislation would allow the authority to avoid scrutiny by keeping some documents secret and permitting closed meetings.
House Speaker Brad Wilson said Utah will pursue conservation, but that alone won't meet the needs of one of the nation's fastest-growing states. Utah is entitled to the water under longstanding agreements among the states.
"We just need to make sure that as we kind of preserve and protect our interests in the Colorado River, that we have the expertise and the tools we need at our disposal to do that," Wilson said.
The bill comes six months after the other states rebuked Utah's plan to build an underground pipeline that would transport billions of gallons of water 140 miles from Lake Powell to a region near St. George, Utah, close to the Arizona border.
Utah began pursuing the pipeline 15 years ago to serve the city that's seen a 23% population jump since 2010, according to census figures, likely driven by a warm climate, red rock landscape and outdoor recreation. The project is under federal review.
Water experts worry Utah, which experienced its driest year ever in 2020, is banking on water that might not be available and could further deplete Lake Powell. Utah is one of the so-called upper basin states that get their share of water based on percentages of what's available but historically haven't used it all. The lower basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada — get specific amounts that are subject to cuts.
Utah plans to tap 400,000 acre-feet of water on top of the 1 million acre-feet it typically uses. An acre-foot is enough to serve one to two average households a year.
"Using more out of the Colorado River system might be on some piece of paper somewhere as a legal entitlement, but it is not a practical reality in the system that we've got today," said James Eklund, former director of the Upper Colorado River Commission, an interstate agency that helps states administer water rights.
With conservation in mind, states have passed laws focused on safeguarding other water supplies.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey recently signed a bill allowing farmers, ranchers and others to file a conservation plan and not lose their full water entitlements. Colorado and New Mexico also have eased up on "use it or lose it" laws.
The Arizona law doesn't affect the Colorado River but could boost water in other streams and rivers for wildlife habitat, recreation or city use.
"Everyone in the state needs to take a good, long look at the water that they're using and how much water they expect to use in the future and how to properly manage that so we can have long-term water security for everybody," said Kim Mitchell of Western Resource Advocates, which supported the Arizona bill.
Utah isn't alone in a history of lawsuits, disagreements and posturing to defend its share of water, though much of it recently has come from lower basin states that use most of their water.
The Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California, which holds the single largest share of Colorado River water, refused to join the drought plan without federal money to address a briny inland sea that's become a health hazard as evaporation leaves behind contaminated dust. The Salton Sea also will be a sticking point in renegotiations, the district said.
Southern Nevada has built a pipeline near the bottom of Lake Mead to ensure taps will keep flowing to Las Vegas homes and casinos even if the reservoir no longer can deliver water to Arizona, California and Mexico.
And Native Americans want to ensure their voices aren't missing from talks as they say they have been in the past. The 29 tribes in the Colorado River basin collectively hold rights to about 20% of its flow.
"The days of tribes standing silently by as the federal government, states and other entities set the terms for managing and distributing water to which our people are entitled and depend upon for survival are over," Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said in a statement.