TUES: Gas Company Wants Cost Recovery From Price Spikes, LANL Looks To Boost Power Supply, + More

Apr 20, 2021

New Mexico Utility Seeks To Recover Spike In Gas Costs - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico Gas Co. wants to recover costs associated with dramatic spikes in natural gas prices over the winter.

The utility said Tuesday it has filed an application with the state Public Regulation Commission. The proposal calls for spreading the recovery of the costs through December 2023 in order to minimize the effects on customers' monthly bills.

If approved by regulators, the average increase for customers would be about $5.70 per month, or about 10%.

Utility officials say the costs faced in February were unprecedented and the market conditions forced the company to pay higher prices.

Even by spreading out the costs over a longer period of time, utility officials acknowledged that it will be tough for some customers to absorb the astronomical price increases that upended the natural gas market in February.

"We're going to try to work with our customers to make this as easy on them as possible. We understand that's going to be a significant increase in their bills for this period of time. We will work with them," said Tom Domme, New Mexico Gas Co.'s vice president for external affairs.

New Mexico Gas Co. was not alone. Utilities across the region were forced to pay higher prices.

As regulated utilities, they pass the cost of fuel onto customers without markup, meaning the prices paid in February would eventually show up in customers' bills.

Nationally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. announced early on that they would be looking into utility and transmission operations during the cold snap. 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.

In New Mexico, the attorney general's office opened its own inquiry. Spokesman Matt Baca said the matter is still under review.

Executives with El Paso Electric, Xcel Energy and Public Service Co. of New Mexico testified before state lawmakers earlier this year about how they tried to prepare but were still forced to buy some natural gas on the spot market.

With Xcel buying roughly half of its natural gas off the spot market, the company said at the time that 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 were expected to help offset that, but customers could still see their monthly bills increase by about $7 over a two-year period.

In the case of New Mexico Gas Co., Domme said the extraordinary costs for the week of Feb. 13-18 totaled about $110 million.

Customers who use more gas will see a bigger increase in their month bills than those who do not, Domme said.

New Mexico Gas Co. has created a $1.2 million fund with shareholder money to help low-income customers and small business owners who have fallen behind on their bills due to the economic consequences of the pandemic. Residential customers can also apply for help through a separate program in which qualified customers receive one-time payments toward their bill.

Domme said the utility is opening its payment centers to work with customers on payment plans.

New Mexico Gas Co. serves about 530,000 customers throughout the state.

Judge Rules For News Organizations In Public Records LawsuitAssociated Press

A judge has ordered the Albuquerque school district to pay over $400,000 to the Albuquerque Journal and KOB-TV for violating state law by not turning over public records in a timely manner and not meeting deadlines on responding to requests for documents.

The Journal reported District Judge Nancy Franchini also ruled Monday that the two news organizations are entitled to reasonable attorney fees and legal costs.

Franchini awarded the Journal $293,625 and KOB $118,000 in their lawsuit over documents related to former Superintendent Winston Brooks' departure.

Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the district will appeal the ruling.

"APS works diligently to be transparent in responding to all records requests, and this matter was no different," Armenta said.

Journal Editor Karen Moses called the ruling a "clear message of the importance of public bodies following the Inspection of Public Records Act."

However, she said the Journal intended to appeal Franchini's ruling that an investigative report didn't have to be released.

Michelle Donaldson, vice president and general manager of KOB-TV, stressed that public records laws are there to "ensure transparency and accountability."

"A school district cannot pick and choose when to obey the law, especially when it's writing six-figure checks to outgoing personnel," Donaldson said.

First Lady Jill Biden To Visit Albuquerque, Navajo NationAssociated Press

First lady Jill Biden plans to visit an Albuquerque health care facility as part of a three-day, two-state visit to the U.S. Southwest this week.

The White House announced that Biden will be accompanied by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham when she visits the First Choice Community Healthcare clinic in Albuquerque's South Valley on Wednesday afternoon.

Biden also will travel to the Navajo Nation where she will meet Thursday with Navajo President Jonathan Nez and First Lady Phefelia Nez in Window Rock, Arizona, before delivering a radio address.

She's scheduled to attend a listening session Friday with Navajo students before taking a tour of a vaccination site.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID-Related Deaths For 10th Day In A RowAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported finding no new COVID-19 related deaths for the 10th consecutive day.

The tribe reported nine new confirmed coronavirus cases, but no additional deaths on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The latest numbers bring the Navajo Nation's pandemic case total to 30,380 with the death toll remaining at 1,262.

Tribal health officials said more than 16,500 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. Tribal officials urged residents to stay vigilant.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez said the tribe recently had a cluster of COVID-19 cases as a result of a family gathering where people were not wearing masks.

Tribal public health orders mandate that masks be worn on the reservation and a daily curfew is in effect. Restaurants cannot have dine-in services.

Navajo Nation roads also are closed to visitors and tourists, which doesn't affect travel on state highways that run through the reservation.

Meanwhile, health care facilities across the reservation continue to offer the vaccine by appointment or at drive-thru events.

New Mexico High Schoolers Will Return After 'Secret Prom' - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America, Las Cruces Sun-News

High school students who attended "secret proms" in a southern New Mexico school district won't face disciplinary actions, and their schools will resume in-person classes sooner than previously thought, school officials said Monday.

The decisions follow an investigation into private house parties in the Las Cruces Public Schools district and backlash from some elected officials over the move to preemptively suspend in-person learning for all students at Mayfield High School.

Superintendent Ralph Ramos told the Las Cruces Sun-News that the event had 200 to 500 students not wearing face masks, according to an investigation that involved state education and health officials.

"To me, that's a huge concern. I'm not here to police private properties," Ramos said, but added that a mass gathering of more than 10 people "brings safety concerns to us at LCPS."

The investigation began last Wednesday after a complaint was filed with the governor's office. School officials also discovered at least one other large student party billed as a secret prom, though with greater adherence to COVID-19 safe practices, Ramos said.

After initially ordering students to stay home until April 26, officials have recalculated the quarantine time from the date of the event, not the complaint, allowing Mayfield High School to return to in-person learning on April 20.

Students from other high schools were notified individually that they need to quarantine, but their schools were not closed.

Student organizers of the secret proms won't face punishment for the private events.

"We have not disciplined anybody," Ramos told the Las Cruces Sun-News, adding that the investigation is focused on safety.

High schools in the district are in the process of planning socially distanced proms.

New Mexico Labor Agency Defends Tax Rates For Unemployment - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico labor officials are responding with reassurances to an onslaught of complaints about increased tax rates on businesses to support unemployment insurance. In addition, the state intends to extend the time employers can file appeals if they suspect inappropriate tax increases.

A long list of business groups including the New Mexico Business Coalition began writing to the the Department of Workforce Solutions in February to express concern about calculations for increased unemployment tax rates and premiums.

They are questioning the state's compliance with a state pandemic relief law that omits any layoffs from March 2020 through June 2021 from consideration in setting insurance rates. The provision was enacted during a special legislative session in June 2020.

Workforce Solutions Department spokeswoman Stacy Johnston said rate changes are based on a three-year average that can increase even as the state abides by the blackout period.

"A tax rate may have gone up due to benefit charges that took place in the three years prior to March 1, 2020," Johnston said in an email. "This is the most likely cause for an increase based on our review."

Rate notices come with a 30-day deadline for appeal, but all deadlines have been extended to May 30 as a courtesy, she said. A review by Workforce Solutions found no apparent miscalculations in business tax rates tied to unemployment insurance.

Out of 47,000 recent rate notices to businesses concerning unemployment insurance, roughly 15% or 7,000 involved rate increases. About 9,000 businesses saw decreases, Johnston said.

New Mexico Business Coalition President Carla Sonntag says many businesses that scaled back as a result of pandemic-related public health orders are among those experiencing rate increases.

"The bottom line is we shouldn't be going through this," she said.

Sonntag says she contacted state prosecutors and the state auditor's office because she wasn't getting satisfactory answers from the Workforce Solutions Department and former Secretary Bill McCamley, who left the agency last week.

State Auditor Brian Colón said Monday that a review by his office is underway.

"We've received enough complaints that we're concerned that the issue is widespread," he said. "So we are working very closely with Department of Workforce Solutions to get to the bottom of the matter."

George Gundrey, owner of three restaurants including Tomasita's in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, said he was puzzled about the cause of rate increases on unemployment insurance, including a four-fold increase at one restaurant. He has filed an appeal.

He says employment at his restaurants shrank from about 220 people to 45 in the depths of the pandemic while serving only take-out meals.

"They haven't gotten back to me, I had to submit my payment at a higher rate last week," he said.

Gundrey says the financial anxiety also is linked to newly approved legislation for mandatory sick leave and a veto by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that called off a $600 million contribution in federal aid to the state unemployment insurance trust.

Lujan Grisham said the administration needs guidance first from the U.S. Treasury before that move can be made to avoid future payroll taxes.

Agency Reports Navajo Nation's First Hantavirus Case Of 2021Associated Press

Health officials are reporting the Navajo Nation's first case this year of Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease spread by infected rodent droppings.

The tribal health department said the case was confirmed in McKinley County in northwestern New Mexico but it wasn't known how the person contracted Hantavirus.

Hantavirus typically is reported in spring and summer, often due to exposures that occur when people are near mouse droppings in homes, sheds or poorly ventilated areas.

Recommended precautions to limit the spread of Hantavirus include ventilating and cleaning areas where there might be mouse droppings.

US Lab Looks To Boost Power Supply Ahead Of Nuclear Mission - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. government plans to build a new transmission line and make other upgrades costing hundreds of million dollars to ensure its laboratory in northern New Mexico has enough electricity for ongoing operations and future missions that include manufacturing key components for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Officials have said one of the existing lines that feeds Los Alamos National Laboratory is expected to reach capacity this summer.

The other likely will hit its limit within the next few years amid more high-computing projects related to nuclear weapons design and performance and as work ramps up to build the plutonium cores that are used to trigger weapons.

The U.S. Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration announced Monday that it will work with federal land managers to assess the project's potential environmental effects. A virtual public meeting is scheduled for May 6 and the public will have until May 21 to weigh in on the scope of the planned review.

The proposed transmission line would stretch more than 12 miles, crossing national forest land in an area known as the Caja del Rio and spanning the Rio Grande at White Rock Canyon. New structural towers would need to be built on both sides of the canyon.

The project — which could cost up to $300 million — also would require new overhead poles with an average span of 800 feet, access roads for construction and maintenance and staging areas where materials can be stored.

Federal officials have said they plan to try to have the project avoid known biological, recreational, cultural and historical resources, such as the Camino Real Aldentro National Historic Trail. Another goal would be minimizing visibility of the transmission line from residential areas.

Part of the line would be built along an existing utility corridor, but a new path would have to be cut through forest land to reach an electrical substation.

The Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog group that has been critical of the lab's expansion plans, reiterated concerns about the lack of an overall analysis of the cumulative effects that plutonium core production and more weapons work could have on the surrounding communities.

Greg Mello, the group's director, said no comprehensive information regarding the future of lab is available to the public, to local and state governments or to the immediately affected Native American tribes. He pointed to future land acquisition and site plans and other documents that have been redacted.

"This is a poorly-justified project, one we strenuously oppose," he said in a statement, adding that the electrical capacity the lab claims it needs is double what it has now and is premised on as-yet-unapproved programs and projects.

Environmentalists, residents and others have suggested that the lab tap into its scientific capabilities and consider other options such as superconducting transmission lines, battery storage and solar generation.

They point to the project as an opportunity to move the state close to reaching mandates of electricity generation being carbon-free over the next two decades.

They also voiced concerns about potential effects on the Caja del Rio, saying it encompasses wide Indigenous landscapes and is a scenic gateway to northern New Mexico.

The area has seen an increase in outdoor recreational use and it serves as a migration corridor for wildlife.

Cowboys For Trump Founder Appeals Recall Bid To High Court - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin has filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court as he seeks to fend off an effort to recall him from office as a county commissioner in southern New Mexico.

Griffin filed a notice of appeal Monday with the high court that contends he was deprived of due process rights and raises other jurisdictional objections.

A state district court judge this month found good cause for a recall petition, but Griffin says the hearing took place unjustly at the same time as an Otero County commission meeting where he was being pressured to resign.

Retired military veteran Paul Sanchez and other members of the Committee to Recall Couy Griffin are accusing Griffin of using his elected county position for personal gain. They say Griffin used his office to solicit contributions to Cowboys for Trump that covered his personal expenses.

Griffin has called those allegations frivolous, baseless and politically motivated.

Cowboys for Trump has held horseback-riding parades across the country in support of President Donald Trump. Griffin says the group is a for-profit endeavor that is not subject to financial disclosure requirement for political organizations.

It was unclear how soon the state Supreme Court will decide whether to intervene.

Separately, Griffin is defending himself against criminal charges in connection with the siege on the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Griffin was videotaped on the steps of the Capitol but not inside. He denies allegations that he knowingly entered barricaded areas with the intent to disrupt government as Congress considered Electoral College results.

If allowed, a recall petition against Griffin with a sufficient number of signatures could trigger a special election within months. Otherwise, Griffin is up for possible re-election in 2022 for a second, four-year term.