TUES: Supporters Clash On New Mexico Recreational Pot Legalization, + More

Mar 9, 2021

Supporters Clash On New Mexico Recreational Pot Legalization -- By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Proponents of legalizing recreational marijuana in New Mexico sat down to the legislative bargaining table Tuesday amid broad support for doing so. But lawmakers have stubbornly divergent views on how to stamp out illicit marijuana, address social justice concerns about prior drug convictions and provide a range of economic opportunity in a fledgling industry.

State Senate lawmakers are searching for a bill to advance toward a floor vote and there are four competing proposals to legalize recreational cannabis sales to adults 21 and older.

They emerged after weeks of rocky negotiations focusing on whether to extend cannabis cultivation limits that has helped sustain small-scale medical marijuana producers but led to complaints of inflated retail prices.

Whether legislators can reach a compromise to send to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supports recreational marijuana, is an open question.

They face a March 20 deadline, when the state's annual legislative session ends, to craft recreational marijuana reforms aimed at preserving a supply chain to the state's existing medical cannabis program for roughly 100,000 patients — and set up ground rules for a larger recreational pot industry.

Doing so requires lawmakers to make complex decisions about state and local taxation, safeguards against child access and potential allowances for home-grown cannabis.

Most recreational marijuana laws in the U.S. have been approved via ballot initiatives but New Mexico's constitution prohibits that. Only Illinois and Vermont have legalized marijuana through the legislative process and Virginia's Legislature in February sent a legalization bill to a supportive Democratic governor.

"With ballot initiatives there tends to be more of a consensus among advocates," said Carly Wolf, states policy manager with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "With ballot initiatives we might see two competing measures, but we never see four or five competing measures."

One New Mexico House-approved legalization bill places an emphasis on helping communities that have been adversely affected by the criminalization of marijuana, with automatic procedures for expunging past charges and convictions for cannabis possession and releasing prison inmates held on possession infractions.

The bill from state Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque also creates a fund to invest in social programs to boost employment, support housing for people in drug treatment programs and provide mental health services in communities disproportionately affected by the criminalization of drugs. It would waive taxes on medical marijuana and subsidize cannabis for low-income patients with prescriptions.

From the opposite end of the political spectrum is another bill that focuses on law and order, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell. It emphasizes the rights of employers to a drug-free workplace and limits taxation in efforts to undercut illicit marijuana prices.

Pirtle also wants a one mile (1.6 kilometer) buffer between recreational marijuana dispensaries to avoid the proliferation of small-town marijuana shops near New Mexico's state line with Texas, where recreational marijuana is prohibited amid predictions that Texans could come in droves to New Mexico to buy weed.

Pirtle's bill would ban people from growing their own recreational marijuana.

Wolf said that support for home-grown marijuana extends beyond hobbyists to people concerned about unnecessary police searches.

"An important thing with home cultivation is the removal of the odor of marijuana as grounds to search and enter people's homes," Wolf noted.

New Mexico voters last year ousted many incumbent Democratic state Senate lawmakers who adamantly opposed legalization.

Across the U.S., there was widespread support last year for recreational marijuana legalization as voters Arizona, Montana New Jersey, South Dakota approved ballot measures approved recreational cannabis markets. Mississippi approved the creation of a medical marijuana program.

Lujan Grisham has emphasized recreational marijuana's potential for improving employment and economic development in a state economy that some say is overly reliant on oil and natural gas production.

Clean Fuel Proposal Gets Green Light From New Mexico Panel - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A New Mexico legislative panel on Tuesday advanced a measure that would set the stage for the creation of a clean fuel standard that environmentalists and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham say would move the state closer to reaching its carbon reduction goals.

Cars, trucks and commercial vehicles traveling throughout the expansive state amount to the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New Mexico. State environment officials say targeting the types of fuel that are offered and creating a voluntary credit program that monetizes emission reductions would put a dent in methane and other pollutants.

Bill sponsor Sen. Mimi Stewart contends that emissions could be reduced by 4.7 million metric tons over the next two decades by requiring fuel providers that refine, blend, make or import fuel to gradually reduce the carbon intensity of the fuel itself.

"That's like taking 44,000 cars off the road every year for 15 years," the Albuquerque Democrat said in a recent opinion piece. "A clean fuel standard would not apply to retail gas stations or cause cost increases at the pump."

Republican lawmakers and other critics dispute that claim, saying such a proposal would lead to higher gas prices in the poverty-stricken state and the burden would be felt mostly by lower income residents.

The state Economic Development Department has acknowledged that New Mexico could see an increase in prices of less than 5%, but the agency argues that the cost of alternative fuel vehicles is expected to decrease over time, resulting in reduced alternative fuel prices as demand increases for such vehicles.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the bill Tuesday during a brief meeting that did not include any public comments.

The measure still needs the approval of the full Senate and the House before lawmakers adjourn in less than two weeks. With the clock ticking, some say the bill could be fast-tracked by the Democrat-led Legislature since it's a priority of the governor.

Upon taking office in 2019, Lujan Grisham issued an executive order on addressing climate change and preventing waste across the energy sector. So far, that has included efforts by the state to craft new rules for the oil and gas industry aimed at limiting venting and flaring and boosting reporting requirements.

If adopted, New Mexico would join California and Oregon in offering credits generated by emissions-reducing technology. Some other states are considering similar clean fuel legislation.

The governor has billed the pollution measures as ways to attract new businesses and jobs focused on environmental protection and public health. Her administration has claimed that a clean fuel standard alone could spur tens of millions of dollars in annual economic investment.

"As the first state in the Southwest to seek a clean fuel standard program, we are blazing a path toward significant economic investments while tackling emissions that contribute to climate change," the governor said in a statement.

If the measure is enacted, fuel producers and importers would have to reduce the amount of carbon in fuels by 10% by 2030 and more than double that a decade later. If they fall short, producers can purchase credits to meet the standard.

Supporters of the legislation said utilities could generate credits through sequestering greenhouse gas emissions. Other possibilities include credits from oil and gas operations and the agriculture and waste management industries.

Larry Behrens with Power the Future, an advocacy group that supports New Mexico's traditional energy industry, said a statewide clean fuel standard would raise gas prices at a time when prices already are going up and families have yet to recover from the economic consequences of the pandemic.

The legislation includes money for the state Environment Department to craft new rules within two years. Registration fees charged to producers and those who generate credits would go into a fund to pay for oversight and enforcement by the agency.

Albuquerque Gets New Police Chief, Reform Superintendent – Associated Press

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller says he went both inside the outside the Albuquerque Police Department for leadership to fight crime and reform the organization.

Keller on Monday announced his selection of interim Chief Harold Medina to be the new chief and Sylvester Stanley, currently chief of Isleta Pueblo, as superintendent of police reform, a new position.

Medina was named interim chief with the departure of the previous chief in late 2020.

Medina will focus on core crime-fighting activities, recruiting police officers and building morale. Stanley will oversee discipline of officers as well as the department's academy and Internal Affairs division and work with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"It takes both an insider and an outsider to strike the right balance on the dual challenges of crime-fighting and police reform," Keller said.

Medina is the first Hispanic to be Albuquerque's police chief since 2001.

Both Medina and Stanley will report to the city's chief administrative officer, Sarita Nair.    

New Mexico Clears Way For School Openings, Teacher Vaccines - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

New Mexico on Monday began clearing the way for schools to reopen next month as vaccine eligibility was expanded to include shots for all teachers, those working in early childhood programs and educators. 

" class="wysiwyg-break drupal-content" src="/sites/all/modules/contrib/wysiwyg/plugins/break/images/spacer.gif" title="<--break-->">

"We get to ring the bell and bring our students back, and I'm very happy for both our educators — who will be receiving their vaccines, back in the classroom with their students — and students who have missed their peers, missed their sports," Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said during a news conference.

The announcement on schools came after the state said it was aiming to get educators their first shots by the end of March. 

The state expanded vaccine eligibility as part of a directive by the Biden administration to get more schools reopened amid the coronavirus pandemic. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said last week that the ability of New Mexico to meet the timeline will depend on the federal government increasing vaccine supplies. 

Collins said the state had been in discussions with the White House about how the directive would affect vaccinations for other groups. Under the latest plan, the state will start with educators outside of the Albuquerque area this week. Those in the metro area can get shots next week, likely at a mass vaccination site, and the final week will target all of those statewide who have yet to be vaccinated.

More than 15,000 educators already have received shots, as some were eligible as part of New Mexico's phased-in approach to distributing vaccinations. The focus until now has been on the most vulnerable populations, including those 75 and over and younger people with chronic health conditions that put them at greater risk. 

Absent the White House's directive, teachers and other educators were next in line to be prioritized under New Mexico's phased-in approach to distributing vaccinations.

According to the state Public Education Department, there were more than 17,400 teachers on the rolls as of early December. That does not include other school staff, higher education employees or those who work in early childhood education programs. 

Teacher unions pushed for more widespread vaccinations as pressure mounted to get back to in-person learning. Many New Mexico school districts had opted not to dramatically increase in-person learning despite approval from Lujan Grisham earlier this year. Some opened on a limited basis, allowing students to attend in-person based on the availability of teachers who volunteer.

In Santa Fe, the public school district and the union National Education Association-Santa Fe recently reached an agreement in which teachers and staff would be required to return to work in-person once they have been vaccinated or have had the opportunity to get a shot. A memorandum of understanding also notes that no employee will be required to get a vaccination.

Union President Grace Mayer said nearly all members have indicated their willingness to get vaccinated and she was excited about educators being added to the list.

Santa Fe Superintendent Veronica Garcia said in a statement that her schools have been ready to reopen since the beginning of the school year.

"Our hurdle to bringing students back has been access to vaccinations," Garcia said. "I'm greatly encouraged with the federal prioritization of educational employees. ... We all want to get our students back on campus as soon as possible." 

With hybrid programs, some schools are looking like internet cafes, with eager students learning remotely on school internet with teachers who are off-campus. 

Stewart said that five-day a week programs would be open to those who want them, and districts also will be required to provide virtual learning options for students who opt out.

"All students who want access to full in-person learning will still be coming back in and schools will be making those local decisions on staffing to manage both of those programs," Stewart said.

Overall, more than 681,000 shots have been administered in New Mexico, ranking the state among the top in the U.S. when it comes to distribution. About 14.5% of the population is fully vaccinated and one-quarter has received a first shot, according to state data.

The Health Department sent alerts Monday, asking other members of the public to be patient. Text and email messages stated that demand still exceeds supply and for people to wait for notification before showing up at a vaccine clinic without an appointment.

New Mexico House Endorses Health Insurance Tax, Subsidies - Associated Press

The House of Representatives endorsed a tax increase Monday that would boost subsidies for insurance coverage on the state health insurance exchange.

The bill moves to the Senate for consideration. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the bill.

A similar proposal to broadly increase the surtax on insurance premiums won House approval and stalled in the Senate last year, as the federal government repealed its health care provider fee that helped support state insurance markets established under the Affordable Care Act. 

About 45,000 residents of New Mexico rely on the insurance exchange for health care. At the same time, separate enrollment has swelled during the coronavirus pandemic in Medicaid insurance for people living in poverty or on the cusp as the federal government pours extra money into the program.

As the economy recovers and Medicaid enrollment unwinds, state insurance regulators hope to lower costs for many consumers of marketplace insurance policies and broaden the enrollment pool to make the exchange more useful and sustainable.

House Republicans stood in unified opposition to the surtax increase. GOP House minority caucus chair Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences described the bill as an affront to small business amid the economic fallout from the pandemic.

"What we can do right now is assure our small businesses that we hear them," she said.

The surtax increase from 1% to 3.75% would channel as much as $110 million toward marketplace subsidies initially with additional contributions to the state general fund.

State May Pioneer Public Financing Of Lower-court Campaigns - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Under a bill aimed at reducing reliance on private campaign donations in the judiciary, New Mexico could become the first state to offer public campaign financing to candidates seeking to serve as judges in general jurisdiction courts that handle the bulk of criminal and civil-law trials. 

The bill from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and allied Sen. Katy Duhigg of Albuquerque is headed toward a likely Senate floor vote this week.

New Mexico currently offers public financing to candidates in statewide elections to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

The initiative would extend the option of public financing to candidates for nearly 100 judicial seats in state district courts that handle criminal trials on charges ranging from murder to burglary, as well as a broad gamut of civil litigation related to personal injury, contract disputes, divorces and more. 

New Mexico's district judges are initially elected in partisan elections to six-year terms, and then subject to nonpartisan retention elections. They also may be appointed initially through a nominating commission.

Supporters say public financing can open the door to a more diverse set of judicial candidates. Several Republican legislators are wary of the changes.

US Nuclear Lab To Relocate Hundreds Of Workers In New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

One of the nation's premier nuclear laboratories will be moving hundreds of employees from its sprawling campus in the mountains of northern New Mexico to Santa Fe as part of a 10-year real estate deal. 

Los Alamos National Laboratory announced the lease Monday, calling it the largest job relocation in the capital city's history. 

The new location includes meeting rooms and space for about 500 administrative, finance and information technology employees.

It's also the second lease to be signed by the lab this year for more office space in Santa Fe. 

The move comes as Los Alamos tries to make space for additional hires that will be focused on building the plutonium cores that trigger weapons in U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The lab did not immediately answer questions about the cost of the leased space. It did indicate that more space still would be needed as it expects to hire 1,200 employees this fiscal year, adding to the 1,000 hired last year.


No Charges Filed In Las Cruces School Superintendent's Death - Associated Press

No charges are being filed against the driver of a minivan that fatally struck the school superintendent for New Mexico's second largest city of Las Cruces, police said Monday.

Karen Trujillo, a former leader of the state Public Education Department, was hit Feb. 25 while walking her two dogs and died at a hospital from her injuries.

The 50-year-old Trujillo led Las Cruces Public Schools during the pandemic and during a cyber attack that crippled the school system's computer systems.

Las Cruces police said investigators determined the minivan was traveling within a safe range of speed for the roadway where the crash occurred and Trujillo was walking in the roadway.

Police said investigators also believe Trujillo was wearing earbuds and likely was unable to hear the vehicle approaching.

According to police, the minivan's driver said his direction of travel was toward the setting sun and he was unable to see the pedestrian. 

Investigators believe the driver's ability to avoid the crash would have been difficult or impossible.

Because no charges have been filed, police said they won't publicly release the name of the driver.

New Mexico Land Office Approves Las Cruces Solar Leases Associated Press

New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard on Monday signed four leases with the city of Las Cruces that will boost the community's renewable energy initiatives.

The agreements mark the first time the State Land Office has approved a municipality for renewable energy development for utility generation on state trust land. When completed, the four solar projects will replace existing power to four utility-scale water wells serving Las Cruces residents and businesses.

Garcia Richard said in a statement that she hopes the leases will serve as a framework for other cities as they seek alternatives to either power or provide utilities with renewable energy. She called it an affordable and tangible option for communities that are near state trust land.

"In order to meet the demands for more sustainable energy sources and reach the goals set in statute by the Energy Transition Act, New Mexico communities and government entities need to work together on innovative, clean energy solutions," she said.

Under the 25-year leases, the city will pay roughly $20,000 annually for the use of 10 acres of trust land in different areas of Las Cruces. The proceeds of the solar leases will directly benefit New Mexico public schools.

Navajo Nation Reports 6 New COVID-19 Cases, 2 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported six additional COVID-19 cases and two more deaths from the virus. 

The new numbers pushed the tribe's totals to 29,873 cases and 1,203 known deaths since the pandemic began a year ago. 

Health facilities on the reservation and in border towns are conducting drive-thru vaccine events or administering doses by appointment. 

The Navajo-area Indian Health Service has vaccinated more than 135,000 people so far. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says home is still the safest place for people despite the relaxing of some restrictions in neighboring states, including Arizona.