WED: New Mexico Supreme Court Weighs Compensation For Business Restrictions, + More

10 hours ago

High Court Weighs Compensation For Business Restrictions - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments as it weighs whether the state must compensate businesses for losses from temporary closures or other public health emergency restrictions. 

Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday before the five-member court. 

A coalition of businesses says pandemic restrictions have effectively seized private property from businesses that might otherwise have taken their own precautions against the spread of COVID-19. 

Their lawsuit characterizes the state's public health emergency orders as regulatory taking that merits compensation to businesses. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration says property rights come with limitations concerning the safety of others.

Several businesses that sued the state for compensation separately have been provided with grants and forgivable loans by the state and federal authorities in efforts to prop up employment and the economy.

The Supreme Court case is likely to decide the fate of more than a dozen lawsuits by businesses running the gamut from a family owned amusement park in Albuquerque to an auction house in rural Portales.

State legislators are considering proposals for further economic relief to ailing small businesses and low-wage workers that have labored through the pandemic. A 60-day legislative session is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

New Mexico Legislature Seeks Greater Spending Amid Pandemic - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Leading New Mexico legislators are proposing a 4% increase in state general fund spending that would devote new resources to health care and public education amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The detailed budget proposal was announced Tuesday by Democratic and Republican members of a lead budget-writing committee.

Legislators are also proposing cost-of-living pay increases for state workers and public school employees and a bailout of the state's indebted unemployment trust fund to avoid future payroll tax increases.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is suggesting a 3.3% increase in spending without blanket pay raises. Economists are predicting a rebound in state government income on top of multibillion-dollar financial reserves.

Budget negotiations will begin in earnest with the start of the 60-day legislative session on Jan. 19. They are likely to include proposals for first-time economic relief to low-wage workers in the private sector who have labored through the pandemic.

The Legislature and governor are largely in agreement on the need for increased spending for the state Health Department, which oversees coronavirus testing, infection tracing and vaccinations.

Legislators want to devote $300 million to pay down ballooning debts to the federal government for unemployment insurance benefits that were paid to jobless New Mexico residents.

Democratic state Rep. Patty Lundstrom of Gallup, a lead budget negotiator in the House of Representatives, characterized the proposed state spending increases as cautious changes that would leave the state with financial reserves of $1.6 billion — equal to 22% of annual state spending obligations.

New Mexico Agency Settles With Oil Company In Well Case - Associated Press

An oil company operating in northwestern New Mexico has agreed to pay a $25,000 civil penalty as part of a settlement. 

The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department said Tuesday that a notice of violation had been issued to San Juan Resources, Inc. for failing to report and perform a proper investigation of a well's potentially defective casing. 

While there were no associated leaks or damages identified at the well in question, state officials said the case highlighted the importance of well integrity and proper reporting. 

The state Oil Conservation Division also is requiring permanent fixes at the well site.

Division Director Adrienne Sandoval said in a statement that her office views a lack of reporting and failure to take appropriate actions serious violations because it undermines the regulatory process and the division's ability to mitigate potential risks to human health and the environment.

The division is in the middle of developing more rules aimed at the oil and gas industry to cut down on methane emissions. Reporting requirements will be a big part of the effort, state officials have said.

US High Court To Hear Case On Virus Relief For Tribes - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that centers on who gets a share of $8 billion in federal coronavirus relief allocated for tribes. 

Lower courts were split on whether Alaska Native corporations should be in the mix. 

The U.S. Treasury Department, tasked with doling out the money, sought review from the high court after a federal appeals court ruled that corporations aren't eligible. 

The Supreme Court included the case on its order list Friday. 

The key question is whether the corporations are considered "tribes" under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The case has required judges, attorneys, Native American tribes and the Alaska corporations to pick apart language of the act, congressional intent and a 1975 federal law meant to strengthen tribes' ability to govern themselves.

More than a dozen Native American tribes sued the U.S. Treasury Department last year to try to keep the money out of the hands of the corporations. 

They argued it should go only to the 574 tribes that have a government-to-government relationship with the United States. 

Most of the money, except for about $530 million, has been distributed to Native American governments, according to court documents.

Tribes initially had until Dec. 30, 2020, to spend the money, but a bill that President Donald Trump recently signed extended the deadline for another year.

The case is being closely watched around Indian Country for its broader implications.

Recovered Midwestern Bird Soars Off Endangered Species List - By John Flesher AP Environmental Writer

Federal officials say a bird called the interior least tern is being dropped from the endangered species list. The small, fish-eating bird lives along rivers, lakes and wetlands in the Great Plains and Lower Mississippi Valley.

Its numbers plummeted in the late 19th century as its feathers became popular for women's hats. Later, it was harmed by dam construction and other river engineering. Conservation efforts have boosted the interior least tern's numbers in recent decades.

Environmental groups support the decision to remove federal protections. A number of states, including New Mexico, are all known to have colonies of the terns.

"We consider it an Endangered Species Act success story for sure," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity.

But he cautioned that vigilance was needed to make sure the bird's river habitat remains secure.

"Scientists are warning that we're in danger of losing 1 million species to extinction," Greenwald said. "Efforts to manage rivers in a more natural way are the kinds of things we need to do to avoid the extinction crisis."