WED: NM Plots Greater Spending, From Tuition To Medicaid, Amid Windfall Income, + More

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New Mexico Plots Greater Spending, From Tuition To Medicaid – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

An expansion of nonmerit scholarships to college and greater spending to safeguard abandoned oil wells in New Mexico are among the governor's new spending priorities, amid a windfall in state income linked to federal pandemic relief and petroleum production.

September marks the outset of the Legislature’s grueling budget writing process for the year beginning on July 1, 2022.

Several executive agencies overseen by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are making the case for expanded services. Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said Tuesday that the inclination is to “aim high” and “make the most of the opportunity we have to finish the work of rebuilding state government services after so many years of forced austerity.”

The Human Services Department is suggesting a $100 million spending increase on Medicaid and related mental health services alone, for total annual general fund spending of $1.26 billion on the program.

State income for the coming fiscal year is expected to outpace routine annual spending obligations by $1.4 billion, or 19% of annual general fund spending obligations.

That leaves lawmakers more money than ever before to spend on education, roads, public safety and other government programs.

Detailed spending targets from the Legislature's lead budget writing committee — geared toward programs with efficient and measurable outcomes — are still months away from publication.

The state agency that oversees oilfield permits and cleanup activities says its $82 million budget proposal would increase capacity for on-site inspections and plug more orphan oil and natural gas wells. It was allotted less than $70 million for the current budget year ending June 30, 2022.

The Environment Department is seeking a $7.1 million increase in general fund spending, a roughly 45% increase over current year spending of $16 million. The funds would help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector by implementing new fuel efficiency standards and boosting hydrogen infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles that have no tailpipe emissions, the Environment Department said in a statement.

Environmental regulators also are under pressure to expand food safety oversight to cannabis infused products known as edibles, as the state legalizes recreational cannabis sales by April 1, 2022.

The Human Services Department says its suggested Medicaid spending increases will bring in $6.1 billion to the state in annual federal matching funds.

Post-partum Medicaid benefits would extend for one year after childbirth, up from six months. More than 70% of births in New Mexico are covered by Medicaid insurance for people living in poverty or on the cusp.

Statewide Medicaid enrollment has grown by more than 100,000 people since the outset of the pandemic in March 2020. About 44% of the population relies on Medicaid and the related Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Some lawmakers have warned that federal recovery aid won’t be around forever, urging colleagues to increase the state’s reserves to guard against future budget shortfalls.

State higher education officials say they are seeking a $48 million appropriation to the governor's “opportunity scholarship” initiative that kicks in after other grants and scholarship to help attain tuition-free college. That would more than double current appropriations.

Police Arrest 1, Seeking 1 In Las Cruces Fatal Shooting – Associated Press

Police have arrested a 28-year-old suspect in a fatal shooting last month in Las Cruces and are asking for the public’s help in locating a second suspect.

Las Cruces police said Tuesday they arrested Hector Victor Calderon on Saturday and charged him with one count of open murder, two counts of conspiracy and one count of tampering with evidence in the killing of 40-year-old Ezekiel Diaz on Aug. 16.

They have issued an arrest warrant on the same charges for a 29-year-old man, who they warned Tuesday may be armed and should be considered dangerous.

Police said they believe the second suspect was driving and Calderon was a passenger in a gray Toyota Corolla that pulled alongside Diaz’s sport utility vehicle just before the shooting on Lohman Avenue east of downtown near Interstate 25.

Diaz died from a single gunshot wound to the chest. A preliminary investigation indicates Diaz and another suspect had an ongoing dispute and were in at least one previous confrontation, police said.

They located the suspect’s Corolla at a motel the following day. It's not clear if Calderon has a lawyer.

New Mexico Police Probe Officer-Involving Fatal Shooting – Associated Press

New Mexico State Police said Tuesday they are investigating the fatal shooting of a 46-year-old suspect who fired at a SWAT team during a standoff with Albuquerque police.

The victim who fired multiple shots at officers responding to a domestic violence call at a residence in Moriarty Monday night was identified as Cimmeron Christy of Moriarty. He was pronounced dead at the scene from his injuries sometime after 10 p.m. Monday.

No deputies or officers were injured during the incident. State police, Torrance County sheriff's deputies and an Albuquerque Police Department SWAT team were attempting to negotiate a peaceful surrender when Christy fired the shots toward the officers and they returned fire, police said Tuesday.

“The New Mexico State Police Investigations Bureau agents are working to independently determine the series of events leading to the shooting, including collecting evidence and conducting interviews,” the bureau said in a statement.

The name of the officer involved won’t be released until interviews are completed. The results of the investigation will be given to the district attorney’s office for review, the bureau said.

Latest Draft Of New Mexico Oil, Gas Rules Stirs Tension – Associated Press

Advocates for the oil and gas industry and the environment are at odds over the latest draft of proposed regulations to tamp down on smog-causing pollution.

A New Mexico Environment Department panel will hear the agency’s proposed new rules, which some see as putting the state’s budget and hundreds of jobs at risk, at a hearing later this month, the Albuquerque Journal reports.

Don Schreiber, whose ranch home near Blanco encompasses both Rio Arriba and San Juan counties, has been following and documenting the pollution issue surrounding regional oil and gas drilling for nearly two decades. He has lobbied for strict industry emissions regulations at the state and federal level.

“Oil companies can choose to capture methane without a regulation,” Schreiber said. “It’s common sense. But it’s also about the bottom line.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's executive order on climate change calls for state environmental regulators to come up with ways to cut emissions from the gas and oil industries.

Environmentalists like Schreiber think the tentative new regulations may not go far enough. He thinks they still have exceptions for emissions when it comes to re-drilling or completing wells.

“This is a brittle landscape,” Schreiber said. “I can go to well locations that have been closed for 15 years, and I can tell you exactly where it was. It just doesn’t heal.”

Under the proposal, professional engineers would review and validate emissions data calculated by oil and gas operators. There would also be an increase in inspections of equipment for leaks and other issues.

“We can’t wait for our ozone levels to get worse,” state Environment Secretary James Kenney said. “We have an unlevel playing field between industry and the government right now.”

The state department estimates the rules would slash ozone-forming pollutants by about 129,000 tons annually, and also reduce about 425,000 tons of methane.

JoAnna Strother, the American Lung Association’s senior advocacy director, said the state of the air quality in the region has to change. The group gave failing grades to five New Mexico counties for ozone pollution.

“We need to see air quality standards get tightened up so we really can be protected,” Strother said. “We still have a ways to go before we make sure we’re breathing cleaner, healthier air.”

New Mexico's oil and gas companies have already expressed reservations through written feedback. Ryan Davis, the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico president and operations manager of Merrion Oil & Gas Corp. in Farmington, said the rule doesn't seem fairly balanced if you're a smaller operator.

“The requirement of having certification by a qualified professional engineer is not appropriate and creates an unnecessary burden to operators,” Davis wrote as part of the Petroleum Association’s 200-page testimony and recommendations. He thinks it would be fine to let operator's in-house engineers certify data.

Davis also has objected to phasing out certain pneumatic control devices because replacing equipment like that would be a hefty price tag for some operators.

If the new rules were to pass, they could go into effect by March.

New Mexico Rep. Herrell Seeks Reassurance On Afghan Refugees – Associated Press

A Republican congresswoman is seeking more information on the vetting process for Afghan refugees and emphasizing security concerns as she embarks on a tour of resettlement operations at an Air Force base on the outskirts of her home town in southern New Mexico.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell was scheduled Tuesday for a tour of the resettlement operations at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo.

“For weeks Rep. Herrell has insisted upon Congressional oversight following Joe Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan,” spokesman Billy Gribbin said in an email. “Rep. Herrell believes that New Mexicans deserve transparency in a process that has been clouded by the Biden administration’s incompetence thus far.”

In a commitment to help people who aided the American war effort and others who are particularly vulnerable under Taliban rule, at least 50,000 Afghans are expected to be admitted into the United States following the fall of Kabul.

Most of the Afghans who have arrived in the U.S. are being housed on military bases, receiving medical treatment, assistance with submitting immigration applications and other services aimed at helping them settle in the country.

Similar resettlement efforts are underway at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort Lee in Virginia, Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst in New Jersey, Fort Pickett in Virginia and other military facilities.

The Department of Homeland Security said last week that tens of thousands of Afghans already have made it through security vetting and arrived in the U.S.

In 2018, Herrell flipped New Mexico's southern District 2 seat to Republican control while embracing then-President Donald Trump’s border wall strategy and espousing a pro-petroleum philosophy in a major U.S. oil-production hub.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has offered New Mexico as a ready participant in efforts to assist with Afghan refugees seeking asylum.

Gribbin said the congresswoman also intends to review the living conditions for Afghan nationals brought to New Mexico.