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WED: NM Supreme Court Rules Energy Law Applies To Power Plant Case + More

Jan 29, 2020

NM Supreme Court Rules Energy Law Applies To Power Plant Case - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court says a landmark energy law that moves the state toward more renewable energy must be applied as regulators consider plans by the state's largest electric utility to close a major coal-fired power plant.

The court made its decision after hearing from attorneys representing the Public Regulation Commission, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state lawmakers and Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

Lujan Grisham, the Navajo Nation and state lawmakers had petitioned the court in December to force the commission to take into account the Energy Transition Act as part of the proceedings over shuttering the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico in July 2019 submitted its application for closing the power plant. The filing covered the closure as well as proposals for replacing the lost capacity when the plant ends operations.

Regulators opted to consider a portion of PNM's application as part of an ongoing case that involved abandonment of the plant. That raised questions as to whether the new energy law would be applied to the decision-making process since it took effect after that case began.

Justice Barbara Vigil said the utility's application was filed after the law took effect and so the commission needs to consider the provisions of the law as the case proceeds.

New Mexico Supreme Court To Hear Arguments In Energy Case - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A ruling from the New Mexico Supreme Court could determine how the state implements a landmark law that clears the way for the closure of a coal-fired power plant and sets aggressive statewide goals for being carbon-free by 2045. 

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled Wednesday in Santa Fe. It's unclear how soon the court could issue a decision.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham petitioned the court in December to force the Public Regulation Commission to take into account the Energy Transition Act as part of the proceedings over shuttering the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico submitted its application for closing the power plant last summer. It covered the closure as well as proposals for replacing the lost capacity when the plant ends operations.

Regulators opted to consider a portion of PNM's application as part of an ongoing case that involved abandonment of the plant, raising questions as to whether the new energy law would be applied to the decision-making process since it took effect after that case began.

The governor and other critics have accused the independently elected commission of using procedural maneuvers to undermine the law and the Legislature's role in setting energy policy.

The utility and environmental groups are hopeful the court will press the commission to implement the law.

New Mexico Senate Wants More Money To Promote 2020 CensusAssociated Press

New Mexico legislators are setting aside more money to promote participation in the U.S. Census. The state Senate on Wednesday voted 39-0 to assign $8 million to ensure residents are not left out of the population count that calibrates funding levels for federal programs.

The state previously allocated $3.4 million to the effort. The census determines the allocation of $1.5 trillion in federal spending, and New Mexico officials estimate that a 1% undercount would cost the state more than $700 million in federal aid over a decade.

At the same time, about 41% of state residents live in hard-to-count areas — the largest proportion of any state in the nation, an Associated Press analysis of government data has found.

Republican state Sen. William Burt of Alamogordo sponsored the spending bill and highlighted the need to count an influx of oilfield workers in southeastern New Mexico, full-time college students and employees at military bases.

Census-takers will confront special challenges in surveying remote desert communities with gaps in communications infrastructure and households that primarily speak Spanish and Native American languages.

New Mexico State To Halt Student Trips To China Amid VirusAssociated Press

New Mexico State University says its study abroad office will not be sending students to China amid a new virus that has sickened thousands and killed more than 100.

University spokeswoman Minerva Baumann told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the school will follow the U.S. State Department's travel warning of "reconsider travel" to China until further notice.

Baumann says New Mexico State doesn't have any outbound students registered through Study Abroad who were planning to study in China this semester.

The move comes after Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, announced that students studying abroad with the school's Shanghai international program will return home this week amid growing concerns of Wuhan coronavirus.

Wuhan is the epicenter of a new virus.

The virus has sickened more than 4,500 people in China, and more than 100 people have died. Symptoms include fever, cough, and in more severe cases, shortness of breath or pneumonia.

University of New Mexico spokesman Dan Jiron said school officials are monitoring events in China but not formal decision has been made on travel restrictions.

New Mexico County Directs Juvenile Detention Center ClosureSanta Few New Mexican, Associated Press

Santa Fe County commissioners have directed employees to close the county's juvenile detention center, citing concerns about rising costs and a decrease in the detention population.

Multiple members of the commission supported shutting down the Youth Development Program, but must inform the union that represents the facility workers, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Tuesday.

County officials expect to make a final decision on the facility's closure at a future meeting.

The number of juveniles held at the center has decreased from 357 in 2017 to 293 in 2019, officials said.

More out-of-county youth were held in the facility last year than county residents, county officials said.

The county receives up to $230 to house a juvenile from another part of the state, a fraction of the cost to operate the facility, officials said. The facility's closure would save the county nearly $1.8 million per year, officials said.

There are currently six statewide detention centers, while Chaves, Taos and McKinley counties have shut down their juvenile detention facilities, officials said.

If the facility in Santa Fe County closes, that leaves juvenile detention centers in Bernalillo, Curry, Doña Ana, Lea and San Juan counties to serve the rest of the state, officials said.

Presidential Task Force On Missing Natives Charts PathAssociated Press

A presidential task force charged with coming up with ways to address cases of missing and slain Native Americans met for the first time Wednesday.

The task force made up of seven federal officials will meet over two years and work with tribes to tailor responses to what has become an epidemic in Indian Country. No single federal database tracks the number of Native Americans or Alaska Natives who are missing or have been killed.

The Justice Department has said the population suffers disproportionately from violence.

The task force announced Wednesday that it will hold the first in a series of listening sessions with tribes on Feb. 12 during a gathering of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington.

It also announced the selection of executive director Marcia Good, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Montana who prosecuted cases out of Indian Country.

The task force will report on its work in November and produce a final report at the end of its second year.

Murder Conviction Overturned In Navajo Reservation KillingAssociated Press

A federal appeals court has overturned a Gallup man's first-degree murder conviction in a 2016 homicide, ruling that the defendant should have been allowed to present evidence that the man killed had used methamphetamine before a fatal fight.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Tuesday grants Brian Tony a new trial in the killing of 44-year-old Pat Garcia on the Navajo Nation's reservation near Church Rock.

Tony denied premeditation and claimed self defense and the trial judge allowed his defense to present evidence that Garcia's behavior was erratic and violent.

However, the judge didn't allow Tony to elicit evidence that Garcia's alleged behavior resulted from being under the influence of methamphetamine.

The trial judge said Tony wasn't entitled to present the drug-use evidence because he hadn't identified a proper purpose, but the appeals court said the defense had done that by arguing that the evidence might have explained Garcia's alleged behavior.

Congressional Candidates Name Their 'Superpowers' At Forum - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

One congressional candidate wishes she could read minds like a superhero, a second regrets watching so much television as a teenager and another says he was bullied and shy as a child.

Eight candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in an open race for New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District answered questions both whimsical and weighty from teenage girls affiliated with the youth empowerment group Girls Inc. at a forum Tuesday night.

Candidates were asked to pick a superpower if they could have one, as they vie for attention in a crowded contest to succeed Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, who is running to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Udall.

Valerie Plame, the former CIA operative and author, said she would like to understand what another person is truly thinking in conversation in the spirit of understanding.

She also touted her toughness as an expert in anti-nuclear proliferation who clashed with the Republican administration of President George W. Bush about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The forum delved into issues of reproductive rights for women, gun safety, environmental policy and what kind of advice candidates would give to themselves if they were teenagers all over again.

On reproductive rights, only state Rep. Joseph Sanchez clearly said that he opposed abortion procedures for late-term pregnancies. The engineer and former electric-coop executive said he overcame shyness and being bullied as a child and wants to bring his expertise in the power grid and solar energy procurement to Congress.

Sandoval County Treasurer Laura Montoya urged teenager moderators to "do you" and embrace their own personalities, recalling awkward years as a youth athlete with size 10 shoes.

Montoya said she had her sights set on Congress since high school, stressing her current active role in advancing state legislation as a local elected official. She said voters have the opportunity to elect the district's first Latina congresswoman — a profile that rival candidate Teresa Leger Fernandez also fits.

A legal adviser to local Native American communities, Teresa Leger joined candidates in calls for a forceful response to revelations about indigenous women who have been killed or are missing.

Santa Fe-based District Attorney Marco Serna said it's too soon to support the so-called Green New Deal proposed by some Democrats to tackle climate change, given New Mexico's heavy reliance on oil and natural gas to pay for public services. He applauded steps to expand renewable sources of electricity.

On advice for his teen self, John Blair, a former deputy secretary of state and openly gay contender for Congress, recalled living "in the closet" during high school urged youths to "genuinely embrace what makes you different because that's what makes you fascinating and interesting when you are older."

The Democratic field also includes Kyle Tisdel, an environmental attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, and Dineh Benally, a former candidate for Navajo Nation  president.

Six Republicans are seeking their party's nomination, according to Federal Election Commission. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 in the 3rd Congressional District.

Gun Legislation Advances With State Senate Committee Vote By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A proposal advanced Tuesday in the New Mexico state Legislature that would allow law enforcement officials or family members to seek court orders to seize firearms temporarily from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. 

A Senate committee endorsed the bill on a party-line vote with Democrats in support. Another committee review awaits before the bill can reach the Senate floor for a possible vote. 

Proponents invoked the toll of firearm suicides and mass shootings.

Opponents warned that lawmakers risk treading on constitutional rights and the presumption of innocence.

Hundreds of people filled the state Senate gallery to listen and comment on the legislation. They included gun-control advocates wearing "Moms Demand Action" T-shirts and more than a dozen county sheriffs who are outspoken opponents of the proposal.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces invoked the August 2019 mass shooting in neighboring El Paso, Texas, that killed 22 people and noted police allegations that the shooter targeted Mexicans.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is pushing for the legislation that follows at least 17 states that have enacted emergency risk protection orders that allows the temporarily seizure firearms. 

Testimony in support of the bill came from Cabinet secretaries for the departments of Public Safety, Health, and Children Youth and Families.

Sheriffs Association President Tony Mace, a Democrat from Cibola County, said outside the proceedings that sheriffs are speaking up for constituents who fear they could be stripped of firearms without due process.

 

New Mexico Recreational Pot Legalization Passes 1st Test - By Russell Contreras Associated Press

A Democrat-backed bill to legalize recreational marijuana businesses in all towns and counties across New Mexico passed its first test late Tuesday amid heighten interested from businesses and health care advocates.

The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 4-3 along party lines to move along the measure that would subsidize medical marijuana and automatically expunge many past pot convictions. The committee had to convene on the Senate floor to accommodate crowds around the proposal.

An initial draft of the bill from Democratic Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque would also override local governments that don't welcome the industry. The condition is an attempt to stamp out black markets.

The future of the bill remains uncertain as it moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where chairman Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a moderate Democrat from Las Cruces, has said he has concerns about legalizing recreational marijuana in the state.

Under the proposal, every recreational dispensary would be required to also offer medical marijuana to patients who qualify under a long list of conditions such as cancer, post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. New Mexico founded its medical cannabis program in 2007.

 

Santa Fe Chooses Finalists For Midtown Campus Redevelopment Associated Press

The city of Santa Fe has named three finalists for the redevelopment of a city-owned campus that was left vacant when the Santa Fe University of Art and Design closed.

The city announced Friday that the finalists include Raffles Education Corp., the Singapore-based education company that at one time expressed interest in buying the campus lease from the company that operated the Santa Fe University of Art and Design before closing the school in 2018.

The others are KDC Real Estate Development and Investments/Cienda Partners of Dallas and Central Park Santa Fe, which is headed by Alan Affeldt, who has restored properties elsewhere in New Mexico.

Santa Fe radio station KSFR reports that the finalists will be asked for additional information to clarify the confidential contents of their project submission packages.

Based on community input, the mixed-use development project will include housing, entrepreneurial businesses, and space for higher education, arts and culture offerings on the 60-plus-acre tract.

Before housing the art and design school, the campus belonged to the College of Santa Fe.

Sheriff In New Mexico To Create Intelligence Division – Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

An intelligence division in Las Cruces is expected to consolidate information from federal databases to pursue criminal trends in the county, a county sheriff in New Mexico said.

The in-house intelligence division will be staffed with sheriff's office staff and outside intelligence analysts from federal programs, Las Cruces Sun-News reports.

It is unclear how much the division would cost.

The Doña Ana County sheriff's office is seeking to have access to federal databases meant for law enforcement with high security clearances, but clearances have not yet been provided, Sheriff Kim Stewart said.

The sheriff's office currently shares pertinent information with federal agencies as part of an informal law enforcement relationship, Stewart said. However, the department does not handle a lot of sensitive information, because the office lacks staff with security clearances, she said.

Databases from agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security could aid the department in pursuing leads to bust bigger criminal operations, Stewart said.

The intelligence division could either consolidate and act on information or distribute it to patrol deputies, she said.

Murder Conviction Overturned In Navajo Reservation Killing - Associated Press

A federal appeals court has overturned a Gallup man's first-degree murder conviction in a 2016 homicide, ruling that the defendant should have been allowed to present evidence that the man killed had used methamphetamine before a fatal fight.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Tuesday grants Brian Tony a new trial in the killing of 44-year-old Pat Garcia on the Navajo Nation's reservation near Church Rock.

Tony denied premeditation and claimed self defense and the trial judge allowed his defense to present evidence that Garcia's behavior was erratic and violent. 

However, the judge didn't allow Tony to elicit evidence that Garcia's alleged behavior resulted from being under the influence of methamphetamine. 

The trial judge said Tony wasn't entitled to present the drug-use evidence because he hadn't identified a proper purpose, but the appeals court said the defense had done that by arguing that the evidence might have explained Garcia's alleged behavior.

Navajo Look To Arizona Utilities To Make Up For Coal Losses - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

The Navajo Nation is looking to Arizona utilities that shared in the power generated on the reservation to help make up for the financial losses from the coal industry.

Navajo leaders have requested nearly $62 million to establish a "just transition" fund to support water infrastructure on the reservation. The tribe also wants a commitment to buy renewable energy from utility-scale projects on its land in an ongoing rate case for Tucson Electric Power.

The appeal could extend to another major state utility and aid other communities that have long-relied on revenue from coal.

Coal-fired power plants and mines have been huge economic drivers in the Four Corners region for decades. The Navajo Generating Station near Page and its feed mine shut down last year. The San Juan Generating Station near Farmington is scheduled to shutter in 2022 and the nearby Four Corners Power Plant in 2031.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told tribal lawmakers gathered in Window Rock for their winter session to curb spending because of an expected $30 million to $50 million revenue shortfall from last year's closure of the Navajo Generating Station alone.

The tribe also requested help to extend power and running water to Navajos who have lived in the shadow of power plants, as well as support to acquire water rights in the Colorado River basin, money to build pipelines and a commitment from the utilities to buy power from tribal facilities.

In New Mexico, lawmakers in 2019 approved landmark legislation clearing the way for the state's main investor-owned utility to divest itself from a coal-fired power plant and guide new investments in renewable energy.

The law aims to ease the economic pains of closing the San Juan Generating Station by allowing the power plant owners to sell bonds to recover investments and fund an estimated $40 million in assistance for displaced workers and economic development programs.

Utility customers will pay off the bonds, and the state will manage funds set up to aid job training and other programs in the affected communities.

Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque contributed to this report.

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