New Mexico gov to abusive caregivers: ‘We’re coming for you’ – By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Any caregivers who mistreat and abuse developmentally disabled or otherwise vulnerable people will be held accountable, New Mexico’s governor and top health officials warned Monday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, members of her cabinet and law enforcement officials gathered at the state Capitol to provide an update on ongoing investigations into an alleged abuse and neglect case involving a developmentally disabled person that was brought to the state’s attention March 1.
The case resulted in the state terminating contracts with four providers in the Albuquerque area. It also prompted what the governor described as a forensic review of the entire developmentally disabled waiver system, which is meant to offer an alternative to institutional care.
Five more cases — including three in which individuals being cared for died — are under investigation. Officials said that they haven’t determined if those deaths are tied to abuse or neglect.
Over the weekend, state health workers visited more than 1,000 people who are part of the federally funded waiver program. As a result, another eight potential cases warrant future review, officials said.
“If you’re not providing the care that you were supposed to provide, we will find you and you will be held accountable. That’s it — zero tolerance in the state of New Mexico. We are coming,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference.
Lujan Grisham, whose sister is developmentally disabled, called the recent cases in New Mexico alarming, and vowed that the state will not tolerate abuse, neglect and exploitation of any vulnerable populations.
Officials with the New Mexico Department of Health have been tight-lipped about the allegations that prompted the initial investigation and the cancellation of the providers’ contracts.
Health Secretary Patrick Allen said Monday that the client involved in the March 1 case suffered life-threatening injuries but didn’t provide further details.
He said that the other instances identified in recent weeks involve neglect such as malnutrition.
Lujan Grisham partly blamed the coronavirus pandemic and strict public health protocols that limited family members and other advocates from visiting patients, for some instances of neglect and abuse going unreported. She said telehealth visits and online wellness checks have been no substitute and the number of referrals for potential abuse or neglect dropped as a result. She suggested that also opened the door for other insidious behavior to go unchecked.
The governor pointed to a recent case in Michigan involving a 71-year-old woman who was born with a spinal deformity that left her unable to care for herself or to communicate. She starved to death in a group home.
Allen said his agency, along with the state’s Aging and Long-Term Services Department, will be working to visit the remaining nearly 5,100 people who are participating in the developmentally disabled waiver program within the next 30 days.
The state also plans to schedule more regular visits going forward and to review entire case files, rather than only what providers submit to Medicaid for reimbursement.
Allen said the reliance on caregivers, limited transportation options, limited access to language interpreters or other assistive devices, and general isolation from the community can put people with disabilities at higher risk.
“Escaping abuse is difficult for any victim, but it’s only compounded when the person abusing you is the one you rely on to help you dress and get out of the house,” he said.
While all of the care givers allegedly involved in the initial March 1 case are no longer are working with clients, no criminal charges have been filed. Authorities stressed Monday that the investigations were ongoing.
One of the providers that had their contract cancelled — an agency that provided residential in-home care for the person — posted a statement on its website saying that it immediately notified state officials after learning of “significant injuries” to one of their clients after a caregiver chose to take that person out of state. They called the case heartbreaking.
The other providers offered case management, behavioral services and physical therapy for the victim. They too have said that they were unaware of the allegations.
Some plan to appeal the state’s decision to cancel their contracts, citing reputations built over many years by serving people with disabilities.
Court inclined toward government view in water rights case – By Jessica Gresko Associated Press
The Supreme Court seems inclined to side with the federal government and a group of states in a dispute with the Navajo Nation over water from the drought-stricken Colorado River.
The high court was hearing arguments Monday in a case that states argue could upend how water is shared in the Western U.S. if the court sides with the tribe.
Water is a critical resource for the Navajo Nation. The mainstream of the Colorado River flows along the northwestern border of the tribe’s reservation, which extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.
And two of the river’s tributaries, the San Juan River and the Little Colorado River, also pass alongside and through the reservation. Still, a third of the some 175,000 people who live on the reservation, the country’s largest, don’t have running water in their homes.
The facts of the case go back to two treaties the tribe and the federal government signed in 1849 and 1868. The second established the reservation as the tribe’s “permanent home” — a promise the Navajo Nation says includes a sufficient supply of water. In 2003 the tribe sued the federal government, arguing that it had failed to protect the Navajo Nation’s water rights to the mainstream of the Colorado River.
A federal trial court dismissed the lawsuit, but an appeals court allowed it to go forward.
The federal government says it has helped the tribe get water from the Colorado River’s tributaries, but that no law or treaty requires the government to address the tribe’s general water needs. Three states, meanwhile — Arizona, Nevada and California — argue the Navajo Nation is attempting to make an end run around a 2006 Supreme Court case that divvied up water in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin.
New Mexico Legislature passes sweeping tax-relief plan – By Morgan Lee Associated Press
New Mexico’s Legislature passed a $1.1 billion tax relief package Saturday at the close of its annual session as lawmakers tapped a financial windfall from oil production in efforts to break through entrenched cycles of poverty with tax refunds to working families with children, reduced tax rates and increased incentives for private industry.
The House gave final approval on a voice vote to an array of tax changes, including $500 individual rebates, tax credits of up to $600 per child, a gradual reduction in taxes on sales and business services, and new incentives for the film industry estimated at $90 million a year.
“Low-income families with children will get more as a result” of the changes, said Democratic state Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, the lead House negotiator on the proposed tax changes.
Republican state Rep. Jason Harper of Rio Rancho said that “everyone is going to get a tax cut — and that’s wonderful.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until April 7 to sign or veto newly approved legislation. A 0.5% decrease in gross receipts taxes on sales and business services will be phased in over several years after the governor cautioned against changes that could undermine crucial public spending on schools and public safety.
State government would forgo an estimated $1 billion of annual income by 2027. Several lawmakers expressed unease with the scale of tax relief, including new film-industry incentives.
“We better pray that the oil and gas industry continues to fog money through the door because if that circumstance does not continue, these subsidies will have to go away,” said Republican state Rep. Larry Scott of Hobbs.
Democratic House Speaker Javier Martínez of Albuquerque said the tax and spending bills aim to diversify the economy and put money in the hands of working families that spend on their children.
“Yes, times are good now. But we’re cognizant that could change,” he said. “That is why investments made in the budget, as well as the tax package, are designed to help diversify our economy.”
Proposed tax credits would offset $2,500 toward the purchase an electric vehicle, or $4,000 for low-income residents. A 20% tax increase on alcohol sales to pay for addiction treatment programs generated praise from legislators — and some criticism that the increase isn’t big enough.
Earlier in the week, the Legislature approved a $9.6 billion general fund budget plan that increases annual spending obligations by 14% or nearly $1.2 billion for the fiscal year running from July 2023 to June 2024, along with more than a $1 billion in direct general-fund spending on infrastructure projects.
The budget plan fulfills Lujan Grisham’s rallying cry to underwrite cradle-to-career public education by expanding no-pay daycare and preschool education and providing tuition-free college, from vocational training to professional certificates and four-year bachelor’s degrees.
At a news conference Saturday, the governor also highlighted legislative initiates that will offer free breakfast and lunch to all public school students while making investments to improve the quality of those meals with grants toward locally grown and raised food. The proposal is sponsored by state Sen. Michael Padilla, who backed 2017 legislation to ensure children can’t be humiliated by school meal debts.
The Democrat-led Legislature adjourned at noon Saturday after sending the governor bills intended to expand access to voting, shore up abortion rights and encourage the safe storage of firearms beyond the reach of children.
During a 60-day session, Legislators passed a voting rights bill to provide automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices, help restore voting rights to felons immediately after incarceration and streamline the distribution of mail-in ballots in future elections. Other provisions facilitate absentee ballot voting in remote Native American communities.
Lawmakers in several Democratic-controlled states are advocating for sweeping voter protections in reaction to what they view as a broad undermining of voting rights by the Supreme Court, Republican-led states and inaction by Congress. Effort to restore voting rights to felons have emerged in many states as an area of rare bipartisan support.
The nation’s rift over abortion policy was on prominent display at the New Mexico state Capitol, as the governor signed a Democratic-sponsored bill to override local abortion-ban ordinances. Legislators sent the governor a second bill that would protect abortion doctors and patients from harassment or interference by out-of-state interests.
The abortion-rights initiatives also provide guaranteed access to gender-affirming health care related to psychological distress over gender identity that doesn’t match a person’s assigned sex.
Bills were consummated with bipartisan support to shore up rural health care networks. Republicans in the legislative minority threw their support behind medical professionals and new limits on malpractice liability at independent health clinics that are a lifeline for rural communities.
House Minority Leader T. Ryan Lane of Aztec said the reforms “make sure that our local doctors remain in our local communities, that they’re not driven out of state because of skyrocketing malpractice rates.”
The budget plan from the Legislature would increase Medicaid payment rates to health care providers.
Concerns about public safety and politically motivated violence loomed over the 60-day legislative session, after police in January arrested a failed Republican candidate in connection with a series of shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers.
As a precaution, lawmakers approved legislation that would allow elected and appointed public officials to keep home addresses confidential on a variety of otherwise public documents.
Legislators also passed a Republican-sponsored bill to apply criminal penalties to so-called straw purchases of firearms on behalf of another person who can’t legally possess a gun.
New Mexico opts for veto power on spent nuclear fuel debate – By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
New Mexico’s governor on Friday signed legislation aimed at keeping spent nuclear fuel produced by commercial U.S. nuclear power plants from being shipped to the state, just hours after the measure cleared its final legislative hurdle.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wasted no time adding her signature after the New Mexico House voted 35-28 in favor of the bill following a lengthy debate. Five Democrats joined Republicans in opposition, arguing that the measure would challenge longstanding federal authority over nuclear safety matters and lead to new court challenges.
The bill from Democratic state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, of Las Cruces, will impact a proposed multibillion-dollar facility in southeastern New Mexico that would have the capacity to temporarily store up to 8,680 metric tons of used uranium fuel. Future expansion could make room for as many as 10,000 canisters of spent fuel over six decades.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission may announce a decision soon on whether to grant a license for the project spearheaded by Holtec International, which has spent an estimated $80 million over the past eight years on the approval process.
Lujan Grisham and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have voiced strong opposition to building the facility along the state’s border with Texas. Both states sued the federal government over the issue, and top elected officials in Texas were unsuccessful in their efforts to stop a similar facility in neighboring Andrews County from being licensed.
If a license is granted for the complex in New Mexico, it would still need permits from the state Environment Department. That’s where critics say the state could lean on the legislation and halt the project.
Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat, argued that there has been no incentive for states with nuclear power plants to find permanent solutions for dealing with spent fuel. As long as New Mexico is seen as an option, those states won’t be concerned with the long-term effects, she said.
“The trouble is this is a forever decision. We don’t get to decide, oh, let’s not do this anymore and take it away,” Chasey said. “So think about the fact that if it were such a profitable and good thing, then the states that produced it would have it near their facilities.”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear reactors across the country produce more than 2,000 metric tons of radioactive waste a year, with most of it remaining on-site because there’s nowhere else to put it.
Since the federal government has failed to build a permanent repository, it reimburses utilities to house the fuel. That cost is expected to stretch into the tens of billions of dollars over the next decade, according to a review by independent government auditors.
The fuel is sitting at temporary storage sites in nearly three dozen states, either enclosed in steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers known as casks.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has talked about revisiting recommendations made a decade ago by a blue-ribbon commission on America’s nuclear future. In November, her agency issued a request seeking input on a consent-based siting process to identify locations to store commercial spent nuclear fuel.
Despite opposition from environmentalists, the Biden administration has pointed to nuclear power as essential to achieving its goals to create a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035.
Some lawmakers from southeastern New Mexico said local elected officials and residents would welcome the Holtec project and that visits to some of the current storage sites near power plants have shown the casks are safe.
They also touted the safety of transporting the material by rail to New Mexico, saying armed guards would be aboard the trains and that testing has shown the casks would not release radiation in the event of a derailment.
Republican Rep. Cathrynn Brown, whose district includes the proposed Holtec site, said the region already is home to the federal government’s only underground repository for Cold War-era waste generated during nuclear research and bomb-making. It also hosts a uranium enrichment plant.
The legislation sends a message to companies to “invest all you want and then we’re going to pull the rug out from under you,” Brown said. “And I don’t think that’s fair.”
Still, other lawmakers have voiced concerns about the project since it would be located within the Permian Basin, one of the most productive oil fields in the world. New Mexico gets a significant portion of its revenue from drilling.
Native American groups blast governor for agency appointment – By Susan Montoya Bryan And Morgan Lee Associated Press
A coalition of advocates dedicated to stemming the tide of violence and missing persons cases in Indian Country is demanding more transparency from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, saying there should be greater accountability in the system for vetting state-appointed positions that serve Indigenous communities.
About 30 protesters gathered Friday in the state Capitol rotunda to voice concerns about the Democratic governor’s contested pick to head the state’s Indian Affairs Department. They want the governor to withdraw her appointment of James Mountain, citing charges he once faced.
They were joined by legislators, including Democratic Sen. Shannon Pinto of the Navajo community of Tohatchi. The Navajo Nation president also has said he cannot support the appointment.
“For so many survivors, when we see James Mountain, we see our abusers,” said Angel Charley, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.
She said Mountain’s appointment has overshadowed a stalled proposal in the Legislature to make crime victims’ reparations funds available to the families of missing and slain Native Americans.
“He knows how much division there is because of his nomination,” she said. “Step down.”
Lujan Grisham’s appointment has sent shockwaves through tribal communities. While the governor so far has continued to defend Mountain, she has yet to submit his nomination to the Senate for confirmation despite the legislative session ending at noon Saturday.
“I appreciate the passion. But I think that some of the efforts here are a bit unfair and are very misguided,” Lujan Grisham said Friday at a news conference.
Many in the Democratic-led Legislature have remained mum about the governor’s choice not to push for a hearing, which would offer a public forum for Mountain to be vetted.
A former San Ildefonso Pueblo governor, Mountain was once was indicted on charges that included criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery of a household member. The charges were dropped in 2010, with prosecutors saying they did not have enough evidence to go to trial.
The governor has said those who disagree should respect that charges against Mountain were dismissed.
“I do think that some of that passion about a zero-tolerance standard is pretty interesting in this regard: dismissed case, old,” Lujan Grisham said. “He’s defending himself effectively. I feel terrible for his whole family.”
The coalition has said New Mexico continues to have the highest rate of missing and slain Native American relatives and that “we are at a critical turning point as an Indigenous people.”
“The pervasive culture of violence has normalized behaviors that were once unthinkable in our communities,” the coalition said in a statement. “We are reduced to speaking in hushed whispers about violence that we have not only personally experienced, but that we experience daily in our homes and communities.”
“When we have the courage to speak out, we are often met with blame and stigma, as though we have caused these problems ourselves,” the statement continued.
Aside from recalling Mountain’s appointment, the coalition is demanding a rigorous vetting process for all state-appointed positions that serve Indigenous communities and that any nominee with a court record or indictment related to rape or domestic violence be disqualified.
They also are seeking the creation of a community advisory committee to help vet state-appointed tribal leadership.
“We cannot rely solely on the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Navajo Nation leaders, Apache leaders, and/or Indigenous male state leaders for the vetting of candidates, as we have learned over the years that tribal leaders actively participate in the patriarchal culture of protecting perpetrators,” the coalition said.
The groups also want a formal apology from Lujan Grisham “for this outrageous nomination” and demanded that an Indigenous woman be appointed as head of the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs.
Mountain has not directly addressed the concerns about his nomination. In a letter directed at state lawmakers, his daughter, Leah Mountain, described him as a devoted father who instilled cultural identity, confidence and aspiration in her after her mother left. She said the allegations against him are false.
Mountain still can serve as head of Indian Affairs without confirmation, and the next likely opportunity for the full Senate to vote on confirming him wouldn’t come until January 2024.
New Mexico passes bill to safeguard abortion providers – Morgan Lee Associated Press
New Mexico legislators raced against the clock Friday to advance hard-fought proposals aimed at safeguarding abortion access, delivering tax relief and reducing gun violence in the final hours of a 60-day legislative session.
Republicans in the legislative minority raised a series of objections during a House floor debate to a bill that aims to protect abortion providers and patients from out-of-state interference, prosecution or extradition attempts.
In a victory for abortion rights advocates in New Mexico and states where the procedure is banned, the House secured final passage of that bill, in a 38-30 vote with Republicans and some Democrats in opposition. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to sign it. The governor already signed a law to block local abortion-ban ordinances.
Lujan Grisham on Friday said it was increasingly important for New Mexico to broaden its protections for access to abortion, along with gender-affirming health care, amid litigation backed by Republican-led states that threatens the nationwide availability of a leading abortion medication.
“We’re broadening those protections to everyone who should be constitutionally protected to make their own decisions … in light of, right now, Republican attorneys general and others trying to restrict access to medication abortion,” Lujan Grisham said. “New Mexico stood up for science, for women.”
Legislators have until noon on Saturday to send other bills to the governor for consideration.
Votes were pending Friday on gun control measures including a prohibition on firearms at polling places during an election.
Republican and Democratic legislators found common ground in a bill that would allow state prosecution and apply felony penalties to straw purchases of firearms, in which a weapon is bought legally in order to sell it to someone who can’t lawfully possess a gun.
A 28-10 vote of the Senate sent the bill to the governor’s desk. Sponsors include Republican House minority leaders T. Ryan Lane of Aztec and former police captain and Republican state Rep. Bill Rehm of Albuquerque.
It was unclear whether other gun bills would come to a final vote, including a proposed ban on assault rifles, a 14-day waiting period on most gun purchases and a proposal to raise the minimum purchase age to 21 for some firearms. Lujan Grisham signed a bill last week that makes it a crime to store firearms in places that children could access.
At a news conference Friday, Lujan Grisham acknowledged a strong culture of gun ownership in New Mexico, including women, and said the state has steadily adopted gun safety measures with that in mind since she took office in 2019.
“If you take that context and you look at universal background checks, red-flag laws, the relinquishment of a firearm in certain domestic violence cases — and the safe-storage and the straw-sales purchase bill — we’re doing a lot more on guns in a short amount of time than most states certainly around us,” she said.
In the closing days of the legislature, Republicans rallied around a bill to overhaul medical malpractice regulations. The initiative aims to lower insurance rates for independent clinics and attract more medical professionals to state, especially in remote, rural areas. The Democratic governor helped negotiate provisions of the bill and is expected to sign it into law.
The Democrat-led Legislature passed bills in the final days of the session that would boost pay for statewide elected officials, including the attorney general and secretary of state.
Among criminal justice initiatives, the governor signed legislation establishing penalties for organized retail crime and end the possibility of life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed as children.
A bill that would eliminate court fees that can have a disproportionate effect on the poor won Senate endorsement Friday on a 35-1 vote, advancing to the governor’s desk. Fines imposed as a punishment for an offense would not be waived.
Lujan Grisham has signed a bill that ends the widespread practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of overdue court debts or missed court hearings. Sponsors of the bill, including Republican state Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, say that debt-based license suspensions are counterproductive.
Another bill on the governor’s desk would use opioid settlement funds to provide treatment at county jails to inmates for drug addiction and alcohol dependency, by administering drugs including methadone and buprenorphine that can stop drug cravings without causing a euphoric high.
The governor on Thursday signed a bill that will establish an office of renewable energy to oversee the expansion of wind and solar-energy production leases on state trust land.
The State Land Office would oversee the new division. The agency that once focused on oil and natural gas development has expanded renewable energy development in recent years to oversee 27 leases for wind energy production.
Haaland criticized over ‘difficult’ choice on Willow project – By Matthew Daly Associated Press
In early March, President Joe Biden met with members of Alaska’s bipartisan congressional delegation as they implored him to approve a contentious oil drilling project in their state. Around the same time, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held a very different meeting on the same topic.
Gathering at Interior headquarters a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) from the White House, leaders of major environmental organizations and Indigenous groups pleaded with Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member, to use her authority to block the Willow oil project. Environmental groups call the project a “carbon bomb” that would betray pledges made by Biden — and Haaland — to fight climate change and have mounted a social media #StopWillow campaign that has been seen hundreds of millions of times.
The closed-door meeting, which was described by two participants who insisted on not being identified because of its confidential nature, grew emotional as participants urged Haaland to oppose a project many believed Biden appeared likely to approve even as it contradicted his agenda to cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Haaland, who opposed Willow when she served in Congress, choked up as she explained that the Interior Department had to make difficult choices, according to the participants. Many Native groups in Alaska support Willow as a job creator and economic lifeline.
Less than two weeks later, the Biden administration announced it was approving Willow, an $8 billion drilling plan by ConocoPhillips on Alaska’s petroleum-rich North Slope.
Haaland, who had not publicly commented on Willow in two years as head of the U.S. agency overseeing the project, was not involved in the announcement and did not sign the approval order, leaving that to her deputy, Tommy Beaudreau.
In an online video released Monday night, 10 hours after the decision was made public, Haaland said she and Biden, both Democrats, believe the climate crisis “is the most urgent issue of our lifetime.”
She called Willow “a difficult and complex issue that was inherited” from previous administrations and noted that ConocoPhillips has long held leases to drill for oil on the site, in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
“As a result, we have limited decision space,” she said, adding that officials focused on reducing the project’s footprint and minimizing impacts to people and wildlife. The final approval reflects a substantially smaller project than ConocoPhillips originally proposed and includes a pledge by the Houston-based oil company to relinquish nearly 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares) of leased land that will no longer be developed, she said.
The video had received more than 100,000 views by Friday.
Haaland declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, the department said Haaland had been “actively involved” in the Willow decision from the start and met with Alaska Natives on both sides of the issue, conservation and other groups and members of Congress.
Dallas Goldtooth, a senior strategist for the Indigenous Environmental Network, called it “problematic” that Haaland’s video was the Biden administration’s primary voice on Willow. Biden himself has not spoken publicly on the project.
“They use people of color for cover on these decisions,” said Goldtooth, a member of Mdewakanton Dakota tribe.
The White House pushed back on the idea, saying in a statement Friday that as interior secretary, “of course the video came from her.”
But Haaland’s body language — at times looking away from the camera — made her appear “very uncomfortable” in the two-minute video, Goldtooth said.
Haaland’s statement “did not seem to be a wholehearted defense of the decision,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity, another environmental group. “It was almost an apology.”
Allowing Haaland to be the administration’s public face on Willow strengthens Biden’s expected reelection run by allowing him to avoid public scrutiny on an issue on which some of his most ardent supporters disagree with him, environmentalists said.
“It’s clear-cut D.C. politics,” Goldtooth said. “I’ve seen this play run before,” including when former Biden environmental justice adviser Cecilia Martinez was put forward to address tribal concerns about two other energy projects, the Dakota Access and Line 3 oil pipelines in the upper Midwest.
Asked about Willow on Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the oil company “has a legal right to those leases,” adding: “The department’s options are limited when there are legal contracts in place.”
Goldtooth and others involved in the Willow fight say the project was largely advanced by Beaudreau, Haaland’s deputy, who grew up in Alaska and has a close relationship with the state’s two Republican senators. Beaudreau is especially close to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a former Senate Energy chair who has cooperated with Biden on a range of issues. Murkowski played a key role in Haaland’s confirmation, and she and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia teamed up to get Beaudreau installed as deputy after they objected to Haaland’s first choice, Elizabeth Klein.
Murkowski told reporters this week that she and other Alaska officials had long realized that the decision on Willow was likely to be made by the White House, despite repeated comments from Jean-Pierre that the decision was up to Interior.
The senator, who personally lobbied Biden on Willow for nearly two years, said she reminded him, “Cooperation goes both ways.”
Despite the White House involvement, Haaland has been faulted for the decision to approve Willow. New Mexico’s senior Democratic senator, Martin Heinrich, singled her out for criticism in a rare rebuke of a fellow New Mexico Democrat. Haaland represented the state in Congress before becoming Interior secretary.
“The Western Arctic is one of the last great wild landscapes on the planet and as public land it belongs to every American,” Heinrich said in a statement. “Industrial development in this unspoiled landscape will not age well.”
Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., who holds Haaland’s former seat in Congress, said she joined millions of people, “including Indigenous leaders, scientists and lawmakers, in opposing the Willow Project.” She urged the Biden administration to reconsider the project and its consequences for global climate change.
Native American tribes in the Southwestern U.S. have been watching Willow closely, concerned about any implications it could have for development in culturally significant areas, including the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.
A federal appeals court has ruled that the Interior Department failed to consider the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the approval of nearly 200 drilling permits near the Chaco site.
Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, visited Chaco in 2021 and told tribal leaders that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management would work toward withdrawing hundreds of square miles from development. She also committed to taking a broader look at how federal land across the region can be better managed while taking into account environmental effects and cultural preservation.
Mario Atencio, of Diné CARE, a Navajo environmental group, said he understands that the Interior Department faces pressure from GOP lawmakers to increase drilling, as well as conflicting court rulings on a pause ordered by Biden on oil leasing on public land.
“We’re very aware that it’s a game of inches sometimes, and there’s a little discretion in some places, and we are just trying to have just as much visibility as the oil and gas industry has,” said Atencio, who is Navajo.
The Willow project has divided Alaska Native groups. Supporters call the project balanced and say communities would benefit from taxes generated by Willow. But City of Nuiqsut Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, whose community of about 525 people is closest to the proposed development, opposes the project and worries about impacts on caribou and her residents’ subsistence lifestyles.
Hartl, of the biological diversity group, said Willow was approved by the White House for clear political reasons. “They cared more about Lisa Murkowski’s vote than frankly they did the climate,” he said.
Albuquerque man behind fatal crash still missing year later – Associated Press
It’s now been a year since a man convicted of street racing and causing a crash that killed an Albuquerque father of six never showed up for sentencing.
Prosecutors told KRQE-TV on Friday that they are far from giving up on locating Francisco Reyes Merlos.
“We will find him. I can assure you that. It may not be tomorrow or the next day. We have leads. We will pursue this investigation,” Bernalillo County District Attorney Sam Bregman said.
Reyes Merlos “will absolutely” be charged with new crimes.
Reyes Merlos was sentenced in February 2022 to four years in prison after entering a plea deal in the death of Travis Dehart. He had faced vehicular homicide and other charges. The judge allowed him to leave after he promised to turn himself in the following month.
Authorities say Reyes Merlos was street racing in April 2019 when he crashed into Dehart and his 15-year-old daughter. The father was teaching the teen how to drive.
Police say Dehart was killed instantly. The daughter was injured but survived.
Investigators say Reyes Merlos was doing 89 mph (143 kph) down a city street.
Before Reyes Merlos left the courtroom that day, he had apologized to Dehart’s family.
“I’ve since then matured, and I’m no longer that kid from three years ago, speeding up and down Montgomery,” Reyes Merlos said at the time.
Body found in Albuquerque duplex after fire is extinguished – Associated Press
A body was found inside an Albuquerque home after a fire was extinguished and the death is being investigated as a homicide, according to authorities.
City fire crews were called to the single-story duplex around 7 a.m. Saturday and the blaze was quickly put out.
Albuquerque police said their homicide unit arrived on the scene because of injuries to the body that was found inside the residence.
Authorities said the man’s body hasn’t been identified yet and the cause of death will be determined by an autopsy.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
The blaze displaced a family who lived in the other half of the duplex.