Violence looms over New Mexico Legislature as work begins – By Morgan Lee Associated Press
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for new gun control laws and greater accountability for firearm manufacturers while denouncing recent drive-by shootings of the homes of Democratic lawmakers in Albuquerque in her State of the State address Tuesday at the start of the annual legislative session.
New Mexico’s Democratic-led Legislature is preparing to tap a multibillion-dollar budget surplus as it takes on daunting challenges of crime, lagging student achievement in schools and below-average workforce participation during its 60-day legislative session.
The governor and leading Democratic legislators want to expand preschool access, lengthen annual instructional time at public schools, increase public salaries and provide at least $1 billion in tax relief and rebates.
But concerns about politically motivated violence loomed over the proceedings after police on Monday arrested a failed Republican candidate in connection with a series of shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers in Albuquerque.
Addressing a joint session of the state House and Senate, Lujan Grisham condemned what she called “despicable acts of political violence” and a “sickening scourge of gun violence that has infected our nation.” She announced proposals to ban assault-style weapons, allow victims of gun violence to bring civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers, and crack down on black-market sales that funnel guns to ineligible buyers.
“We all know that we cannot keep our people safe, we cannot keep our police officers and their families safe, if weapons of war continue to flood our neighborhoods,” Lujan Grisham said.
“If we are bold and clear in our knowledge that now is the time to do the right thing, we can save lives and protect futures,” Lujan Grisham said. “I’m not going to let up and I know that there will be other ideas and other strategies, and I know that we’re going to work together.”
Republicans in the legislative minority also condemned the attack on politicians in Albuquerque — and said that gun control measures won’t make people safer.
“I got concerned, I made sure that my own firearms were really close at hand,” said state Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho. “Putting in more gun-control laws doesn’t allow us to protect ourselves.”
Republican state legislators hope to reinstate immunity from prosecution for policing agencies and tighten requirements for pretrial release of people charged of crimes.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe says he’ll sponsor a bill that bans firearms at all polling locations in response to the fears and frustrations of election workers.
Lujan Grisham staked her reelection heavily on her support for preserving widespread access to abortion as a foundation of women’s rights and democracy following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year that overturned Roe v. Wade and left legalization up to the states.
Leading Democratic legislators hope to send her a bill that would prohibit restrictions on abortion by local governments and shield patients and abortion doctors from harassment by out-of-state interests.
New Mexico also is grappling with the aftermath of catastrophic 2022 wildfires linked to climate change and drought.
State legislators want to make the state more resilient to climate-related disasters by speeding up the delivery of federal disaster aid and allowing small water districts to band together as they rebuild from wildfires.
Lujan Grisham hopes to fund the first New Mexico-based corps of elite smokejumper firefighters to ensure a rapid response to future fires. On Tuesday, she proposed the creation of a $75 million trust fund to address root causes of water scarcity and climate change.
State government income is forecast to reach new heights — $12 billion in revenue during the fiscal year that runs from July 2023 though June 2024. That’s about $3.6 billion in excess of current annual spending commitments.
Lujan Grisham urged legislators to tap that windfall to back her “cradle-to-career” strategy of expanding free public education, with new investments this year in daycare, preschool and tuition-free college as enrollments swell at public universities.
“Our commitment to making education accessible and affordable is lifting families out of poverty,” Lujan Grisham said.
Legislators in the Republican minority say more public spending hasn’t translated into greater student achievement on Lujan Grisham’s watch. They want greater competition among K-12 schools, wider options for students — with public funding of private and parochial schools.
“I think more choice for families … to have that power back in the hands of parents, to chose where their children will get the best quality education, is where we have to go,” Brandt said.
The governor and leading legislators are proposing a pay raise for state workers and public school educators of at least 4%. Taxpayers would pay for educators’ individual health care premiums under a proposal from the governor.
Lawmakers also hope to sock away billions of dollars into specialized trust funds, and use future investment earnings to underwrite programs ranging from smoking cessation to highway construction.
Police arrest failed candidate in shootings at Democrats – By Rio Yamat And Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
A 39-year-old felon who overwhelmingly lost a bid for the New Mexico statehouse as a Republican paid for four men to shoot at Democratic lawmakers’ homes in recent months, including one house where a 10-year-old girl was asleep, police said.
The case against Solomon Peña, who had posted photos of himself online with Donald Trump campaign material, is one of dozens across the United States where people have threatened, and in some cases attempted to carry out, violence against members of Congress, school board members and other election officials. In Kansas, a trial began this week for a man who prosecutors say threatened to kill a congressman.
Officials accuse Peña of paying $500 to four men to shoot at the homes of Democratic lawmakers. He went along for the final drive-by, his gun jamming as bullets ripped into the bedroom of the girl, police said.
The criminal complaint against the self-proclaimed “MAGA king” describes how anger over his landslide defeat in November led to attacks at the homes of four Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico’s largest city. A SWAT team arrested him Monday afternoon, police said.
Peña spent nine years behind bars after his arrest in April 2007 for stealing electronics and other goods from several retail stores as part of what authorities described as a burglary crew. He was released from prison in March 2016, and had his voting rights restored after completing five years probation in April 2021, corrections officials said.
Peña ran unsuccessfully in November against incumbent state Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, the longtime Democrat representing House District 14 in the South Valley. Peña got 26% of the vote.
Peña, whose criminal past came up during the campaign, repeatedly made baseless claims that the election was “rigged” against him.
“I dissent. I am the MAGA king,” he posted the day after the election.
On Nov. 15, he posted an image of himself in a “Make America Great Again” hoodie, saying “Trump just announced for 2024. I stand with him. I never conceded my HD 14 race. Now researching my options.”
Peña has an initial court appearance Wednesday on charges including multiple counts of shooting at a home and shooting from a motor vehicle, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, conspiracy and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
No one was wounded in the drive-by shootings. The New Mexico Republican Party said that: “If Peña is found guilty, he must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Peña’s candidacy was challenged in state district court, with his opponent saying he wasn’t eligible to seek office because he had not been pardoned by the governor, nor did he request to be pardoned.
The court sided with Peña, finding that a state law that prohibits a felon from holding public office was unconstitutional. An appeal is pending.
Police said Peña had previously shown up uninvited at the homes of two elected officials with what he claimed were documents proving that he had won his race. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, or any irregularity involving enough votes to change a result, in New Mexico in 2020 or 2022.
The criminal complaint says that Peña hired a father and son with criminal histories of their own as well as two brothers whom authorities have yet to identify. In one of their text messages, Peña complained that officials certifying the election in November “sold us out to the highest bidder.”
The shootings began Dec. 4, when eight rounds were fired at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa. Days later, state Rep. Javier Martinez’s home was targeted. On Dec. 11, more than a dozen rounds were fired at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, police said.
The final related shooting, targeting state Sen. Linda Lopez’s home, unfolded in the midnight hour of Jan. 3. Police said more than a dozen shots were fired, including three that Lopez said passed through the bedroom of her sleeping 10-year-old daughter.
The witness said one of the men told the shooters to aim above the homes’ windows to avoid striking anyone inside. Peña wanted them to shoot lower.
Peña’s insistence that the men be more aggressive made the other participants uneasy “since they knew that doing so would likely end in death or injury,” said the witness, who faces criminal charges and has asked for leniency. Authorities said no such promises have been made.
The witness said Peña was there at the Lopez shooting “to ensure better target acquisition.”
The witness said Peña’s gun jammed and did not fire correctly but one of the other men fired multiple rounds from a Glock pistol into the Lopez home.
An appointed public defender for Peña did not immediate return messages seeking comment.
The shooting spree was “scary, not just from my personal perspective, but the fact that our democratic processes that we believed so much in — and that our country was founded on — would be targeted in that way,” Martinez, the Democratic lawmaker, said at a news conference on his first day as the top-ranked House leader.
“It’s long overdue that we lower the temperature. These are the things that can happen when the rhetoric gets out of hand,” Martínez said.
Lawmakers in the Democratic-run state have had to tread carefully over the years not to infringe on the right to bear arms, and it was only recently that firearms were banned from the state capitol. In Albuquerque, authorities have been struggling to address escalating gun violence and consecutive years of record homicides.
Detectives identified Peña as their key suspect using a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, witness interviews and bullet casings collected near the lawmakers’ homes.
Technology that can detect the sound of gunfire led an officer to Lopez’s neighborhood shortly after the shots were fired.
The officer found bullet casings matching a handgun found later that morning in a Nissan Maxima registered to Peña. Around 1:30 a.m., about an hour after the shooting at Lopez’s home, police stopped the Nissan about 4 miles from the lawmaker’s neighborhood.
The driver, identified as Jose Trujillo, was arrested on an outstanding warrant, leading to the discovery of more than 800 fentanyl pills and two firearms in the car.
Authorities said Tuesday the investigation was ongoing and more arrests were expected.
Moving species emerges as last resort as climate warms – By Christina Larson And Matthew Brown Associated Press
In a desperate effort to save a seabird species in Hawaii from rising ocean waters, scientists are moving chicks to a new island hundreds of miles away.
Moving species to save them — once considered taboo — is quickly gaining traction as climate change upends habitats. Similar relocations are being suggested for birds, lizards, butterflies and even flowers.
Concerns persist that the novel practice could cause unintended harm the same way invasive plants and animals have wreaked havoc on native species.
But for the Tristram’s storm petrels on northeastern Hawaii’s Tern Island, which is just 6 feet above sea level, the relocation of about 40 chicks to artificial burrows more than 500 miles away on Oahu could offer new hope. The species is considered vulnerable to extinction, and the goal is for the young petrels return to their new home when old enough to breed.
“Tern Island is washing away,” said biologist Eric VanderWerf of the nonprofit Pacific Rim Conservation. “Climate change is causing a greater need for this — for taking a species outside its known historical range.”
A pending change to the U.S. Endangered Species Act by the Biden administration would make it easier to relocate some of the most imperiled species to places where they’ve not previously been recorded.
In response, state wildlife officials and scientists have suggested moving a portion of some species struggling with climate change, including Key deer of southern Florida, the Karner blue butterfly of the Midwest and Northeast, desert flowers in Nevada and California and the St. Croix ground lizard in the Virgin Islands.
Republicans in western states — including Montana, New Mexico and Arizona — are against the proposal saying it could wreak ecological havoc as “invasive species” get purposefully introduced.
The proposal, which federal officials expect to finalize in June, reflects a “fundamental shift in the way we think of species protection and conservation,” said University of Notre Dame biologist Jason McLachlan.
The issue goes beyond endangered species, McLachlan said, and raises questions about what should be considered “native” now that shifting temperatures are pushing some species to higher elevations or toward the planet’s poles.
Comparable temperature shifts in the past occurred over millennia, but the present one is happening over just decades and is drastically upending ecosystems. “Eventually we’re going to have to start thinking about it in ways that will make people — including me — uncomfortable,” he said. “To say this species is OK and this species is not OK, that’s asking a lot of human beings.”
To save storm petrels, VanderWerf said, scientists need to act before populations have crashed. “In 30 years, these birds will certainly be rare, if we don’t do something about it,” he said.
Relocation of species outside historical ranges is still a rarity, but U.S. wildlife officials have identified numerous threatened and endangered plants and animals already being affected by climate change: glacial stoneflies in Montana, emperor penguins in Antarctica, the Mt. Rainier ptarmigan, the saltmarsh sparrow of the Atlantic coast and numerous birds of Hawaii.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Karen Armstrong said there are no current proposals to establish new populations of those particular species. “In the future, some species’ ranges may shift due to climate change, or their current habitats might become unsuitable due to invasive species encroachment,” Armstrong said in an email. “We view experimental population establishment outside of their historical ranges as a potential tool for their management and conservation.”
One plan now being considered by U.S. wildlife officials concerns birds native to Guam, where kingfishers were decimated by brown tree snakes accidentally brought to the island around 1950 on military cargo ships.
The last 29 wild Guam kingfishers were captured in the 1980s and have been bred in captivity to buy time. Under a pending proposal, nine kingfishers would be released back into the wild beginning this year on Palmyra Island, more than 3,600 miles away.
If a relocation is successful, the kingfishers would become one of the few species ever upgraded from “extinct in the wild” to “critically endangered.”
The hope is that the Guam kingfisher, also known locally as sihek, will eventually be returned to their native island, if the tree snake is controlled, said Erica Royer, a bird expert at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, D.C.
“This kind of intensive management is necessary for us to have a reasonable shot at holding onto some species,” said Don Lyons with National Audubon Society’s Seabird Institute.
Yet the potential danger — and scientific debate — lies in what humans can’t predict. Humanity has been moving species around for centuries, often inadvertently and sometimes causing great harm.
Examples abound: Asian carp have spread through rivers and streams across the U.S. Starlings from Europe destroy crops and drive out songbirds. Zebra mussels from Eurasia decimate native populations. And kudzu vines from Japan planted to stabilize soils have spread to dozens of states where they choke out other plants.
Scientist Mark Schwartz at the University of California, Davis said he was initially skeptical of moving species for conservation when biologists began discussing the idea about a decade ago. The rapid rate of extinctions more recently has him thinking that sitting idle could be a costly error.
“Many, many species” must be moved or could go extinct, said James Watson, a conservation scientist at the University of Queensland in Australia, where increasingly severe, climate-fueled wildfires have forced conversations on relocations. Unprecedented fires three years ago likely destroyed the last habitats of some endangered species, he said.
“We’ve already played Russian Roulette with the climate, we’re already on that ski run – we might as well take some more risks.”
New Mexico top prosecutor to focus on child civil rights – By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
New Mexico’s top prosecutor wants to start a conversation with lawmakers and the governor in hopes of charting a new course for a state beleaguered by violent crime, poor educational outcomes and persistently dismal child welfare rankings.
Attorney General Raúl Torrez, who took office Jan. 1 after serving as the district attorney in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district, wants to focus on the civil rights of children by providing them with legal representation.
The Democrat says New Mexico is off the charts when it comes to abuse and neglect — and creating a special unit within the attorney general’s office could help turn the tide when it comes to combatting adverse childhood experiences that often result in youth ending up in the criminal justice system.
Torrez outlined priorities for his administration and for the legislative session that begins Tuesday in a recent interview with The Associated Press.
While acknowledging the suite of public safety, bail reform and gun control bills to be introduced by lawmakers, he said he wants more of the focus to be on the role that child well-being plays in the state’s problems.
Torrez worked on one of the state’s highest profile child abuse cases while in private practice and was often asked as district attorney about the source of Albuquerque’s crime and public safety problems.
He said there’s been a lot of talk about drugs and guns but he believes it comes back to what happens when children end up in dangerous or destabilized homes or don’t get the help they need in the classroom.
“The people that we’re trying to detain today are usually kids that have been failed by the system 15 and 20 years before. That’s where they end up,” he said. “And so what I’m trying to do now is move the lens and move my focus not away from public safety, but further upstream to see if there’s a way for us to prevent people from coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.”
Advocates who have been pushing for years for child welfare reforms in New Mexico are excited about the prospects. Some describe it as a “public health crisis,” pointing to scientific research that shows abuse, neglect and other adverse experiences have been known to result in negative outcomes later in life.
New Mexico would join California and other states that have special offices focused on children’s rights or independent oversight panels that monitor child welfare agencies.
West Virginia, for example, has an office dedicated to educational stability for foster youth and juvenile justice and more than a dozen other state legislatures enacted bills in 2022 to establish advisory councils, boards and study committees focused on streamlining child services and accountability.
In New Mexico, the Children, Youth and Families Department has experienced turnover during Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and the current secretary — retired Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil — has vowed to make changes.
The agency has been criticized not only for removing children from their homes faster than they should have but also for not taking them into care when abuse was suspected, resulting in legal action.
Maralyn Beck, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Child First Network, described the system as broken and said she’s encouraged by the attorney general’s focus on the issue.
“Solutions exist,” she said. “We have to prioritize this as a true crisis that needs addressing while understanding we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Veronica Montano-Pilch, executive director of New Mexico Kids Matter, said her organization has about 500 court-appointed volunteers around the state who look out for children as their cases work through the system and working with Torrez’s office would help.
“Say there’s a waterfall and if you’re at the bottom and you’re just pulling people out, what good is that?” Montano-Pilch said. “They’re already wet, they’re already drowning.”
New Mexico persistently ranks as worst in the U.S. when it comes to factors of child well-being. The latest report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows one in four New Mexico children live in poverty and more than one-third have parents without secure employment. New Mexico also has the nation’s highest rate of children suffering from adverse experiences, according to national studies and the state’s top health officials.
Legislation aimed at fixing the problems isn’t new. Last year, lawmakers approved a measure creating a new office that would provide legal representation for certain children, parents and guardians whose children are at risk of being placed in state custody.
However, a bill that would have created an ombudsman oversight position stalled in the state Senate last year.
The attorney general said he believes the level of frustration has reached a point where people are ready for change.
“They’re tired of seeing broken institutions,” he said. “They’re tired of seeing these kids placed in harm’s way and we have the ability to do something. Other states have these kind of systems in place and I think we’re ready for it here in New Mexico.”
Clean air in schools could become New Mexico law – Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico
Even though New Mexico requires public schools to upgrade their heating and air conditioning systems to clean indoor air well enough to remove coronavirus and other harms, people can’t just look up whether their local school district actually meets those standards.
A legislative proposal — with backing from unions representing New Mexico teachers and sheet metal workers — seeks to change that.
COVID is highlighting the need for action on ventilation systems, said Rep. Christine Chandler. She and Rep. Joy Garratt, a former educator, are sponsoring House Bill 30, which would create the Public School Ventilation Act.
“Having good airflow and good systems in place will affect staff health and student health in a way that’s very important,” Chandler said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 95% of all children in the U.S. have been infected at least once.
States have been slow to act on ventilation, she said, even though the Environmental Protection Agency has been raising it as an issue and not getting much traction, either.
“We don’t have the staff or capacity at PED to go out there and go verify every single building in doing that,” said Antonio Ortiz, finance and operations director of the New Mexico Public Education Department in an interview last year.
The federal government has allocated millions of dollars in pandemic relief to pay for filters and upgrades. The American Rescue Plan Act recognizes that ventilation systems need to be upgraded, Chandler said, so the bill is timely in terms of public awareness of the need to address this issue.
Improving ventilation would reduce rates of influenza and asthma, she said, which will increase student attendance and participation. It should also reduce levels of carbon monoxide in schools, which will help everyone, students, staff and teachers alike, she said.
“It sounds like a mundane contract bill, but it’s a bill that has genuine health effects that could be very supportive of students, teachers and educators at the schools,” Chandler said. “There are a lot of people impacted by ensuring that there is a safe environment in the school systems across the state.”
Parents have also been raising concerns about ventilation systems in schools with Chandler. She received an email from a parent on Thursday asking about the ventilation system in the Los Alamos Public Schools system because they want to relocate and want to know what the standards are so they can see whether they think the school district is a safe place to put their children.
A medical study published in December shows that 45% of COVID cases — including in children — lead to lingering symptoms.
HIGHEST-QUALITY FILTERS REQUIRED
Source New Mexico’s reporting raised questions about which schools installed necessary technology and strong enough filters, and showed that state officials have not done any systematic review to determine if schools are following requirements.
“This bill would require an assessment of all ventilation systems in the schools, across the board,” Chandler said.
The language in the pre-filed bill requires those reviews to be done every five years — and for those records to be public.
It requires the evaluations to include testing the best possible filter efficiency, and corrective actions like replacing old filters with ones rated as MERV-13 or better. Those are good enough to pull COVID-19 aerosols, and other viruses and pollutants, out of the air.
It also requires measuring airflow, verifying maintenance, putting in carbon dioxide sensors, and collecting data for the installation of permanent HVAC systems where they don’t exist.
Under the bill, portable filtration and air cleaners found in some schools and health facilities in New Mexico would be used in schools only when the central HVAC system can’t do the job.
This is not the first time the bill has been introduced, Chandler said. When a similar measure made its way through the legislative session in 2021, it was approved by the House of Representatives and one Senate committee but never got a vote by the full Senate.
The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the Sheet Metal Air Rail & Transportation Workers Local 49 raised the issue with Chandler last year, she said. But 2022 had only a shorter, 30-day, budget-focused legislative session. Any non-budget bills needed to be put on the call by the governor, so they didn’t actively pursue it, she said.
Flood infrastructure and housing among the big legislative asks from southern New Mexicans – Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico
About 40 people packed themselves into the offices of El Calvario Church Friday night, squeezing between high-backed quilted chairs and lining the edges of the room. For the next two hours, the air buzzed with requests, concerns and questions for state lawmakers about how to spend a record $3.6 billion budget surplus.
Vanessa Porter attended the meeting “as a community member first, but also as a mom.”
“I wanted to come see what concerns we are all having, to hear what the people from Las Cruces have to say.” she said. “What legislators decide now impacts me. It impacts my children.”
Porter, 37, is an organizer for nonprofit NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé, which has pushed for higher minimum wages and paid sick leave in southern New Mexico. To her, a successful 60-day Legislative Session in Santa Fe means lawmakers pass bills to give support for more affordable housing and more services for behavioral health in rural areas.
“[I’m] hoping that they bring more money towards us to create a better community to be able to live a peaceful life,” Porter said.
Porter was one of nearly 200 residents to attend a series of listening sessions hosted last week by southern New Mexico lawmakers to hear community concerns and take requests for projects.
Rep. Angelica Rubio (D-Las Cruces) said she hasn’t seen this many people participate in these community meetings.
“We’re seeing increased need. That’s something the pandemic exposed,” she said. “But we’re also seeing increased participation at the Legislature because of remote options, and better access to the democratic process.”
Lawmakers called the upcoming budget “a once-in-history opportunity” to address systemic issues, dovetailing with residents’ requests to strengthen flood mitigation, expand the behavioral safety net and health care access.
While much of the budget process is already complete, Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) said the meetings shape how lawmakers direct capital outlay requests — a singular system where state lawmakers fund specific projects in their districts.
“When you hear about flooding, roadwork, lighting, and some community programs, these are things that we have the opportunity to bring money and help to solve some of these local problems,” Steinborn said.
New Mexico pulled in record revenues from oil and gas production and higher tax revenue from consumer spending and inflation. Taxes on oil and gas industry account for about 40% of the state’s revenue, which also provides royalties and rent from drilling on state lands.
That translates to $3.6 billion more dollars available for government spending across the state.
The nonpartisan Legislative Finance Committee recommended the state spend $9.44 billion in this year’s budget. That’s about the same size as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s proposed budget. The budgets are not identical, but the governor and LFC overlap on some priorities for the state, such as increasing state spending in Medicaid reimbursements and raising teacher pay.
CONTROLLING THE FLOODS
Even as oil and gas money fills the state’s coffers, New Mexico people and ecosystems are increasingly vulnerable to climate disasters, and spending record amounts of money to mitigate those disasters.
Last year, massive wildfires consumed lands parched by years of drought and devastated thousands of New Mexicans. Then when the fires were contained, more intense monsoon rains brought flash flooding across New Mexico.
In southern New Mexico, floods filled with sludge from ash and silt, burned trunks and irrigation debris further harmed acequias destroyed in the Gila National Forest after the Black Fire.
In August, flash flooding from the Pecos River stranded nearly 200 people at Carlsbad National Caverns.
Communities across Doña Ana County are still reeling from widespread damage to irrigation infrastructure, crops and dozens of homes on the Rio Grande in 2021.
Urban and rural residents called for lawmakers to use capital outlay to build flood protections.
“All of these flood controls got softer, and so floods keep happening over and over again in the same places,” said Scott Krahling with High Horse Cannabis dispensary in Las Cruces, who’s also a former county clerk and commissioner. “We can’t put enough money into flood control.”
Water concerns dominated the conversation at Wednesday’s legislative priorities meeting at the Hatch Community Center. Village of Hatch officials asked for funding to bridge higher construction costs for water projects and flood control.
It floods every year in Hatch, said Mayor James “Slim” Whitlock. In 2006, rains damaged dozens of homes after the Placitas Arroyo failed.
“Hatch is like a little bowl. When it rains hard, all the water reaches the middle of town at the same time, and the storm drain pumps can’t keep up,” he said. “We have small issues every year.”
Doña Ana County officials asked lawmakers at the meeting to provide $4 million in funding for a long-stymied dam.
The county entered into agreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a dam in Spring Canyon nearly two decades ago. The projected cost of the dam has nearly doubled, from $12.7 million in 2019 to nearly $25 million in the most recent estimate, said John Gwynne, the flood commissioner for Doña Ana County.
The project is still at least a year away from being shovel-ready, Gwynne said.
“When we started this project, the original contract documents were signed in 2004,” Gwynne said. “Here we are, all these years later, and I don’t even have a set of plans yet.”
The project has already used $3 million in capital outlay awards, Gwynne said, and most funding went towards paying the federal government for the design and doing projects to prepare the ground.
“It took us several years to come up with that $3 million, and that was a Herculean effort,” Steinborn said.
Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) and Steinborn, both on the Senate Finance Committee, told Hatch officials they would look at pursuing money in the budget process, and from the Governor’s Office for dams.
Lujan Grisham’s budget priorities would earmark $128 million one-time funding to improve water infrastructure. This request includes $75 million to replace water supplies in the lower Rio Grande and another $30 million to improve a stretch of the river where it flows into Elephant Butte.
Diamond warned capital outlay has to be spread across her large district.
“I’ve got districts that come to us with a $20 million water infrastructure plan or something,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to tell them we’re not the resource for that.”
HEALTH CARE GAPS
A concern repeated across meetings were gaps in behavioral health and health care in Southern New Mexico.
A study from 2020 on behavioral health needs,found only 12% of people statewide have adequate access to mental health care.
Roque Garcia, CEO for Southwest Counseling and Border Area Mental Health, which provides services in Silver City and Las Cruces asked lawmakers to support a bill from Sen. Carrie Hablen (D-Las Cruces) that seeks to build a 32-bed facility called the Los Amigos Project.
The Las Cruces-based facility would offer a place to live to people with mental health concerns and substance abuse disorders, or who were previously incarcerated. Residents could stay for 15 to 18 months and would receive psychiatric services, medication, job assistance and counseling.
“We’re trying to establish some kind of stability in their lives — make sure that they have homes, they have some places to live, someplace to be able to work,” Garcia said. The building is already owned by the nonprofit, he added, but requires money to staff.
Rep. Joanne Ferrary (D-Las Cruces) told residents she would introduce a bill to prevent alcohol-related deaths, which kills New Mexicans at higher rates than other states.
“Our Liquor Excise Tax hasn’t been raised for 30 years. And with that tax, instead of revenue going to the General Fund, we want it to go to prevention and treatment programs,” Ferrary said.
Las Cruces lawmakers (L-R) Sen. Carrie Hamblen, Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Rep. Angelica Rubio, address a crowd at Calvario United Methodist Church offices on Jan. 13, 2023
Other lawmakers from northern New Mexico pre-filed legislation focusing on access to health care in rural areas that could help with those issues in the southern part of the state.
Rep. Marian Matthews (D-Albuquerque) put forward HB 47 which requests $7.5 million for a state fund. The fund would issue loans of $500,000 each for rural hospitals and other providers to develop plans to expand service, such as purchasing land and equipment, or adding staff.
Rep. Miguel Garcia (D-Albuquerque) introduced HB 38 to give state income tax credits up to $5,000 for rural dentists, doctors and specialists, and up to $3,000 for rural nurses, social workers, mental health workers and counselors.
The governor’s budget offers $200 million for the Rural Healthcare Delivery Fund to ease start-up or operational costs for rural hospitals.
The legislative session begins Tuesday and runs until March 18.
For people like Porter living in southern New Mexico it can feel like the government in Santa Fe forgets these communities during the legislative session.
“I want them to keep us in mind because we are people, and we struggle,” she said.
Authorities probe reported shooting at a New Mexico refuge – Associated Press
Authorities continue to investigate the reported shooting of a man at the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Roswell, but say the victim isn’t being cooperative.
Chaves County Sheriff’s officials placed the refuge’s visitor center and trails on lockdown Friday afternoon after a man was found bleeding from a gunshot wound.
He was transported to a hospital and authorities said he suffered injuries not considered life-threatening.
The man’s name, age and hometown still weren’t available Sunday and neither was a possible motive for the shooting.
Undersheriff Charles Yslas said the victim told authorities that the shooter was driving a black vehicle.
Authorities have processed the crime scene and searched unsuccessfully for the vehicle and a gun used in the shooting.
“Right now, the evidence that we have isn’t really matching up with the stories,” Yslas told the Roswell Daily Record. “The victim isn’t being very cooperative with us, so we are continuing to investigate it.”
The refuge is located about 7 miles (11 kilometers) northeast of Roswell.