Lawmakers Eye Budget Fix After Court Ruling, Delegation Taps Candidates For U.S. Attorney

May 12, 2017

Reluctant Lawmakers Set Sights On Fix For New Mexico BudgetAssociated Press

New Mexico state lawmakers are reluctantly returning to the budget negotiation table with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez as time runs short to restore billions of dollars in vetoed spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The state Supreme Court has refused a request by lawmakers to rescind the governor's vetoes of all funding for the legislative branch and state institutions of higher education.

A special legislative session is set for May 24, with pressure mounting Friday on elected officials to shore up anemic state tax revenues or agree to a new round of spending cuts at state agencies or public schools.

Lawmakers and the governor largely agree on a $6.1 billion state budget that would slightly increase spending, particularly for public schools and cash-strapped courts. They remain at odds over how to fill a roughly $150 million shortfall in revenues.

The budget crisis is tied to a downturn in state income from the oil and natural gas sector, plus a stagnant economy in a state with the nation's highest unemployment rate.

Martinez has less than two years in office and has tied her economic agenda to comprehensive tax reform that would eliminate hundreds of incentives in order to lower overall tax rates on gross receipts and improve the state's business climate.

Lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Legislature say the governor's ambitious approach could unintentionally undermine tax revenues. They advocated for a gradual phase-out of tax breaks in a bill that was vetoed last month by the governor.

The governor's approach also relies on restoring taxes on food that were eliminated in 2004 and decades-old exemptions on gross receipts taxes for nonprofits including hospitals and arts organizations.

Those two categories are the biggest potential revenue generators, according to Rep. Jason Harper, an architect of the plan.

But House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe has said Democrats will not support a food tax and that tax exemptions should remain in place for nonprofit groups that serve people who are poor or disabled.

The governor has offered short-term solutions to next year's budget shortfall that would suspend state construction projects, leverage health care spending for more federal support and withdraw pension money set aside for unsalaried legislators.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith says those one-time solutions do not address the state's continued dependence on oil and natural gas revenues to fund one-third of the state budget. The pension deductions likely would trigger a legal challenge by retirement fund managers.

New Mexico Will Get Budget Boost From Oil Leases – The Associated Press

New Mexico state finances are likely to get a $70 million boost this month after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rejected environmental protests over oil and gas lease sales.

In an email obtained Friday, the Bureau of Land Management says the state's share of sale proceeds from a batch of oil leases in southeastern New Mexico should be available by the end of May.

The money would ease financial pressure on New Mexico state government amid a budget crisis. The state is struggling to conserve cash as Gov. Susana Martinez contemplates unpaid furloughs for state workers.

The Center for Biological Diversity and WildEarth Guardians have expressed numerous environmental concerns about drilling operations under the leases.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and other New Mexico congressional delegates had urged the BLM to resolve the protests quickly.

Delegation Makes Nominations For US Attorney, Marshal – The Associated Press

Members of the state's congressional delegation have nominated a former federal prosecutor and a current one as candidates to serve as the next U.S. attorney in New Mexico.

Democrat Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce also nominated State Police Chief Pete Kassetas and three others for the U.S. marshal's post.

The names are included in letters sent by the delegation to President Donald Trump. The letters were made public late Thursday.

Nominated for U.S. attorney are John Anderson, a former assistant U.S. attorney now practicing law for a Santa Fe firm, and assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Federici.

Aside from Kassetas, the list for marshal includes Assistant Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal James Burrell; FBI supervisory special agent Sonya Chavez and supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Larry Harper.

Section Of I-25 In Albuquerque Area Will Close Sunday NightAssociated Press

A five-mile stretch of northbound and southbound Interstate 25 in the Albuquerque area will be closed and traffic diverted for about an hour late Sunday night to allow for passage of a very large load.

The New Mexico State Police said the closure starting at 10 p.m. will shut down I-25 between Exit 215 at Broadway Boulevard SE and Exit 220 at Rio Bravo Boulevard SE.

The State Police said traffic will be diverted onto Broadway but that drivers should consider taking alternate routes because there will be traffic delays during the closures.

State Police spokesman Carl Christiansen said the large load is a piece of mining equipment.

Zuni Woman Faces Charges In Death Of Friend Run Over By SUV – The Associated Press

A 25-year-old Zuni Pueblo woman faces federal charges accusing her of driving after drinking and using methamphetamine before killing a friend by running her over following an argument.

A criminal complaint filed in federal court in Albuquerque charges Bree Lynn Coonsis with manslaughter, driving under the influence, reckless driving and committing offenses on an Indian reservation.

The complaint says Coonsis argued with friends riding in her SUV and that she swung wide and ran over one of them after they got out and walked alongside a road in Zuni on April 29.

Court documents don't identify the victim.

Defense attorney Alonzo Padilla didn't not immediately return a call from The Associated Press for comment on the allegations.

Man Dies In Rafting Accident On Rio Grande In Taos County – The Associated Press

Authorities in northern New Mexico say an Albuquerque-area man is dead following a rafting accident on the Rio Grande in Taos County.

The county Sheriff's Office says 67-year-old Daniel Willard of Tijeras was pronounced dead Thursday after he fell out of a raft and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful once he was located.

Willard was rafting with friends when the incident occurred on the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument.

He was described as an experienced kayaker and rafter.

Energy Chief Tours Carlsbad's Underground Nuclear RepositoryAssociated Press

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Thursday toured southern New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation's only underground nuclear repository.

The Carlsbad plant was forced to close in February 2014 after an improperly packed drum of waste ruptured and caused a radiation release.

Shipments of waste only recently began making their way to the plant for disposal after state and federal officials cleared the way for operations to resume.

Perry on Wednesday visited the Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico, where nuclear research has been among the main focuses since the lab's founding years during World War II.

He has vowed to advocate for nuclear power as the nation looks for ways to fuel its economy and limit the effects of electricity generation on the environment.

Univ Of New Mexico Reinstates Men's And Women's Ski ProgramsAssociated Press

The University of New Mexico has reinstated its men's and women's ski programs just one month after announcing they were being dropped due to rising costs and impending budget cuts.

UNM's Board of Regents voted Thursday to overturn the athletic department's recommendation to cut the ski programs Following an outpouring of support from students and the skiing community.

School officials say the ski team will be reinstated for the 2017-2018 season.

They say donations from supporters will supplement a somewhat-reduced athletic department budget for the ski team.

The ski team is one of only two UNM athletic programs to ever earn an NCAA title, winning the Division 1 championship in 2004.

New Mexico Supreme Court Won't Restore Funds To LegislatureAssociated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has rejected a request to overturn Gov. Susana Martinez's budget vetoes and restore funding to the Legislature and state universities.

The court says Thursday that it is too soon to consider any possible constitutional violations related to the governor's vetoes at the request of the Legislature.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has called a special session for May 24 to resolve the state's budget crisis.

The Legislature contends that Martinez overstepped her authority by vetoing all funding for the coming fiscal year for the Legislature and state institutions of higher education.

20 Attorneys General Call For Independent Probe Into RussiaAssociated Press

A group of 20 attorneys general, all Democrats, is calling for the appointment of an independent special counsel to continue the investigation into Russian interference in last year's presidential election.

The group led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called Republican President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey during the ongoing investigation a "violation of public trust."

The group said in a Thursday letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that only the appointment of an independent special counsel "with full powers and resources" can begin to restore public confidence.

Those signing the letter include the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.

Snow, Rain Help Dampen Wildfire In Gila National ForestAssociated Press

Snow and rain has helped dampen a wildfire that has burned 4 square miles of woodland in the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico.

Officials say the lightning-caused fire that started May 1 about 17 miles northeast of Reserve is contained along 17 percent of its perimeter.

Only a handful of personnel and two fire engines are now assigned to the fire.

Albuquerque Police Monitor Lauds Progress, But Has Concerns Associated Press

Department of Justice attorneys say the Albuquerque Police Department has made "remarkable progress" toward reform, but a monitor of the police department has found a lack of cooperation, too.

Albuquerque police are about two years into a process brought on by a Department of Justice investigation that found officers had a pattern of excessive force and a "culture of aggression."

The Albuquerque Journal reports that throughout the process, independent monitor James Ginger has been analyzing how the police are complying with the reform.

Ginger's report last month had said considerable progress has been made, but it also said cases of "deliberate non-compliance" have been found.

Ginger says he noticed a "palpable shift" in the department leadership's attitude toward reforming.

U.S. District Judge Robert Brack says he finds the negative note by Ginger troubling.

Data Breach Affects UNM Foundation DonorsAlbuquerque Journal

Information from some 22,000 donors to the University of New Mexico Foundation, as well as hundreds of UNM employees, may be at risk after a data breach.

The Albuquerque Journal reports it obtained a memo to the foundation’s board of trustees about unauthorized access that took place in April. That may have compromised financial and personal information of donors.

The Social Security numbers, birth dates and financial information for more than 750 employees and vendors may also be at risk.

Foundation Spokeswoman Jennifer Kemp says there is preliminary evidence the breach came from outside the United States. Kemp says this is the first time the foundation has had such a breach in its data.

Kemp said the foundation has contacted employees and none have found any issues yet with their data. The foundation is planning to provide credit reporting and repair services to those affected by the breach.

Stray Emu Lassoed On Highway By New Mexico Authorities ­– The Associated Press

A stray emu that had become notorious throughout a three-day span in southern New Mexico has been captured by law enforcement.

Authorities caught up with the emu Tuesday after about 40 minutes of trying to lasso it on an interstate.

Calls about the bird started coming into the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Office three days before the emu was captured.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Kelly Jameson says the bird first led authorities through a residential area and then onto I-10. She says two truckers helped to stop traffic while officers caught the bird.

The incident was caught on camera by a passer-by.

New Mexico State University housed the bird at one of its agricultural facilities until the owner picked it up Thursday. The owner wasn't identified, and authorities say it's unclear how the bird got loose.