Morning Word

Gov’s Budget Includes 4% Raises, Tax Rebates

New PRC commissioner resigns, citing lack of proper qualifications

Gov releases budget recs

Flush with funds and heading into the 60-day legislative session starting Jan. 17, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham yesterday released her 2024 fiscal year proposed budget recommendations, which include: 4% pay raises for all state employees; another round of tax rebates; $107 million devoted to various programs to address housing and homelessness; and a $200 million infusion into the Rural Health Care Delivery Fund, among a slew of other initiatives. The governor’s $9.4 billion budget represents a nearly 12% increase from the prior year and maintains reserves at 34.9%, among the highest in state history, according to the governor’s office. The increase in proposed spending follows revenue estimates released in December projecting close to $3.6 billion in “new” revenue. “Today, we have a historic opportunity for change in the state of New Mexico,” the governor said in a statement. “This budget builds upon the immense progress and success of the last four years…It also empowers the state to continue to take on new and innovative strategies that are disrupting the status quo, that help our children, our families, our schools, our small businesses and our entire economy to grow and prosper.” Other top-ticket items in the governor’s budget include: $220 million to extend classroom learning time; $100 million to continue law enforcement recruitment efforts; and another $157.4 million for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship. The governor’s proposed raises for state employees would cost just over $91 million, with the governor noting in her proposal that “compensation is an integral component of building a top-notch workforce.” In this week’s SFR, writer Andrew Oxford examines whether the governor’s attempts to end state employees’ telework options is counter-productive to her other workforce efforts.

Natural gas prices rise

Some New Mexicans will face steeper natural gas prices this cold winter—but apparently it could have been worse. Commodity prices for New Mexico Gas Company customers have increased by more than 77% over last January, according to executives, but NMGC used its “hedging” program to plan ahead, preventing an increase that would have been even higher. All told, the average residential bill from last year that peaked in January at $135 will run about $211 this month, the company tells SFR. In anticipation of rising costs, the company opted last year to essentially lock in the price in 2023 for the minimum amount of gas it expects to use. “It’s been in practice for a long time that we’ve done this. It’s an annual program and some years we don’t use it,” NMGC Vice President of Engineering and Gas Management Tom Bullard tells SFR. “It’s kind of like an insurance policy. But in the years, like this year, when gas prices are volatile, and they go way up, that does pay off. This year, it has paid off very well.” Even with the hedge in place, the spike over 2022 in New Mexico is significant and comes on top of a 4.3% increase that began this month as the result of increases to the company’s cost of service. On the bright side: It’s not as high as what customers in California can expect this month.

Gov appoints new PRC commissioner after also new one resigns

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham yesterday announced she has appointed James F. Ellison, Jr., to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission. She did so following the resignation of Brian K. Moore, whom she appointed to the commission (checks calendar) on Dec. 30. ICYMI, following a constitutional amendment, the PRC became a three-member appointed versus elected body in the latest attempt to ensure people who serve on a body that regulates utilities are qualified to regulate utilities. Moore, a former Republican state lawmaker, is president and CEO of Ranch Market supermarket in Clayton. According to the governor’s office, he submitted his resignation in a letter that said he does not meet the statutory educational qualifications for the appointment. Those requirements: a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university and 10 years work experience in a relevant field or a professional license/post-graduate degree in a sector regulated by the PRC. All the candidates were, purportedly, vetted by the independent PRC Nominating Committee before finalists’ names were submitted to the governor. Moore’s resumé does not, in fact, list the required educational degrees, just attendance at the University of Denver; one Nominating Committee member told the Albuquerque Journal the members assumed he had graduated. At any rate, the governor’s new pick, James F. Ellison, also was on the short list of nine candidates the Nominating Committee submitted to the governor at the start of December. In addition to his professional experience of three decades working in electric utility operations and power markets, he also has a bachelor’s degree from Clemson University, one master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another from Stanford University. The three new PRC commissioners are scheduled for their first meeting at 9:30 am today, although all three will still need to be confirmed by the state senate.

NM promotes resources for LGBTQIA+ communities

In the six months since it launched, the national 988 mental health helpline has received more than 2 million calls, chats and messages. In New Mexico, the state Human Services Department announced this week its efforts to build awareness about the helpline’s resources for the LGBTQIA+ community, which were implemented late last year. According to a news release, the program is a pilot project of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, supported by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Association and in collaboration with The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group for LGBTQIA+ young people. LGBTQIA+ youth and adults who contact the 988 Lifeline can be connected with a specially trained, LGBTQIA-competent mental health peer by phone 24/7, and via text and chat during the hours of 5 pm to 4 am MST daily. “Linking those in need to compassionate and effective care by expanding access to affirming support for LGBTQIA+ youth is a key step in saving lives, decreasing stigma, rejection, trauma, victimization, micro-aggressions, homophobia and transphobia,” HSD Director of Behavioral Services Neal Bowen, said in a statement. “In our early 988 community listening sessions, we heard loud and clear that LGBTQIA+ communities across New Mexico want to know they can trust and count on a safe and supportive crisis response to improve, not worsen the situation—Now they can.” More information is available at

COVID-19 by the numbers

Reported Jan. 10: New cases: 281; 661,596 total cases. Deaths: four; Santa Fe County has had 380 total deaths; 8,859 total fatalities statewide. Statewide hospitalizations: 95. Patients on ventilators: three

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent Jan. 5 “community levels” map shows just one county categorized as “yellow”—medium risk—for COVID-19: San Juan County. The rest of the state—including Santa Fe County—is green, aka has low risk. Corresponding recommendations for each level can be found here.

Resources: Receive four free at-home COVID-19 tests per household via; Check availability for additional free COVID-19 tests through Project ACT; CDC interactive booster eligibility tool; NM DOH vaccine & booster registration; CDC isolation and exposure interactive tool; COVID-19 treatment info; NMDOH immunocompromised tool kit. People seeking treatment who do not have a medical provider can call NMDOH’s COVID-19 hotline at 1-855-600-3453. DOH encourages residents to download the NM Notify app and to report positive COVID-19 home tests on the app.

You can read all of SFR’s COVID-19 coverage here.

Listen up

The Institute of American Indian Arts continues its Evening Reading Series this week with guests from its Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing mentor program and Lannan Visiting Writers. At 6 pm tonight, the program will feature poet, essayist, short story writer and program mentor Bojan Louis (Diné); IAIA MFA facuty member, former Wisconsin Poet Laureate and founding director of Indigenous Nations Poets Kimberly Blaeser (Minnesota Chippewa Tribe); and essayist, short story writer and program mentor Toni Jensen (Métis). At 6 pm, Friday, Jan. 13, IAIA hosts readings by novelist, short story writer and mentor Kelli Jo Ford (Cherokee Nation); IAIA alum, mentor and poet Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota); and arts writer, critic, poet, educator and Lannan Visiting Writer Raquel Gutiérrez. Both events will be held on campus in the Center for Lifelong Education commons, or can be watched via livestream on each event’s webpage.

Picture this

Discover magazine columnist Tom Yulsman (also director of the Center for Environmental Journalism) rounds up his favorite images seen from space last year, which include Pierre Markuse’s infrared satellite view of New Mexico’s Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire on May 13, 2022. The image caught Yulsman’s eye, he writes, “because of its beautiful coloring, and the intricate patterning of the mountains and waterways.” Beauty notwithstanding, Yulsman acknowledges the devastating wildfire—the biggest in New Mexico’s history: “In the image, which is about 150 miles wide, areas of active burning show up in orange and yellow. Rusty-red tones reveal large swaths of land that had already burned. Much more scorched land lies outside the frame.” Yulsman also used Sentinel-2 imagery to create a visualization simulating an overflight of the fire, which you can view here. And speaking of photos, New Mexico magazine has just unveiled the winners of its annual photography contest. The magazine waived entry fees in honor of its 100th anniversary and subsequently received more than 2,400 submissions from over 700 amateur photographers. Grand prize winner Jim Stein captured a storm as it rolled into the Valles Caldera National Preserve (Stein also won first place in the landscape category for his photo of White Sands). Other winning shots capture a variety of New Mexico’s landscape, people, animals and even fungi. And speaking of photo contests, SFR’s annual photo contest is underway. This year’s categories: faces, places, movement and odd, with two winners in each category receiving awards from local restaurants and retailers. The $5 entry fee benefits SFR’s sister nonprofit’s student training program. Submit only New Mexico-based photos by Feb. 1.

Buried underground

“Half Life,” a collaborative project between eflux Architecture and the Art Institute of Chicago, was created “within the context” of the exhibition “Static Range” by Himali Singh Soin, “an ongoing project that explores the intertwined histories and futures of nuclear landscapes.” One essay in the “Half Life” project examines New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. In “Ten Thousand Years of Isolation,” Livia Krohn Miller writes of driving from Albuquerque to WIPP, “along deserted roads and past long-abandoned construction. The land here is dry, with reds and oranges unfurling under a wide, hot, neon blue sky.” Time, she observes, “seems to misbehave in the desert.” The essay explores New Mexico’s role in the nuclear industrial complex, noting “the tension between the parallel universes of military infrastructure and majestic nature is palpable all over the state, but perhaps most of all in Carlsbad.” Whether that’s true or not is hard to say but the essay makes a compelling argument and considers WIPP’s role in the US’s ongoing attempts—such as they are— to address the country’s radioactive legacy, with the essay’s title referencing the 10,000 years the transuranic waste buried at WIPP will be sealed. “The real problem with WIPP,” she concludes, “is a problem inherent to the existence of irradiated material, which is that, as long as the world continues to produce nuclear waste, there is no sustainable, long-term solution for its safe storage and disposal.”

Snow, wind and fire

The National Weather Service forecasts a 20% chance of snow showers today before 11 am. Otherwise, it will be mostly cloudy, then gradually become sunny, with a high near 41 degrees and windy, with a southwest wind 20 to 25 mph becoming west 25 to 30 mph in the afternoon. Winds could gust as high as 45 mph—in fact, we are under a wind advisory until 6 pm. Some parts of the state could even see winds up to 65 mph. The weather service’s satellites picked up a potential fire start yesterday in Mora County in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon burn scar; the Mora County Sheriff’s Department subsequently closed and then re-opened Highway 434 as crews worked on the blaze, which was reportedly more than 25% contained as of last night.Thanks for reading! The Word thinks she is unlikely to try sea moss, regardless of its trendiness (although she did view a bunch of ridiculous TikTok videos of other people eating it).

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