Morning Word

Session End with Tax Deal, Juvenile Sentencing Reform

City of Santa Fe’s late audit compromises capital cash, bond rating

Session concludes with tax deal

That’s a wrap on the 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature. Saturday’s final gavels came with approval of a long list of bills (click “go” to see them). Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has until April 7 to sign or veto legislation, yet she has already acted on a handful of measures including signatures Friday on Senate Bill 26, which will divert some future excess oil and gas revenues into the Severance Tax Permanent Fund, and Senate Bill 64, which ends juvenile life sentences without parole. Lawmakers who had been at odds over a tax package heading into the weekend also came to agreement via a public consensus committee with members from both the House and Senate. House Bill 547 calls for $500 tax rebates to individual taxpayers; a phased-in cut to gross receipts tax rates; plus expanded film and child tax credits, among other provisions. The bill awaiting action by the governor also includes what would be the state’s first increase to the alcohol excise tax in three decades and an increase to tobacco taxes. Reproductive rights also stayed on top, with the second of two similarly named bills Lujan Grisham identified as a priorities sailing through. The governor signed House Bill 7, the Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Health Care Freedom Act, on March 16. It prevents local jurisdictions from prohibiting health care services including abortion. Then, on Friday, the House sent a related measure to her desk: Senate Bill 13, the Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Health Care Protection Act, which prohibits New Mexico agencies from cooperating with investigations into civil or criminal liability or professional disciplinary action from other states. Lest we overlook something else important: Both chambers also passed a measure declaring a new state aroma. (Roasting green chile, duh.)

Late audit consequences for Santa Fe

With its most recent state audit more than a year overdue, the City of Santa Fe could soon face real consequences. State Auditor Joseph Maestas, a former Santa Fe city councilor sworn in to the statewide elected position in January, raised concerns about a possible hit to the city’s bond rating and other ramifications of its late audit in a letter to city officials last week. Maestas said the state is currently withholding $10 million in capital funding from the city and another $13 million is “likely to be withheld after the completion of this legislative session due to late audit reports.” The city has sought funding this session for improvements to the Midtown campus and SWAN Park, among other things. S&P, which rates the creditworthiness of local governments around the country, has also now listed Santa Fe as “CreditWatch negative,” signaling the city’s AA bond rating could be adversely impacted in the future. Last summer, the city’s finance director left the job a few days after news broke that a firm the city had hired for the audit had withdrawn and the state auditor’s office would intervene. The current late audit marks Santa Fe’s fourth consecutive late annual audit.

NM not nation’s nuke dumping ground

New Mexico doesn’t want to be the home for any more of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste, and now officials have asserted veto power over projects proposing new dumps. Senate Bill 53, prohibiting the storage of spent fuel or high-level waste without state consent, earned approval by the Legislature and a signature from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday, solidifying opposition to a project proposed by Holtec International to “temporarily” store waste from power plants in Lea County for 40 years with options for renewal. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its final environmental review of the project last July and at the time, Lujan Grisham said she would back a law to prevent the construction. “The state of New Mexico will not become a dumping ground for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel due to Congress’s failure to identify a permanent disposal solution for commercial nuclear waste,” she said after the review. The NRC is expected to announce a decision soon on whether to grant a license for the project. New Mexico already hosts the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s only underground repository for Cold War-era waste generated during nuclear research and weapons development. Texas adopted a similar ban on new temporary sites in 2021.

Drought relief and positive early fire outlook

New drought maps by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show most of New Mexico, including Santa Fe County, has emerged from drought conditions and into the “abnormally dry” classification. Eastern New Mexico, however, remains in the “extreme drought” category, and counties still reeling from last year’s historic wildfire season are planning for another dry year. Parts of Mora and San Miguel counties remain listed under “moderate dought.” NOAA experts cautioned that the relief is likely to be temporary, as long-term effects persist from a dry streak. Temperatures in New Mexico are also predicted to be higher than normal over the next three months. Jon Gottschalck, chief of the operational prediction branch at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said during a media briefing that the start of the fire season in the Southwestern US likely will be delayed, The Associated Press reports. “But it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t end up being a very strong season,” he said. “It’s just likely to be a more muted beginning for sure.”

COVID-19 by the numbers

Reported March 17New cases: 209; 672,409 total cases. Deaths: six; Santa Fe County has had 402 total deaths; 9,084 total fatalities statewide. Statewide hospitalizations and Patients on ventilators were not available.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent March 16 “community levels” map shows two counties (San Juan and McKinley) are now yellow—aka medium—level. The rest of the state remains at green—aka low—levels. 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

A guardianship business in Santa Fe where the US Department of Justice found decades of fraud worth $12 million receives the spotlight in a five-part series reported by Bloomberg Law. The two reporters on the story, Holly Barker and Ronnie Greene, speak with podcast host David Schultz for Bloomberg’s latest episode, “Not Just Britney: Guardianship System Rife With Abuse.” New Mexico’s Ayudando, says Barker “was supposed to provide this affordable service that was vetted by the government...They had this massive pool of people and a massive pool of money they were moving around with very little oversight.”

This land is art land

Hikers who love to arrange stones in trailside expressions of art could take their cues from a larger movement (even if other hikers, we hear, sometimes kick their efforts back into oblivion). Thusly, New Mexico makes several appearances in “The ARTnews Guide to Land Art,” in a more permanent way, including the early Western landscape painters and contemporary occurrences such as the “Lightning Field” by Walter De Maria northeast of Quemado in Catron County. The famous field is described as “a plein air installation of 400 stainless steel poles planted upright in a one-mile by one-kilometer grid. Though each pole measures two inches in diameter, they range in height from 15 to 26 feet, so their tips create a perfectly level horizontal plane despite the undulating topography. Despite its title, the piece is only rarely struck by lightning.” The story also mentions the lesser known “Star Axis by Charles Ross: “Begun in 1976, it is an 11-story complex built of earth, granite, sandstone, concrete, bronze, and stainless steel and occupies a 400-acre site in New Mexico.” Our further digging turned up that what the artist calls an “architectonic earth/sky work site” in San Miguel County and its features including “Star Tunnel” and “Hour Camber,” however, are “currently under construction and closed to the general public,” according to its website.

Huggy bears

New Mexico’s recent foray into national human interest news has more to do with interest in some cute bear cubs. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish issued a social media campaign advertising job openings for “professional bear huggers” featuring photographs of sleepy baby bears that outlets such as CNNNPR and even Fox News found irresistible. We dare you to not feel the same way, especially about the photo of the bottom of a cub’s paws. The conservation officer job entails a bit more than ursine embraces. The department notes, “not all law enforcement field work is this glamorous, but we would love for you to join the team where you can have the experience of a lifetime.” Find out and apply here before March 30.

Officially spring

The National Weather Service forecasts cloudy skies with a high near 44 on this, the first day of spring. Celebrate the vernal equinox with chance of snow showers before 9 am, then rain and snow showers likely between 9 am and 3 pm, then rain showers likely after 3 pm. Santa Fe Public Schools are on spring break this week, but icy roads led the City of Santa Fe to announce offices and recreation centers will be closed today until 10 am.

Thanks for reading! The (substitute) Word particularly enjoyed seeing the stoat in winning the wildlife images from the Sony World Photo Awards.

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