December 31, 2018

Our favorite stories of 2018

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Laura Paskus

Rio Grande in Albuquerque

Note: This is part of our year-end series. See our top ten stories of the year.

Matt’s favorite stories

NM Political Report is ending its fourth year (can you believe we’ve been around that long?) and looking back, I can see some stories that I’m very glad I was able to write.

Some got a lot of attention—like taking an early look at what legislative races would be those to watch on election night. Interestingly enough, Democrats won five of the six races I had deemed “longshots” based on previous election results. I also looked at if 2018 would be a “year of the woman” in New Mexico. With a woman winning the governorship, two winning congressional seats and a record-high number of women in the state House, it looks like the answer to that question was an unqualified “yes.”

Other stories received less attention, but still I enjoyed sitting in a day-long seminar about driverless vehicles and how New Mexico needs to regulate their use.

And a story about the notorious Project Veritas targeting an Albuquerque teacher union was among our most-read stories of the year. The organization didn’t release the edited videos of the encounter, as it did in other areas, but New Mexico teachers unions remain on alert.

Of course, there were election stories. I love looking at turnout (up this year from past midterms) and at why Dona Ana County took so long to count its absentee ballots (there were a lot of them).

And, of course, a look at what will happen with the new Legislature and governor, something you’ll see more of as the calendar turns to 2019, where I tried to throw some cold water on the idea that marijuana legalization will happen immediately. As with a lot of progressive efforts, the stumbling block will be the more-conservative and independent (some would say stubborn) state Senate. Before you say a bill will pass because of the large Democratic majority in both chambers, count the votes in the Senate!

Andy’s favorite stories

This month marks the end of my fourth year writing for NM Political Report and each time I’ve sat down to think about the most memorable topics over the year I struggle to remember which stories bled over from the previous year. This year is no different. One series of stories that stuck in my craw this year actually started in the last few months of last year. Throughout 2018, I slowly discovered how, and possibly why, many state agencies often go out of their way to keep a lid on large legal payouts.

In December 2017, just as Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller was ready to take office, the University of New Mexico and its medical school was in the initial stages of settling with a former medical resident, Cynthia Herald. Herald sued the school, alleging officials kicked her out of her program as retaliation after she reported that another medical resident raped her. The trial itself was contained to 2017. But as these things often work out, the subsequent months led to more stories.

What I discovered is that New Mexico requires settlements that go through the state’s Risk Management Division to be kept confidential for about six months. Further, it turns out that the Risk Management can, and apparently does, set its own parameters for when that six-month clock starts. In the Herald settlement, Risk Management did not deem the claim closed until Herald received her check for $800,000. That meant the specifics of the settlement would not be made public until August—about nine months after she left the state district court house last year.  

That trend continued when Risk Management claimed that a settlement between the state’s Corrections Department and former corrections officers was confidential well beyond the six month period. The state’s reasoning in that case was that the claim was not officially closed until the state finished paying it’s contract attorneys.

My dive into UNM records though, also exposed that the school was routinely charging about $.30 for electronic records that turn up in public records requests. According to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, UNM violated state law. The per page charge may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind that a single PDF file that could be transferred to a portable storage device could cost $1,000 according to UNM’s previous practice.

This year was also dominated by election coverage which led me to riding along with an Albuquerque contractor turned Republican Senate candidate, sitting down with the ever-hyperbolic Gary Johnson and taking a hike with Sen. Martin Heinrich.

Laura’s favorite stories

Looking back on 2018, let’s just all agree that it was a tough year.

After a dry winter and a warm spring, we had a hot, dry summer. That means in addition to reporting on attacks on the environment from both the Trump and Martinez administrations, I also wrote about dry rivers and dropping reservoir levels. 2018 was also the year we learned that even the loudest climate deniers, like Trump, aren’t actually denying human-caused climate change is happening. They’ve just decided to plunge ahead, despite what a warmer planet means for most of its inhabitants.

That’s why, looking back on the year, my favorite stories at NM Political Report are the ones where people offered up some hope and hard work.

On the Rio Grande, a deal between Audubon New Mexico, local municipalities and The Club at Las Companas put a small amount of water in the Rio Grande for the benefit of the environment. And this summer, New Mexico’s largest water utility agreed to sell water to the federal government to boost flows in the Rio Grande through Albuquerque this summer.

Make no mistake: These are small fixes, and temporary ones, too. We have a long way to go toward finding solutions on the Rio Grande. But when people work together, it’s worth taking note.

Another favorite story this year is about La Ciénega de Santa Clara in Mexico, the largest saltwater marsh in the Sonoran Desert, and what some people call an “accidental wetland” in the Colorado River Delta. I visited the wetland as part of a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, and although that trip focused on the Lower Colorado River Basin, it gave me a perspective on what lower basin states were doing, versus what New Mexico is doing on the Colorado. And also why New Mexicans should care about the Colorado’s declining flows.

Closer to home, I also visited a restoration project up in Harding County, where lots of folks are working together on the Canadian River Riparian Restoration Project.

With our partners at KNME-TV, I also enjoyed getting to watch a goose tornado above, meeting the folks who are working on feeding—and healing—the hood in Albuquerque and learning how people can protect their homes and communities from wildfires.