Guv gives state employees paid family leave, some hope to take it further

Some hope Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s new executive order giving state employees 12 weeks off to care for a new child is a harbinger for the passage of a bill that would bring that benefit – and more – to all New Mexico employees. Lujan Grisham made her announcement earlier this week. Starting with the first day of 2020, all state employees are now eligible to take up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for a new child, whether a birth or an adoption. Leave must be taken within the first six months following the child’s arrival. If both parents work for the state, both parents are eligible for the leave.

Carlsbad wrestles with oil, gas boom

Seated on the floor of First Christian Church on a recent Sunday morning, Pastor Dave Rogers pierces the heart of a debate in Carlsbad as it adapts to a historic oil and natural gas boom. Rogers recounts to three children the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man from a despised group helps a traveler beaten, robbed and left for dead after religious passers-by ignore him. “I wonder what it’s like to be a neighbor to somebody we don’t know and that needs our help,” Rogers asks his young listeners as a dozen or so adults, mostly senior citizens, look on. Welcoming strangers and helping neighbors are values many in the small congregation – and broader community – identify with Carlsbad.

IRS reforms free file program, drops agreement not to compete with TurboTax

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. Finding free online tax filing should be easier this year for millions of Americans. The IRS announced significant changes Monday to its deal with the tax prep software industry. Now companies are barred from hiding their free products from search engines such as Google, and a years-old prohibition on the IRS creating its own online filing system has been scrapped.

2019 Top Stories #1: NM cashes in on the world’s most productive oil field

The Permian Basin became the world’s most productive oilfield in 2019, and New Mexico is reaping the financial benefits. The state saw a significant revenue surge this year, resulting in a projected $7.8 billion collected. 

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association estimates the state produces 900,000 barrels of oil a day. It anticipates the state will surpass 300 million barrels of oil in 2019, the third year in a row for the state for record-setting production. Projections from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) predict the state could see over $900 million in new money in 2020, due in large part of growing oil and gas royalties generated in 2019. Oil and gas now makes up 40 percent of the state’s budget.

2019 Top Stories #2: State, Air Force battle over PFAS clean up

After a revelatory Department of Defense report in 2018 identified 126 military bases where firefighting training activities had contaminated groundwater sources, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) issued two notices of violation against the Air Force over PFAS groundwater contamination at Cannon and Holloman Air Force Bases. PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, are toxic, human-manufactured chemicals that move through groundwater and biological systems. Human exposure to PFAS increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancers as well as other severe illnesses. The chemicals were used in firefighting foam in military installations across the country. In January, the U.S. Air Force responded to the first notice of violation for contamination at Cannon Air Force Base with a lawsuit against the state, challenging NMED’s authority to compel PFAS cleanup under the state permit. A month later, NMED issued a second notice for groundwater contamination at Holloman, where PFAS contamination levels in some areas were found to be 18,000 times the federal “lifetime” drinking water exposure advisory levels for the chemicals.

2019 Top Stories #3: Audit of state settlements

One of the big stories this year was the revelation of some high dollar settlements between former state employees and former Gov. Susana Martinez. The settlements made headlines partly because of how much taxpayers were on the hook for, but also because the terms of those settlements were supposed to be kept secret a lot longer than what the law requires. 

Just months after Martinez left office, KRQE-TV revealed that an employment discrimination lawsuit against Martinez and former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas was quietly settled in the final weeks of the governor’s adminsitration, with a three-year confidentiality period. 

Veteran readers of NM Political Report may recall the numerous stories we wrote last year about secret settlements. But the three year period the Martinez administration agreed to was well beyond the 180 days allowed by law. The settlement amounts and the longer than usual confidentiality period spurred Martinez’s own party to call her administration out as well. 

The settlements also spurred New Mexico State Auditor Brian Colón to look into the specifics, which he ultimately deemed an abuse of power. The state’s General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz also got involved as that department oversees settlements with state agencies. As soon as the 180-day period was up in each settlement, Ortiz’s office released specifics to the public.

2019 Top Stories #4: Efforts to legalize recreational cannabis

A major topic this year was cannabis legalization. Two different bills to legalize recreational cannabis this year failed to make it to the governor’s desk. But after the legislative session ended, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that she would consider legalization during the 2020 session. She also convened a working group to come up with a proposal for legalization that addressed Lujan Grisham’s public safety concerns. 

That group, headed by Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, almost immediately faced criticism for not better representing medical cannabis patients. But Davis said he would be inclusive and transparent. 

The group included members from law enforcement, state departments and cannabis producers.

2019 Top Stories #5: The Energy Transition Act’s rocky start

When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Energy Transition Act into law in March, she called the law “transformational” and “a really big deal.”

“The Energy Transition Act fundamentally changes the dynamic in New Mexico. This legislation is a promise to future generations of New Mexicans, who will benefit from both a cleaner environment and a more robust energy economy with exciting career and job opportunities,” she said at the time in a statement. But the first attempt to implement the new law hasn’t been smooth. The investor-owned utility PNM announced in 2017 that it planned to close the San Juan Generating Station, a coal-fired plant located outside Farmington. But PNM didn’t formally submit to the Public Regulation Commission (PRC) its consolidated application for abandonment, securitization and replacement power for the power plant until July 2019, weeks after the Energy Transition Act had been signed into law.

Stolen and erased

Eva was found at dusk one Tuesday in late December 2016, standing in a parking lot in northeast Albuquerque. The 15-year-old Navajo girl had been missing more than two weeks when her grandmother got a call from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office — saying her silver Ford truck had been recovered.  “I don’t care about the truck, what about my granddaughter?” Heidi demanded. 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. She drove three hours, from her house outside Gallup to Albuquerque, and arrived a few minutes after 1 a.m. to see Eva emerge from the juvenile holding area, quiet and hunched, her dark brown eyes fixed on the floor. She weighed 94 pounds.

Report: New Mexico shale contributing to U.S. oil and gas expansion well beyond Paris climate goals

The U.S. has oscillated from being the largest economy to participate in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change to becoming one of the world’s strongest voices promoting the continued burning of coal and other fossil fuels. New Mexico has had a front row seat to that change, of course. In 2019, the Permian Basin became the world’s most productive oilfield, and New Mexico has emerged as a top oil-producing state. 

Oil and gas expansion across New Mexico and Texas will be a chief driver of future greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to a recent report compiled by 15 global environmental groups that was released ahead of the U.N. climate-focused COP25 conference held in Madrid this year. 

“Right now, the Permian Basin is the biggest projected driver of oil and gas expansion — not just in the U.S. but in the world,” said Kelly Trout, senior research analyst at Oil Change International, a research and advocacy group. Trout was a contributor to the report. 

“Our data shows that the potential year of peak production for the Permian Basin in 2032,” Trout said. “The Permian Basin itself could produce more oil and natural gas liquids than Saudi Arabia [at that time].”

U.S. outpaces all other countries in planned oil and gas expansion

The U.S. is poised to outpace every other country in the world in new oil and gas development, according to the report.