The hidden consequences of New Mexico’s latest oil boom

When Dee George was about 7 years old, his family moved to the outskirts of Carlsbad, New Mexico, where they bought an acre of land, set up a mobile home and planted mulberry trees. They had a clear view of the sunset, and birds flocked to the trees. George, now 53, still lives here with his wife, Penny Aucoin, and daughter Skyler. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. Oil and gas development has existed for years in the Permian Basin, which stretches from southeastern New Mexico into Texas.

NM mourns long-time state senator, John Pinto

Long-time New Mexico state senator and Navajo Code Talker John Pinto died Friday morning. He was 94. The longest serving member of the Senate, Pinto represented District 3, which includes a large section of western New Mexico. He served in the U.S. Marines as a Navajo Code Talker and went on to work as a teacher. Pinto was first elected in 1977 and hitchhiked from Gallup to Santa Fe for his first day in the Senate.

NM officials await word from Air Force on PFAS contamination

New Mexico officials find themselves stonewalled by the United States military over water contamination from two U.S. Air Force bases in the state. In early May, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) Secretary James Kenney sent a letter to the U.S. Air Force over contamination, this time at Holloman Lake. Previously, groundwater tests at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis and Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo showed high concentrations of PFAS, or per and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Even in small amounts, exposure to these toxic, human-manufactured chemicals increases the risk of testicular, kidney and thyroid cancer and problems like ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension. PFAS include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

NM GOP calls out former administration for secret payouts

New Mexico’s Republican Party condemned the Gov. Susana Martinez administration Thursday for reportedly paying out $1.7 million in confidential settlements to former state officials. “We are deeply troubled by the recent breaking news about secret payouts to state employees that appear to have violated state procedures which are supposed to protect taxpayers from paying out frivolous claims,” a press release from the party said. The party’s announcement came after KRQE-TV reported that not only did the state settle with a handful of former state employees, but that the specifics of the settlement are confidential for almost five years. Normally, New Mexico statute requires all settlements that go through the state’s Risk Management Division be kept confidential for 180 days. It’s still unclear why both the former state employees and Risk Management agreed to an unusually long confidentiality period.

Are surprises ahead for legislation to curb surprise medical bills?

Surprise medical bills — those unexpected and often pricey bills patients face when they get care from a doctor or hospital that isn’t in their insurance network — are the health care problem du jour in Washington, with congressional lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and the White House calling for action. These policymakers agree on the need to take patients out of the middle of the fight over charges, but crafting a legislative solution will not be easy. A hearing of the House Ways and Means health subcommittee Tuesday, for example, quickly devolved into finger-pointing as providers’ and insurers’ testimony showed how much they don’t see eye to eye. “I’m disappointed that all participants that are going to be here from critical sectors of our economy could not come to find a way to work together to protect patients from these huge surprise bills,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said in his opening statement. As Congress weighs how to address the problem, here’s a guide to the bills and what to watch.

Protesters march to ‘stop the bans’ on abortion

A couple of hundred abortion rights activists gathered in Albuquerque Tuesday as part of nationwide “Stop the Bans” protests. Ellie Rushforth, the ACLU of New Mexico Reproductive Rights Attorney, told the crowd, “We must keep fighting because our lives depend on it.”

The crowd then marched through downtown Albuquerque, holding signs and chanting slogans in support of abortion access. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who is running for U.S. Senate, attended the rally. “I’m still fuming over the fact that the U.S. Senate put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court,” Toulouse Oliver said in a statement. “I can’t help but think that if more women were serving in the U.S. Senate, the outcome of the Kavanaugh hearings would have been very different.”

Representatives for members of the New Mexico congressional delegation also attended.

State urges higher vaccination rates, confirms measles case

The New Mexico Department of Health confirmed the state’s first case of measles in nearly five years. Last week, DOH said a one-year-old child from Sierra County is the first New Mexican infected with the disease since December of 2014. “We have worked with the clinic that treated the child and the patient’s family to identify people who may have been exposed so we can prevent more cases of the disease,” DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel announced Friday. “We encourage everyone to check whether you and your family have been vaccinated to protect against measles. Immunization is the best tool we have to protect people from measles.”

Measles is highly infectious and was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000, thanks to the development of a vaccine in the 1960s and a concerted effort by the Centers for Disease Control beginning in the late 1970s.

Judge sees progress in state efforts on Medicaid, SNAP

U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales laid out the stakes in a long-simmering lawsuitover the Human Services Department’s record of denying food stamp and Medicaid benefits to eligible New Mexicans during a status hearing Thursday at the federal courthouse in Las Cruces. 

He’d visited the HSD office on Utah Street in Las Cruces where he had looked over cases with a front-line worker there. One client was a single mom with two kids under 6. She’d lost SNAP benefits because she had not submitted documents that apparently were already in the system. Then her family lost Medicaid benefits, even though they weren’t up for renewal, because of the decision on food stamps — something that violates federal rules. Another mom with a teen daughter got benefits approved, but needed to wait more than two weeks for an EBT card. 

This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission.

Deadline looms for ABQ ranked-choice voting effort

Albuquerque could be the next city in the state to adopt a new way of voting in municipal elections, but a looming deadline doesn’t leave city councilors much time to make it happen. Ranked-choice voting, sometimes called instant-runoff voting, allows voters to rank their choices on a single ballot as opposed to only picking their number one candidate. Santa Fe held their first municipal instant-runoff election last year and about a dozen other municipalities across the U.S. use a similar voting method. A 2018 change to the state’s election law allows municipalities the option to move their elections to November in order to coincide with state elections, and the law also gives city leaders a chance to switch to an instant-runoff election system. Cutting it close

In 2018, then-Gov. Susana Martinez signed the Local Election Act into law.

State looks to diversify economy, rely on ‘volatile’ oil and gas revenue less

This week, Intel announced it would hire 300 more employees. Those new hires would bring the number of employees at its massive Rio Rancho plant to around 1,500, well below the peak of nearly 7,000 employees, decades ago. Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia J. Keyes called it “good news” as the state tries to diversify its economy. Diversifying the economy has been a rallying cry for years, as the state has increasingly been reliant on oil and gas money to balance the state budget. If the most recent Legislative Finance Committee hearing last week is any indication, those efforts are still a work in progress.