During Trump’s visit, El Paso residents criticized his divisiveness — and lawmakers’ inaction on gun laws

EL PASO — The message here wasn’t subtle. And neither was the anger. Four days after a gunman walked into a Walmart and killed 22 people, hundreds of El Pasoans on Wednesday packed into a southside park just miles from the international border with Mexico to tell President Trump he isn’t welcome in this reeling border community. “We can’t sugar coat it anymore, [things] have gone too far,” Kylie Oliver said as she held up a sign that read ‘F**king do something!’ “We’ve tried to be politically correct but it’s time to stop. For me personally, it’s turned to anger.”

The tensions here underscored residents’ mounting anger and frustration about lawmakers’ seemingly intractable positions on stricter gun laws in a city still dealing with grief from what police suspect may have been a racially motivated massacre.

Groundwater levels on the rebound in Albuquerque

Groundwater levels in Albuquerque are rising at the same time as water sources across much of the West are depleting. New research from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) indicates water levels in the aquifer beneath Albuquerque have reached the highest levels recorded since the USGS began mapping groundwater in the area in 2002. The trend began in 2012, when groundwater levels near Albuquerque began rising compared to historical conditions, and despite below-normal annual precipitation, according to maps produced by USGS. In 2016, USGS maps indicated “relatively high” levels of groundwater. At the same time, USGS noted that groundwater level declines, called drawdown, have reduced significantly.  

According to USGS hydrologists Amy Galanter and Andre Ritchie, that means the aquifer system that Albuquerque has relied on to supply drinking water to residents since the 1950s is rebounding after more than twenty years of efforts to restore it. 

Depleting groundwater across the country

Groundwater levels have dropped significantly across much of the West in recent years, impacting food production and drinking water access.

NM releases settlement info from case against previous administration

A New Mexico department released specifics of legal settlements Tuesday between the Department of Public Safety and some of its former employees. 

The state’s General Services Department released specifics of the settlement agreements for former DPS employees Dianna DeJarnette, Terri Thornberry and former DPS Deputy Secretary Amy Orlando. 

RELATED: State law encourages secret payouts

The records from General Services show DeJarnette and Orlando each received settlements of $300,000, while Thornberry received $400,000. Thom Cole, a spokesman for the General Services, said the release is partially in response to increased interest in a large settlement that was agreed upon by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Cole said the department has been fielding public records requests for specifics of the settlement. But state law requires any claims settled by Risk Management — which is under General Services — have to remain confidential for 180 days and the law is somewhat ambiguous about when that 180 days starts.  

“Rather than have people continue to file [records requests] one after another, after another, trying to hit the right date, we just decided to go ahead and release them,” Cole said. 

The settlements are part of a lawsuit filed by DeJarnette, Thornberry and Orlando alleging employment discrimination and harrasment, specifically by former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. 

Kassetas has been outspoken about the case since KRQE-TV first reported on it. He still maintains that the large settlement amount and the original confidentiality period of three years was at least partially to protect Martinez.

State judge says DOH will have to issue medical cannabis cards to out-of-state residents

A state district court judge on Monday ordered the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to start issuing medical cannabis cards to individuals who qualify, regardless of where they live. 

The question of whether non-residents of New Mexico could become medical cannabis patients started when major changes to the state’s medical cannabis law went into effect. One minor word replacement drastically changed who could become a patient, argued Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health. Before July 2019, the law stated that qualified patients must be a resident of New Mexico. Now, the law defines a qualified patient as a “person.” Rodriguez’s company bought both internet and radio ads promoting the change. But the Department of Health, which oversees the Medical Cannabis Program, along with the governor and at least one legislator, argued the intention of the law was never to open the program up to non-residents. 

Now, barring a compelling argument from DOH, the state could be forced to expand eligibility to anyone from across the country. 

The law is clear

In his ruling Monday morning, Santa Fe district Judge Bryan Biedscheid wrote that the law is clear.

Trash or Treasure? Adapting to recycling’s new normal

On a hot summer morning at the Friedman Recycling plant in Albuquerque’s North Valley, the city’s pungent recycling mix streams past on a series of conveyor belts, with an array of discards like cardboard, water bottles and soda cans first sorted by thrumming machines and human hands into bins, then compressed into giant bales bound for markets across the country. Workers pick through dense paper bales in search of errant plastic bags, aiming to reduce contamination to three percent, a drop from rates of eight percent accepted just two years ago. Grimy plastic bags, pizza boxes, garden hoses, and even more plastic bags—unrecyclable waste mixed in by residents, adding up to nearly a third of the city’s recycling stream—is sorted into a massive pile destined for the landfill. 

Despite processing costs that have increased over the last three years by about 150 percent to nearly $1 million, Albuquerque’s Director of Solid Waste Management Matthew Whelan says the city is committed to working through recent challenges to their recycling program.  

A 2018 Chinese government ban on plastic waste imports led to a worldwide recycling crisis. Recycling programs across the U.S. have struggled to respond to an oversupply of materials, stricter contamination standards and higher processing costs as the glut of recyclables crashed commodity prices and led buyers worldwide to become far more choosy about quality. 

“This isn’t a bump in the road. We’re not going to be able to go back to business as usual like it was three or four years ago,” emphasizes Patrick Peck, Director of South Central Solid Waste Authority in Las Cruces.

Agreement on NM probation, parole reforms seems stuck in the mud

Lawmakers and prosecutors appear as far apart as ever on reform proposals for New Mexico’s probation and parole systems, despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham admonishing them to find common ground in April. That’s when the first-term Democratic governor vetoed a reform bill — with significant consternation — that would have shifted the systems away from incarceration as a first resort and likely seen significantly fewer people returning to prison and jail. 

The disagreements center largely on who should be locked back up for violating their probation and who should not, and a change that would have required the Parole Board to issue detailed, written findings when it denies someone’s release after 30 years behind bars. If changes favored by legislators become law, potentially thousands of people in New Mexico who are currently locked up would remain under state supervision, but not behind bars. It could burden the justice system, creating the need for new jobs and monitoring mechanisms, but also save the public millions in lock-up costs, legislative analysts say. Lawmakers have pushed the changes because they say a shift toward rehabilitation and providing services to lower-level offenders can help them turn their lives around and stay out of the justice system.

EPA selects San Mateo Creek Basin for targeted clean up action

The EPA has added a New Mexico uranium mining basin to a list of sites “targeted for immediate, intense action.” The agency added the San Mateo Creek Basin site, part of the Grants Mining District, to the Administrator’s “Superfund Emphasis List” in mid-July, though the area is not a Superfund site. The agency said sites selected for the Administrator’s Superfund Emphasis List are those that “can benefit from Administrator Wheeler’s direct engagement and have identifiable actions to protect human health and the environment,” and require “timely resolution of specific issues to expedite cleanup and redevelopment efforts.”

The San Mateo Creek Basin stretches across 300 square miles of land within the Rio San Jose drainage basin, across McKinley and Cibola counties in Northwestern New Mexico. The area is known for its uranium production during the Cold War. Uranium mining in the area halted in the mid-1980s, leaving a legacy of waste and environmental impacts that the nearby communities continue to struggle with over thirty years later. Today, there are 85 legacy uranium mines and 4 legacy uranium mill sites within the San Mateo Creek Basin.

NM cabinet secretary wants to address secret settlements

A New Mexico law that allows legal settlements with state agencies to be kept a secret for at least six months may get a makeover in the next legislative session. 

General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz told NM Political Report his office, which oversees the state’s Risk Management Division, is in the process of creating a working group to address a relatively unknown statute that mandates settlements stay secret for 180 days. The same law that established the Risk Management Division, which often serves as the state’s de facto insurance provider, contains a “confidentiality of records” section, which is often referred to by its citation number 15-7-9 as legal shorthand. 

That section of the statute is less than 300 words and is ambiguous about exactly when the 180 days starts. There are four instances in which the law says the clock starts ticking: when “all statutes of limitation applicable to the claim have run,” when litigation is done, when the “claim” is settled or when the claim is in “closed status.”

Ortiz said previous claims filed with Risk Management were sometimes never put into closed status, simply because someone failed to close it in division’s computer system. 

“I wanted to take the human element out of 15-7-9,” Ortiz said. 

The failure to “physically click on a button,” Ortiz said, would sometimes delay the start of the 180 days by an extra six months. 

“What we’ve seen when we reviewed settlements is, for whatever reason, it took several months after the final action on that case for the staff to administratively close it,” Ortiz said. 

That means a 180-day confidentiality period could easily run for more than a year.  Last year, for example, the New Mexico Corrections Department settled a lawsuit with six women who sued the state, claiming they were sexual assaulted and harassed by their superiors. That case was settled in January 2018, but GSD’s lawyer at the time said claims were not complete until all of the state’s legal bills were paid, which did not happen until six months after the case was dismissed. 

Now Ortiz said he’s working with the governor’s office and lawmakers to better define when the confidentiality period starts, and possibly address whether it should even be 180 days.  

Mr. Ortiz goes to the Legislature

Ortiz said he was aware of the confidentiality period before he took the job as cabinet secretary, but was not fully aware of the issues it presented until he started getting calls from news reporters—this one included—about settlements. 

“We thought, ‘This is truly tax payer money and people have a right to know,’” Ortiz said. 

Ortiz said conversations about transparency also came up when State Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, and State Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, introduced a bill that would require the state to post the specifics of all human rights settlements online. Ortiz said he wants to include the two lawmakers in crafting legislation to address the issue.

Migrant moms await due dates and court dates

A growing number of expectant mothers are among the migrants pouring in daily from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador — even Haiti — to more than 30 already overflowing shelters in Tijuana, Mexico. “More women are arriving pregnant or with babies,” said pastor Gustavo Banda of the Embajadores de Jesús (Ambassadors of Jesus) church, which operates a shelter in Cañón del Alacrán (Scorpion’s Canyon) on the outskirts of Tijuana. “We have a lot of Haitian women and some Central American.”

Some women also get pregnant while they wait. These pregnant women are stuck here because the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program requires some U.S.-bound asylum applicants to register at ports of entry and then return to Mexican border cities to wait as their claims are processed. It’s a period of great anxiety, if only because many want their children born in the United States.

Donald Trump Jr. visits private border wall amid immigration crisis, Mueller aftermath

“Donald Trump Jr. visits private border wall amid immigration crisis, Mueller aftermath” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. SUNLAND PARK, N.M. – Donald Trump Jr. on Friday used every second of his brief visit to the border to defend his father and his administration, warn against the spread of socialism and alert a friendly Republican crowd that although his father’s reelection next year should be easy, it won’t be in the current political climate. Trump Jr. was a special guest at an event dubbed the Symposium at the Wall: Cartels, Trafficking and Asylum. The three-day affair is put on by the same organizers behind We Build the Wall, the group that raised millions through a GoFundMe account to build a border barrier on the private land where the symposium took place. “What you finally have now is a president who is willing to fight for Americans,” Trump Jr. told the crowd of about 100 people during a 13-minute speech.