Lujan Grisham signs universal free school meal bill into law

All New Mexico public school students will receive free meals after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the bill into law on Monday. This makes New Mexico just the fourth state to guarantee free meals to all public school students. “Today, New Mexico is leading the nation by not only providing free healthy school meals to every student in our state, but we’re also making sure those meals are nutritious foods that kids want to eat,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “When we feed our children, we’re feeding our future – these investments today will yield benefits tomorrow through generations of healthier New Mexicans.”

States throughout the country had universal free school meals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic through federal waivers. The federal COVID-19 emergency declarations will end later this year.

Lujan Grisham to end state’s COVID-19 public health emergency

The state’s COVID-19 public health emergency will come to an end at the end of March, a little more than three years after the governor first issued her executive order over the deadly respiratory illness. The governor announced her renewal of the public health emergency order on Friday would be the final one, and it would expire on March 31. 

“While we’re still seeing COVID cases, our preparedness and collaborative work have helped turn a once-in-a-century public health emergency into a manageable situation,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement on Friday. “We are working diligently across state agencies to make sure New Mexicans continue to be supported as federal COVID programs wind down.” 

This comes as the federal government also plans to end its COVID-19 emergencies. President Joe Biden announced earlier this year that he would end the national emergencies for COVID-19 on May 11. 

Lujan Grisham first declared a public health emergency on March 11, 2020, the same day the state detected its first confirmed cases of the disease. 

In the coming weeks, the governor included drastic efforts to slow the spread of the disease, including shuttering restaurants, banning public gatherings and implementing capacity restrictions in places like grocery stores. The state also, for a time, mandated the use of masks in public areas.

Biden nominates Torres Small to top USDA role

Former U.S. Representative and current federal official Xochitl Torres Small might be getting a new position. President Joe Biden nominated Torres Small to be Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Torres Small is currently the Under Secretary for Rural Development in the same agency. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack praised Torres Small in a statement after the White House announced the nomination, calling her an “exemplary member of the USDA subcabinet.”

“During her leadership, Rural Development was the first federal agency to invest Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds in physical infrastructure for high-speed internet, and the first entity to make Inflation Reduction Act funds available to drive down energy costs for farmers and rural small businesses,” Vilsack said. “She has worked to foster a dedicated and diverse workforce ready to serve the American people in Rural Development offices across the country.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a Democrat, signaled his support for Torres Small as well.

U.S. Senate confirms federal judge for NM 

The steady stream of federal judge confirmations continued when the Senate voted to confirm Matthew L. Garcia as a U.S. District Judge for the District of New Mexico. The Senate voted 53 to 46 to confirm Garcia. Both of New Mexico’s U.S. Senators, Democrats Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, voted for the nomination and presented Garcia’s nomination to the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. Garcia will fill a vacancy in the position. Garcia is an attorney from Albuquerque, and served as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s chief of staff from 2020 to 2022 and as her general counsel previous to that. 

“Mr. Garcia was born, raised, and built his legal career in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where this District Court seat is based.

Bill to prohibit automatic firearm sales passes first committee on party-line vote

By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican

As an avid motorcyclist, snowboarder and gun enthusiast, retired Illinois state trooper Wilfredo Rivera said he couldn’t find a better place to call home than New Mexico. A year and a half after moving to Rio Rancho, however, Rivera is questioning whether he made the right choice. “All of a sudden, I now find myself deciding if having moved here, coming across the country, is going to turn out to be one of the most costly and biggest mistakes of my life because of some of these bills that are starting to come down the pike,” Rivera told the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on Monday as it heard the latest in a series of gun-control measures introduced in this year’s 60-day legislative session. Senate Bill 171, which would make it a fourth-degree felony to manufacture, sell, barter, trade, gift, transfer or acquire automatic firearms and other weapons, among other restrictions, cleared the committee on a party-line, 6-3 vote despite constitutional concerns with the legislation. Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, said early in the discussion she worried the bill was “extremely broad.”

Solomon Peña’s social media shows his ties to far-right politics

Solomon Peña didn’t get much attention as a candidate. It makes sense; he was a Republican running in a deeply Democratic district. Incumbent Miguel Garcia has long ties to the district, serving since 1997, never having a truly competitive race in the general election. The most media attention Peña received came when Garcia sued to remove him from the ballot over his felony convictions over a decade ago for conspiracy to commit burglary, larceny and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. 

In late 2006 and 2007, Peña and others drove a vehicle into big box stores, then robbed them of electronics and jewelry. They did this at four stores: Toys ‘R’ Us, Hastings, KMart and Circuit City.

Former Republican legislative candidate arrested over shootings targeting Democratic politicians’ houses

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina announced Monday evening, on the eve of the 2022 legislative session, that police arrested a former Republican candidate for office in relation to the shootings at the homes of Albuquerque Democrats. Albuquerque police say Solomon Peña, 39, conspired with and paid four other men to shoot at the homes of two Bernalillo County commissioners and two legislators. 

Peña ran for state House District 14 as a Republican in 2022, losing to incumbent Democrat Miguel Garcia. “This type of radicalism is a threat to our nation and has made its way to our doorstep here in Albuquerque, New Mexico,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said at the press conference. Peña was arrested following a SWAT situation near downtown Albuquerque when he was served at his residence. “Earlier today, the Albuquerque Police Department SWAT team took Solomon Peña [into] custody in reference to the shootings and he is the mastermind that was behind this and organizing this,” Medina said at the news conference.

2022 Top Stories #2: Wildfires burn across the state

Note: Every year, we count down the top ten stories of the year, as voted on by NM Political Report staffers. See our entire countdown of 2022 top stories, to date, here. The two largest fires in state history burned simultaneously this summer, charring hundreds of thousands of acres and displaced thousands of people. Even people whose properties were not directly impacted by the fires were affected by the thick smoke. An active monsoon season helped extinguish the fires, but they brought their own consequences.

2022 Top Stories #5: Recreational cannabis sales start

Note: Every year, we count down the top ten stories of the year, as voted on by NM Political Report staffers. See our entire countdown of 2022 top stories, to date, here. After years of efforts to legalize adult-use cannabis in New Mexico, April 1, 2022 was the day. This was the day that New Mexico joined over a dozen other states in legalizing the recreational use of the substance for adults. The New Mexico legislature passed a law to legalize adult-use cannabis in 2021.

Balderas named president of Northern New Mexico College

Attorney General Hector Balderas has his next job lined up, as president of Northern New Mexico College in Española. Balderas is term-limited and could not run for a third consecutive term as Attorney General. 

Balderas was chosen unanimously by the NNMC Board of Regents from a list of four finalists. “I’m inspired that the community was involved in the selection process—they have hope for change, and I am honored that the regents, faculty and staff will partner with me as we take Northern New Mexico College into the future, building on student success and institutional development,” Balderas said in a statement. Balderas will still need to discuss his contract with the board. His term as attorney general ends at the end of the year, and his replacement, 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez, will be sworn in at the start of 2023.