A petroleum PR blitz in New Mexico

In the past seven months, oil and gas companies have dramatically stepped up their outreach and public relations spending at some of New Mexico’s best-known, best-loved events. The industry also picked up an additional public relations bump from the not unexpected news that oil and gas revenues will add an additional $2.5 billion to next year’s state government budget. This record breaking funding comes on the heels of last year’s record breaking budget, both of them courtesy of record breaking oil and gas production and record breaking oil and gas prices. All of this money sloshing around the state raises the positive public profile of the petroleum industry. Meanwhile, the public sees little of its state Legislature — but that doesn’t mean it’s not busy.

Bill to ban spent nuclear fuel storage in New Mexico passes committee

A bill clearly aimed at blocking Holtec International from building an underground storage site for spent nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico is moving forward. The House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted 5-4 to advance a bill that would ban the storage or disposal of spent nuclear fuel in the state — and would essentially kill Holtec’s plans to build a repository for this high-level radioactive waste in the Carlsbad area. It now will go to the House Judiciary Committee. A key point in the debate was whether the state has the authority to stop the federal government from approving what’s described as an interim storage site to keep the material until a permanent place is created. Some lawmakers and regulators who back House Bill 127 say although the state can’t interfere with how the commission regulates the waste, it can block storage sites that could cause adverse environmental impacts.

Senate committee tables bill to appropriate $335 million in relief funds on public health

The Senate Finance Committee tabled a bill request to spend $335 million of the $1.1 billion in America Rescue Plan Act money to the state on public health issues on a 6 to 1 vote, but committee members advised the bill sponsors to bring the bill back to the regular session. Sponsored by state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the bill, SB 9, would establish a school of public health at the University of New Mexico by appropriating $50 million to the UNM Board of Regents to build a school of public health facility at the UNM Health Sciences Center on campus. State Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, who is a co-sponsor, said a “center of excellence” school of public health would attract top researchers who would bring grant money with them and that, with student enrollment, would largely enable the school to pay for itself. Other money would go to pay for equipment to help with cancer treatment; expand behavioral health services statewide, expand nursing faculty and pay for the salaries and operational budget of the projected school of public health. An additional $10 million would go to the Department of Health to work with UNM on providing obstetric care in Las Vegas and Gallup.

Changes coming to appropriations bill after Senate Finance Committee hearing

During a two-hour Senate Finance Committee hearing on HB 2, the committee learned of issues with the bill that will likely require change to the legislation. Department of Game and Fish Director, Michael Sloane, told the committee during the hearing that the department did not request the $5 million appropriated in the bill for property acquisition. He said the department is not currently considering any property acquisition projects. This led to concern among some committee members who brought up Bar L Ranch in Sandoval County, that the money was appropriated for that purchase but Sloane said any talk about the state purchasing that land was premature. Senate Finance Chair George Muñoz, D-Gallup, clarified how the appropriation happened by saying that the Legislative Finance Committee had reached out to the department but, he said, didn’t hear back.

Bill to overhaul hunting, wildlife management hits roadblock in committee

Legislation to reform hunting regulations and wildlife management in New Mexico stalled in the Senate Conservation Committee on Saturday. Senate Bill 312 appears doomed for this session after members tied 4-4 on a vote to reconsider debate and vote on the legislation in the absence of Sen. Joe Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat who serves on the committee. 

A vote earlier in the week also resulted in a tie. “Right now it just seems like there is a stalemate in the committee,” said Sen. Liz Stefanics, a Cerrillos Democrat who chairs the committee. Currently, 84 percent of hunting tags go to residents, 10 percent are set aside for outfitters and 6 percent go to nonresidents. Under the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Nathan Small and Sen. Jeff Steinborn, both Las Cruces Democrats, 90 percent would be reserved for residents and the rest for out-of-state hunters with none for outfitters.

Bill to revamp New Mexico wildlife management stalls in committee

Legislation that supporters say would modernize wildlife management in New Mexico but opponents counter would hurt outfitters who operate on public lands has stalled on a tie vote in a Senate committee. “My district is parts of six counties — it is all rural — and I, in this case, I’m going to have to support my constituents,” Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, told other members of the Senate Conservation Committee on Tuesday before joining with three Republicans to table the 241-page bill. Senate Bill 312 is now stuck in the committee with just over three weeks left in the session. Some lawmakers struggled over whether or not to support the measure, which included changes they supported wholeheartedly but others that gave them pause. “I hate bills like this,” said Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces.

Environment Department says they need more funds for inspections, more

New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney told state lawmakers his agency needs more staffing to inspect worker safety violations, ensure businesses are preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus and better protect the state’s air and water quality. Kenney implored members of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday to approve a $3.7 million increase in the Environment Department’s budget for fiscal year 2022, saying it would beef up understaffed teams that probe workplace safety issues. 

The increase would raise the agency’s general fund budget to $16.8 million and be on par with the 28 percent bump the governor has proposed. 

“That is, all things considered, a very modest increase,” Kenney said. “That investment in the Environment Department — $3.7 million — will definitely save lives [and] protect public health and the environment.” 

In all, the agency’s revenue last year was $90.7 million, counting grants and fees collected.  

The Legislative Finance Committee recommended keeping the agency’s general fund allocations the same as last year’s, which Kenney argued was not enough to provide effective oversight.  

Kenney said the requested funding increase is the difference between the agency being able to investigate workplace complaints and deaths and leaving those incidents unchecked. 

Probing workplace violations through the state office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is imperative in New Mexico, where worker deaths are 77 percent higher than the national average, Kenney told the committee. 

The agency’s budget was cut by 42 percent in the last three years that former Gov. Susana Martinez was in office, Kenney said. It has regained about 22 percent of its spending but is still operating at a lower funding level than it requires, he said. 

The agency has a vacancy rate of 17.7 percent, which adds up to 63 jobs that should be filled, Kenney said. 

None of the committee members spoke against the requested increase. 

Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, expressed strong support, saying the agency’s mission should be a priority in New Mexico. 

The committee is considering hefty increases in spending on economic development and tourism, he said. 

“And those are great things, but I would hope we’d all agree that environmental protection and protecting public health are at least equally important,” Steinborn said. 

Subpar environmental oversight can hurt economic development because companies don’t want to locate in places that are unhealthy and unsafe, he added. The proposed budget includes a $1.7 million for rapid responses to workplaces where one or more employees tested positive for COVID-19.

‘Forever deadly’: State officials, communities scramble to fight a proposal to house high-level nuclear waste in New Mexico

Rose Gardner is not giving up. 

A Eunice resident, Gardner has spent the past few years fighting a proposal to store high-level nuclear waste in southeastern New Mexico. 

“I was born here in Eunice, New Mexico, and have lived through a lot of ups and downs, oil booms and busts,” Gardner told NM Political Report. “But never have I ever felt that we needed an industry as dangerous as storing high-level nuclear waste right here.”

Gardner, who co-founded the Alliance for Environmental Strategies, is part of a groundswell of opposition to a project currently under consideration by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) that would see the world’s largest nuclear waste storage facility be built along the Lea-Eddy county line.  

Holtec International, a private company specializing in spent nuclear fuel storage and management, applied for a license from the NRC in 2017 to construct and operate the facility in southeastern New Mexico that would hold waste generated at nuclear utilities around the country temporarily until a permanent, federally-managed repository is established. The license application is making steady progress in the NRC’s process, despite the pandemic. 

Proponents of the project tout the estimated $3 billion in capital investments and 100 new jobs that it would bring to the area. But opponents — including the governor of New Mexico, most tribal nations in the state, state lawmakers, 12 local governments and a number of local associations — worry that the proposed interim storage facility would become a de facto permanent storage solution for the nation’s growing nuclear waste. “There’s a great concern that this waste, should it end up in New Mexico, will really never move from here,” state Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, told NM Political Report.

Two contraception bills advance

A bill that would go beyond both the governor’s and Legislative Finance Committee’s appropriation recommendations for long-acting reversible contraceptive training to medical professionals passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee 4-2 Thursday. The vote fell along party lines for SB 40, which would provide $1.2 million from the general fund to the state Department of Health to mentor health care providers on long-acting reversible contraception. Democratic Senators Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez of Albuquerque, Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics of Cerrillos, Jerry Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque and Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces voted in favor. Republican Senators Candace Gould of Albuquerque and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho opposed the bill, while Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle was absent. Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, is sponsoring this bill as well as another, SB 41, which provides $500,000 to the Department of Health to raise public awareness on long-acting reversible contraception.

Coyote-killing contest ban now up to governor

The Legislature has sent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham a bill that would outlaw coyote killing contests in New Mexico. A 37-30 vote late Tuesday by the House of Representatives to pass Senate Bill 76 came after the Senate approved the measure last week on a vote of 22-17. As to whether the governor plans to sign it into law, spokesman Tripp Stelnicki on Wednesday said only that, “At this point, we’re reviewing the legislation.” The House vote came after a two-hour plus debate that was often punctuated with imagery of bloodshed, ambushes and shootings and which highlighted the divide between rural and urban communities when it comes to dealing with coyotes. Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, and Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, introduced Senate Bill 76, saying they see such contests as inhumane.