Take uranium contamination off our land, Navajos urge federal nuclear officials 

The gale-force winds that swept across New Mexico on Friday, driving fires and evacuations, gave Diné residents in a small western New Mexico community an opportunity to demonstrate first hand the danger they live with every day.Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) members were in the Red Water Pond Road community, about 20 minutes northeast of Gallup, to hear local input on a controversial plan to clean up a nearby abandoned uranium mine. It was the first visit anyone could recall by NRC commissioners to the Navajo Nation, where the agency regulates four uranium mills. Chairman Christopher Hanson called the visit historic, and the significance was visible with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and other Navajo officials in attendance. As commissioners listened to 20 or so people give testimony over several hours Friday afternoon, high winds battered the plastic sheeting hung on the sides of the Cha’a’oh, or shade house, making it hard for some in the audience of many dozens to hear all that was said.  “This is like this everyday,” community member Annie Benally told commissioners, mentioning the dust being whipped around outside by the wind. “They say it’s clean, it’s ok.

ABQ city councilor’s political group steps up to PAC

Another political season. Another new political group with a forgettable but vaguely feel-good name.In March, a new entity registered with the Secretary of State: Working Together New Mexico. Albuquerque City Councilor Louie Sanchez, who represents part of the city’s westside, has said its purpose is to support the campaigns of particular candidates. Sanchez didn’t file a report last week saying how much the group has raised and spent despite a state deadline. Nor did he file a no activity report, a minimum requirement of groups that register with the Secretary of State under the campaign reporting act. Yesterday, six candidates in the June 7, 2022 Democratic primary wrote Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver to request an immediate investigation of Working Together New Mexico for not filing a report. “This PAC has developed a website, launched a PR campaign, raised funds, and retained a prominent consultant…to say they haven’t spent $1,000 yet just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Tara Jaramillo, running for State House District 38 in central and southern New Mexico, stated in the press release sent out by campaign consultant, Neri Holguin. This analysis originally appeared in our Friday newsletter.

Money for abandoned uranium mine cleanup spurs questions about design, jobs

This story is part of a collaboration from the Institute for Nonprofit News Rural News Network in partnership with INN members Indian Country Today, Buffalo’s Fire, InvestigateWest, KOSU, New Mexico In Depth, Underscore and Wisconsin Watch, as well as partners Mvskoke Media, Osage News and Rawhide Press. Series logo by Mvskoke Creative. The project was made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation. 

Uranium mines are personal for Dariel Yazzie. Now head of the Navajo Nation’s Superfund program, Yazzie grew up near Monument Valley, Arizona, where the Vanadium Corporation of America started uranium operations in the 1940s. His childhood home sat a stone’s throw from piles of waste from uranium milling, known as tailings.

It’s time for lawmakers to embrace transparency (Updated)

Update: Shortly after publishing the following newsletter on Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, wrote in an email to New Mexico in Depth that lawmakers would include transparency in a revised junior bill during an upcoming special session. She said lawmakers would use as a model new transparency measures passed last year for capital outlay allocations. “I wish we had done this originally but we think we have an answer to how to make those changes,” she wrote. Later on Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders announced a special session of the Legislature would convene on April 5, to take up a revised junior bill and consider measures they can take to help New Mexicans in the face of rising inflation. After sending out our newsletter last week about lawmakers’ outrage over the governor vetoing their dark spending bill, I had a moment of deja vu.

Staring down the clock, lawmakers make moves to keep voting rights alive

Every year it seems, bills people have sweated over for months languish in the final days of the legislative session. Only a few are destined to make it, in a competition for time involving many hard choices.  As the clock winds down to noon tomorrow, lawmakers are attempting to funnel bills through a window that grows smaller by the hour. 

At this stage, successful measures have broad support or the backing of lawmakers who have the muscle to push them through. And just about every year, momentous bills end up successful in the final hours thanks to intricate maneuvers. 

Take, for example, Senate Bill 8, which would update state elections law to expand voting rights, create more access to the ballot for tribes, and make it easier to vote by mail.  

It’s a bill that Democrats, who control the Legislature, really want and by the final week of the session it hadn’t made it to the House, thanks to a procedural maneuver — a call of the Senate — employed by Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, that kept the voting rights measure bottled up. 

The bill is a local example of a national struggle over voting rights. Across the country, many states controlled by Republicans are passing laws that restrict voting to prevent what they say is voter fraud after the 2020 election.  Democrats respond there’s no evidence of fraud and the laws make it more difficult to vote, especially for voters of color. 

The impetus for the legislative battle in New Mexico came in January, when Democrats in the U.S. Senate failed to pass a voting rights bill that would have enshrined greater access to voter registration and voting due to GOP opposition. Essentially, the inaction left it up to individual states to decide whether to expand or limit access to voting.

New Mexico Democrats aim to expand right to vote, and make voting easier

Across the country, “our whole democratic system is under attack.”So said New Mexico’s Senate Majority leader, Peter Wirth, a Democrat from Santa Fe, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday as he presented Senate Bill 8, now poised to pass the Senate having cleared three of that chamber’s committees with Democratic but no Republican support. The effort comes in an election year in which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is running for re-election and all seats in the state House of Representatives are up. 

The legislation would allow people who’ve committed a felony to vote before completing their probation or parole. It would ensure ballot access on tribal land, make it easier for New Mexicans to stay registered, and cast a ballot too. According to Wirth, the bill responds to frustration over the failure of the U.S. Senate in January to pass a voting rights measure called the Freedom to Vote Act. The federal legislation would have expanded voting rights and prohibited gerrymandering of political districts to favor one political party over another. 

Lessons were learned during the “COVID voting cycle of 2020” about voter disenfranchisement, and the value of mail by vote, the Senate majority leader said.

Effort to cap interest rates contends with lobbying muscle

Once a person has taken out a loan from a storefront lender in New Mexico, interest rates up to 175% can quickly spiral out of control. Because they target lower-income people who don’t have bank accounts, these storefront outfits are often referred to as “predatory lenders.”  A 2020 Think New Mexico report describes New Mexico as “saturated”: In New Mexico there is a small loan store for every 3,819 residents, according to the report. By comparison, there is one McDonald’s restaurant for every 23,298 New Mexicans. As lawmakers attempt to cap interest rates at 36% this session, they might keep in mind a new New Mexico Ethics Watch report that took a look at the industry’s lobbying efforts. It’s a report that quantifies some of the spending but also gets across just how much we can’t know about the influence peddling that goes on at the Roundhouse, bringing up an issue New Mexico In Depth has reported on repeatedly over the years: lobbying disclosure.