New Mexico in Depth wins awards in regional journalism contest

New Mexico In Depth has won six awards, including two first place prizes, competing against medium-sized newsrooms across New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The honors, announced this weekend in Denver, were awarded in the annual Top of the Rockies contest administered by the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Elizabeth Miller took 1st place in the agriculture and environment news for a package of stories that highlighted water finally making its way to parts of the Navajo Nation, where 30% to 40% of Navajo people still are without running water because of a century of federal indifference. But the century-late federal aid doesn’t include money to connect homes and small communities to a massive pipeline project. She also trained her eye on the city of Gallup and its near-crisis in water availability just as a new federal project that promises help could be held up for four additional years due to federal decision making.

The Redistricting Fight Isn’t Over

Thursday night, at the end of an interactive program on gerrymandering put on by the Keshet Arts and Justice Youth Leadership Council, the facilitator asked everyone in the audience (OK, only about a dozen of us) to summarize the experience in one word. “Frustrating,” said one older woman. “Exciting,” said one young woman. “Impressed,” I said. I was impressed by the way Council Co-chairs Juliana Gorena and Emani Brooks, both 19, used clips from the documentary Slay the Dragon to explain the history and impact of gerrymandering better than almost anyone I’ve seen try.

Trump ally Couy Griffin pushes election audit in Otero County. Not all Republicans like it.

Otero County is the latest local front in a war that is dividing Republicans over the 2020 election. The County Commission in southeastern New Mexico has paid for a $50,000 study they call an audit of the county’s election results, provoking headlines after voters complained that volunteers who are going door-to-door quizzing them are asking them who they cast ballots for — a charge one of the organizers has denied. While the county commission has authorized paying for the audit, it’s not an official audit like the ones completed after each election by the Otero County Clerk, the Office of the Secretary of State or an independent firm contracted by the state agency. Leading the effort is a group called New Mexico Audit Force and an ally is Otero County’s most famous commissioner — Republican Couy Griffin, the Cowboys for Trump leader awaiting trial on federal criminal charges of entering and disorderly conduct in a restricted building related to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

A win for New Mexico’s vulnerable population

New Mexico lawmakers made consequential changes for the state’s most vulnerable people during the short 30-day legislative session this year, made possible by a tidal wave of cash. Top of the list of consequential bills is the big boost in teacher pay. Lawmakers bumped salary minimums for Level 1, 2, and 3 teachers to $50,000, $60,000, and $70,000, respectively, a major goal of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators who publicly declared their intention to make New Mexico’s teachers the best paid in the region. Compared to states like Texas, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and Colorado, they’re about middling right now. 

The hope is the increases will sweeten the allure of teaching. Vacancies among the state’s teaching ranks are high and growing.

New Mexico In Depth renews partnership with ProPublica

ProPublica has selected New Mexico In Depth as part of its Local Reporting Network for the second time in as many years, a huge distinction. 

You might remember New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica teamed up in 2020 and 2021 to work with reporter Bryant Furlow as COVID marched across the globe.The year-and-a-half partnership proved extremely impactul, with Bryant’s stories:• Forcing one of New Mexico’s largest hospitals to stop automatically testing and segregating Native American pregnant women after we exposed the practice, which was based on whether women lived in Native communities. We discovered the hospital’s practice through rigorous and lengthy relationship building with clinicians within the hospital. 

• Documenting that New Mexico provides almost no oversight of the care provided by neonatal intensive care units even though the tiniest, most premature babies died at up to twice the rate at one of the state’s largest hospitals compared to the rate at another major maternity and newborn facility only a few miles away in Albuquerque; and despite 31 states having laws or rules requiring oversight of neonatal intensive care hospitals.• Showing how the nursing home industry fought to water down safety requirements in the years before COVID stormed across the globe, leaving them and the clients facilities cared for vulnerable to the devastating virus. 

Bryant is known for reporting that leads to change. 

His reporting has exposed off-label sedation of jail inmates with prescription drug cocktails, embezzlements, and lax oversight by the state’s insurance regulators — reporting that prompted new state legislation on insurance rate-setting transparency. 

With New Mexico In Depth over the years, he was the first reporter to challenge the state’s decision to cut off Medicaid funding to behavioral health providers through rigorous, thorough reporting. 

He’s authored hundreds of health care and medical research news stories for medical journals, including The Lancet journals’ news desks, where his recent reporting has spotlighted neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, vaping injuries, the seizure by the US Border Patrol of children’s medications and volunteer health care efforts at migrant shelters along the U.S./Mexico border. Since 2008, New York-based ProPublica has become known for rigorous and thoughtful journalism, winning six Pulitzers, five Peabody Awards, nine George Polk Awards, two DuPont Columbia Awards and four Emmy Awards.  

Our partnership with ProPublica, which begins in January, is part of New Mexico In Depth’s core mission: to collaborate with national and local news organizations to bring resources, new skills, and more journalism to New Mexico communities, where investigative reporting is in short supply. 

We look forward to continuing to strengthen our capacity for investigative reporting in years to come. 

Trying to understand fear of critical race theory and diversity programs

I’ve been watching school board races across the country — in places like Southlake, Texas and Guilford, Conn. — because of the debate over  “critical race theory” and growing opposition to diversity and equity programs.

These are mostly white, affluent communities near big cities. Imagine my surprise this week to discover the debate is happening in my town, too. Patrick Brenner, a vice president of development for the Rio Grande Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank in New Mexico, is running for the school board in Rio Rancho, New Mexico’s third-largest city composed mostly of Anglos and Hispanics. According to Brenner’s personal blog, he believes the district’s teachers are being trained in critical race theory, which will result in “All white people” feeling guilty “for being white,” including his 8-year-old daughter.

Housing shortage hampers community re-entry for prisoners

Statewide, there’s a shortage of available housing for offenders exiting prison.State lawmakers got the bad news Wednesday during a hearing of the Courts, Corrections and Justice legislative committee. There are many challenges to placing prisoners in communities, according to New Mexico corrections officials and a program manager for an Albuquerque transitional living center.Like many corrections systems, New Mexico has long struggled to keep offenders from bouncing back into incarceration, a cycle known as recidivism.In late 2019, the rate of offenders returning to behind bars — measured in the three years after a person gets out — stood at 57% “from a high of 60%”, but well above the department’s target of a 45% rate, the New Mexico Legislature’s budget arm noted in a recent report.The lack of housing increases the turnstile of recidivism. Having a stable place to live helps the chances of successful reentry for a formerly incarcerated person. Said another way, it lowers the likelihood a person will return to prison. I’ve learned over the years reading government reports and scholarly studies that housing, like education, has positive effects on a person’s life as they return to society. Don’t take my word for it.”Having a stable home is a fundamental part of reentering society, providing a place from which to orient oneself while beginning to search for employment, reestablish social networks, and get treatment.” That’s an excerpt from a December 2019 report by the Criminal Justice Policy Group of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.It might seem a bit esoteric, worrying about how many former prisoners go back to prison, but it affects all of us.  The person trying to escape the cycle and their families.

Remembering 9/11 and the world it ushered in

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife and I and our two-year-old son were in the middle of our morning routine in a two-bedroom apartment in Connecticut 80 miles from New York City. 

We’d just returned from vacation in Pennsylvania — Lancaster County and Philadelphia — and as I readied for work I turned on the TV just in time to watch the first tower fall. After that everything is a blur, although I remember yelling to my wife in the back yard out the open window that one of the towers had tumbled in an explosion of dust and debris, a minute or so before an editor called to say I was needed in the newsroom immediately. For the next three months at my newspaper, daily life was a powerful mix of chaos and sadness as we  compiled during overly long days a running list of local people unaccounted for in Manhattan or counted as dead and attempted to tell their stories. In the middle of that grimness an elderly woman 10 miles from our apartment died of anthrax, one of five Americans to succumb to a weaponized version of a naturally occurring biological pathogen. Her death put everyone on greater edge than before, including me. 

Two decades on, I’ve made peace with the fact that 9/11 and the weeks and months afterward will stay with me the rest of my life. But as traumatic as those times were and as powerfully evocative as my memories of them are for me, time has widened my perspective on 9/11 and the world it helped create.If we are honest with ourselves, Americans should reflect on both the complicated story of 9/11 and  what unfolded as a result of it over the next 20 years.

New Mexico Early Childhood Trust Fund flush with new revenue

New Mexicans who care about child well being and the state’s newest agency — the Early Childhood Development and Care Department — woke up to good news Friday morning.As you might remember, the agency launched a year ago with a trust fund valued at more than $300 million to help pay its way. Expectations were for the fund to grow to $1 billion over 10 years, if lucky. (The agency won’t directly tap into the fund to pay for expenses. Instead, the interest earned by the trust fund will help to finance the department’s spending.) So much for the low-ball projection. Word came Friday morning that the Early Childhood Trust Fund, as it’s known, is about to double, to nearly $650 million, thanks to booming tax collections and a strong recovery in the oil and gas markets following the COVID-provoked collapse of 2020. Nearly $335 million in excess cash — basically, surplus dollars from what the state took in over what it spent during the state fiscal year that ended June 30th — will flow to the trust fund.