Indian Affairs Committee wants $3 million for Attorney General work on missing and murdered Indigenous people cases

The Attorney General’s Office has made advances this year in addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people (MMIP), but it needs dedicated funding from the Legislature to keep it up, Mark Probasco, deputy director of the office’s Special Prosecutions Division, told the Indian Affairs Committee on Thursday. 

The legislative committee didn’t argue, passing a motion to recommend inclusion of $3 million in the state budget for the office to continue its work on a nationwide issue that’s gained increased attention in New Mexico in recent years. 

A state task force published a response plan in May with a number of recommendations, although what legislative action might come next is unclear. 

There are at least 192 Indigenous people missing throughout New Mexico and the Navajo Nation, according to a list the FBI last updated in October. State officials and lawmakers say that’s likely an undercount. 

Senate Bill 12, signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in February, created a specialist position in the AG’s Office and allocated $1 million to a grant program aimed at establishing a network to support efforts by tribal nations to identify and find Indigenous people who are missing. 

An additional $1 million for at least one full-time specialist didn’t make it into the final version of the bill. As a result, the AG’s Office has been drawing resources from other areas, Probasco told the committee. 

“It’s one thing for the state to say that it is committed towards this important work,” Probasco said. “We do the best with the resources that we do have, but the reality is that in order for us to maximize the law that has been passed and to make sure that we give these families the best chance at moving forward, it has to be better funded.” 

Since February, the office has assisted in prosecutions, helped compile the FBI list, built partnerships with other law enforcement agencies, and collaborated with the New Mexico Press Association to offer training on how to humanely cover MMIP cases, Probasco said. 

Probasco pointed to the murder of Cecelia B. Finona (Diné). After being reported missing in 2019, the 59-year-old Farmington resident was found dead in 2021. 

Jerry Jay was prosecuted with help from the AG’s Office and pled guilty in September to first-degree kidnapping and second-degree murder.

Alcohol taxes across country are “very, very low”

Lawmakers shouldn’t read too much into the fact that New Mexico has some of the highest alcohol taxes in the country, a national expert told them today. Because “alcohol taxes across the country are very, very low.”And Richard Auxier, Senior Policy Associate, Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, gave lawmakers at the Legislature’s Revenue Stabilization & Tax Policy Committee hearing a clear answer to questions about whether raising taxes helps improve public health. Yes, he said, research shows that raising taxes reduces consumption and improves health. In the state that leads the country in alcohol deaths, that’s important. But when you get into the weeds of tax policy, everything becomes complicated. Lawmakers should start with understanding their ultimate goal, Auxier said. Is it to eliminate or drastically reduce consumption of alcohol? If so, it might make sense to increase taxes significantly. Or is it to improve public health while not making drinking alcohol so expensive that it becomes out of reach?

Ivey-Soto spectacle reminds us state lawmakers can’t police themselves

The saga that humbled state senator Daniel Ivey-Soto this week is the kind of political theater that hypnotizes the chattering political class. A mixture of sexual harassment allegations and an unsuccessful coup against Sen. President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, with whom he has clashed, led Ivey-Soto to resign Thursday as chairman of the Senate Rules Committee before his colleagues could remove him. It was a very public drama that generated blaring headlines and gossipy conversations. Beyond all the hot takes and salacious titillation, however, it’s important that we not forget the institutional weakness that got us to this point. Skepticism has always swirled around lawmakers’ claim that they can police themselves.

Will carbon capture help clean New Mexico’s power, or delay its transition?

Shiprock, a sacred site to the Diné (Navajo People) is seen in the distance, the view mired in a smoky haze. Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley / for the Energy News Network

As New Mexico lawmakers were putting the finishing touches on landmark legislation to help workers and communities transition from the closure of the state’s largest coal plant, the city of Farmington had other plans. 

“We have reached a milestone that few people thought remotely possible,” City Manager Rob Mayes told the local newspaper in February 2019. An agreement was announced between the city and a New York holding firm called Acme Equities to keep the aging San Juan Generating Station operating past its scheduled 2022 retirement date. The state’s largest utility, Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, had planned to retire the massive coal-fired power plant, eliminating hundreds of jobs and millions in local tax revenue that the 2019 Energy Transition Act intended to address. After working behind the scenes for months, though, local officials instead threw their support behind an obscure real estate hedge fund promising to keep the plant and its associated mine open by installing the largest carbon capture system on a power plant to date — by far. The $1.4 billion plan baffled energy-economics experts.

New Mexico’s coal transition law still faces an uncertain timeline

The coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico. Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley / for the Energy News Network

New Mexico was on track to become a model for phasing out coal power without abandoning those who have worked, lived, or breathed under its smokestacks. The state’s largest utility had already announced plans to divest from coal. A new state law would hold it to that pledge while also providing millions of dollars in funding for workers and affected communities. “This is a really big deal,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said at the bill signing. “The Energy Transition Act fundamentally changes the dynamic in New Mexico.”

The 2019 law has withstood political and legal challenges, but three years later it still faces a major test.

In San Juan Basin, cultural, economic bonds slow fossil fuel transition

Farmington, New Mexico, is a city tied to its boom-and-bust economy, where commerce and industry take a prominant place in the urban landscape. Credit: Jeremy Wade Shockley / for the Energy News Network

Norman Norvelle’s family rolled into New Mexico’s San Juan Basin in 1957, when he was just 11, their belongings loaded into a 1953 Chevrolet sedan and an aging, half-ton pickup truck. 

At the time, Farmington — the region’s largest town — still lived up to its name. “It was a beautiful place,” Norvelle said. “There was orchards and truck gardens everywhere.” Norvelle remembers driving with his family north into Colorado and up to Kennebec Pass, high in the La Plata Mountains, and gazing out across the Basin. The air was so clear then he could see the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, some 200 miles to the south. 

It wouldn’t stay that way for long. Lying deep underneath the juniper and piñon forests, shrub-covered mesas and cottonwood studded river bottoms are vast stores of oil and natural gas, fossilized organisms that once plied the shallow inland sea that spread out across the region some 75 million years ago, and a thick bed of low sulfur coal, the leftovers of fecund and sultry shoreline swamps.

Lawmakers and public health officials call for state task force on alcohol

One lawmaker called on the governor to convene a task force to tackle the incredible harm alcohol visits on New Mexicans. Another exhorted colleagues to not become numb to harrowing statistics on the social ills emanating from alcohol abuse. Department of health officials reiterated over and over that tackling the issue requires a comprehensive, statewide effort. These comments have come during discussions and legislative hearings over the past two weeks in response to New Mexico In Depth’s Blind Drunk, a series that called attention to the state’s alcohol-related public health crisis. New Mexicans die of alcohol-related causes at far higher rates than in other states.

Is Ronchetti ready for tough questions?

On Sunday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti made me wonder whether he’s truly ready for the tough questioning that comes with running for public office — questioning that only gets tougher if you win a top political office.His campaign intentionally denied entry to a working journalist, Shaun Griswold of Source New Mexico, from a Carlsbad event in which Florida governor Ron DeSantis appeared for the former TV meteorologist and political newcomer.It’s not a good look for a candidate who aspires to a job that is rightfully an object of great public interest and scrutiny.What does his campaign’s decision suggest about Ronchetti should he become governor and how he might handle journalists who have questions that might be dangerous to his political ambitions? 

Would he blacklist them from briefings?This is a legitimate question. I’ve been blacklisted (which means, not informed of press briefings or given interviews) by both Democratic and Republican governors over the years for writing stories they considered critical. But those governors all waited until after they had won office before doing that to me. 

I’ve never been ejected from an event by a political campaign and I’ve covered gubernatorial campaigns for 20 years. We’re talking about events that help the public decide who they want to elect. They’re key to our democratic system, with the press playing an important role. 

What happened Sunday is disturbing and the public should be concerned.

The toxic legacy of uranium mining in New Mexico

ProPublica, a national news organization, published A Uranium Ghost Town in the Making yesterday, about an important topic many Americans, including New Mexicans, still know little about: the legacy of uranium in our state and the greater Southwest. The story focuses on the residents of the small northwest New Mexico communities of Murray Acres and Broadview Acres, near Grants, who continue to suffer the potential effects of a uranium mill operated by Homestake Mining of California. Those include decades of sickness, including thyroid disease and lung and breast cancer. Homestake processed ore from a nearby mine beginning in the 1950s in an area known as the Grants Mineral Belt, a rich deposit of uranium ore that runs through the northwest corner of New Mexico. Nearly half of the uranium supply used by the United States for nuclear weapons in the Cold War came from the region.

Help us learn: Share your story with alcohol

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO – JUNE 26, 2022: The alcohol department at a grocery store Albuquerque, NM on June 26, 2022. CREDIT: Adria Malcolm for New Mexico In Depth

Many New Mexican families struggle with alcohol but the problem has often been neglected. That’s partly because of stigma towards addiction: it doesn’t always feel easy to share stories about it. New Mexico In Depth published Blind Drunk last week, a series about why New Mexico leads the country in deaths related to alcohol, and what can be done about it. The reporting examines myths, misconceptions, and outright fallacies in thinking about alcohol dependency.