Legislators consider key questions on alcohol tax reforms

Lawmakers concerned about New Mexico’s worst-in-the-nation rate of alcohol-related deaths are focused on revising how the state taxes alcohol. Last month, the Legislative Health & Human Services Committee chose an alcohol tax increase as one of its top priorities for 2023 and next week, another committee will hear tax experts present on the topic. Several top lawmakers agree the state’s alcohol taxes should be higher but they don’t know how much to increase them, whether to change how the taxes are levied, and what to do with the revenues raised. “Everyone needs to understand the landscape before we have a serious conversation about how it should be changed,” said Rep. Christine Chandler, D-Los Alamos, who chairs the Revenue Stabilization and Tax Policy Committee that meets next Thursday and Friday. Like many states, New Mexico taxes alcohol wholesalers a fixed amount per volume of beverage they sell to retailers, who raise prices on consumers to cover the upcharge.

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.

Lawmakers protected themselves when redistricting, report finds

New Mexico lawmakers protected themselves and their colleagues when they redrew political district maps crafted by a 2021 nonpartisan advisory commission, shielding incumbents of both parties from competition and making legislative elections less competitive, according to a new 59-page report co-authored by University of New Mexico political science professor Gabriel Sanchez. The study, released Sept. 28, found no evidence that New Mexico Democrats, who have strong majorities in the House and Senate, politically gerrymandered their districts, a conclusion based on statistical analysis conducted by Sanchez’s co-author and University of Georgia professor David Cottrell. “The protection of incumbents was the greatest source of gerrymandering this session,” the authors concluded, based on the analysis and interviews with experts. That outcome resulted from inherent weaknesses in how lawmakers set up the state’s new Citizens Redistricting Committee – the committee doesn’t have final say on what redistricting maps are adopted, the report found. State lawmakers crafted districts in which far fewer sitting legislators would have to run against each other, compared to districts created by a computer program used in the study that did not take into account where incumbents live.

Lawmakers say alcohol on 2023 session agenda

Powerful state lawmakers are signaling their desire to address New Mexico’s worst-in-the-nation rate of alcohol-related deaths in the upcoming session, including by changing how alcohol is taxed. Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, chair of the influential Senate Finance Committee, said he supports raising statewide alcohol taxes, among the most effective measures for curbing excessive drinking. Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, agreed the state’s rates “are probably not at the level they need to be,” and raising them “should be part of the solution” to the state’s alcohol crisis. Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chair of the House committee that crafts the state budget, acknowledged “we do not have the balance right” between businesses that profit from selling alcohol and people harmed by consuming it and said in the coming session she expected “legislation to come through that is going to cost money.”

In August, lawmakers on health, criminal justice, and economic committees voiced concern about New Mexico’s alcohol problems. Many attributed the flurry of interest to a New Mexico In Depth investigative series, which showed the state’s alcohol-related death rate has risen continuously for decades and is far above any other state’s. “I really didn’t realize how bad we were on alcohol deaths until I read all of those articles,” said Stewart.

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.

Albuquerque bought site of brutal 2014 murders years ago, spurred by talk of a memorial. But the current plan is for nonprofit office space.

A fenced-off lot near the intersection of Central Avenue and 60th Street, empty except for a portable trailer, a large “no trespassing” sign, overgrown weeds and a pile of debris, marks the site of two brutal murders. 

Kee Thompson and Allison Gorman, members of the Navajo Nation experiencing homelessness, were sleeping there in July 2014 when three Albuquerque teenagers killed them. 

In the days that followed, community members created memorials at the lot, the Albuquerque Journal reported, leaving stuffed animals, candles and a handwritten sign reading: “Let us pray for our homeless people. Keep them safe from evil” and City Councilors Klarissa Peña and Ken Sanchez suggested constructing a public memorial at the site. Thompson’s sister, Stephanie Plummer, hoped to see that proposal become a reality. But eight years later, the temporary tributes community members built are long gone and despite the city purchasing the property in 2019, there is no memorial. Current plans are for a nonprofit organization to use the site as office space. 

Peña made a very public push for a memorial at the site in 2016.

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.