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State bill would lift local airport by $51 million

The Roswell Air Center is asking for $51.4 million over four years in state funding as part of a $308.99 million airport improvements bill pre-filed by state Senate Finance Chair George Munoz.

“The way he looks at it is that there is a lot of money coming in from the federal government, and we need to do something for our rural airports, not just Sunport (in Albuquerque),” said Adrian Avila, chief of staff for Munoz's office.

Avila said that Munoz, a Democrat from Gallup who represents Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties, has been working with the New Mexico Municipal League “in the background” for a few months to draft the legislation and determine funding needs for individual airports. He also said that Munoz has been very involved in legislation regarding infrastructure during his 14 years in the state legislature.

Avila said the draft bill will be read on the Senate floor and then assigned a number and sent to Senate committees, expected to be the Tax, Business and Transportation Committee and the Finance Committee. It would then have to pass both the Senate and House of Representatives and be signed by the governor by April 7 to become law.

Avila said that his opinion is that the bill's success depends on whether the projections of $3.59 billion in “new money” for the state for fiscal year 2024 remains a viable number, considering that revenues are heavily reliant on oil and gas prices. New money is recurring revenues minus already appropriated recurring expenditures. Total recurring revenues for fiscal 2024 were estimated in December at $12 billion.

“In February, the consensus legislative finance report will be available,” Avila said. “Then we'll know whether we'll have that $3.5 billion,” Avila said.

Munoz's draft bill calls for funding to 49 airports in the state from 2024 to 2027. The money would come from the state's general fund and be administered through the New Mexico Department of Transportation. Roswell's funding represents the single largest allocation, but 41 requests are for more than $1 million. The smallest request is $22,222 for the Tatum airport, which City Clerk Amanda Thomas said likely would go to repairs.

Other municipalities besides Roswell making seven-figure requests are Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport, asking for $15.55 million; Clovis Regional Airport, seeking $37.1 million; Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington, requesting $13.62 million; Gallup Municipal Airport, with $23.37 million; Lea County Regional Airport in Hobbs, asking for $22.29 million; and Las Cruces International Airport, with $17.6 million.

Southeastern New Mexico airports also would be in line for a lot of funding in the seven-figure range: $5.97 million for Carlsbad; $8.72 million for Artesia; $2.96 million for the Jal-Lea County Airport in Jal; $2.27 million for the Lea County Zip Franklin Memorial Airport in Lovington; $2.95 million for the Portales Municipal Airport; and $9.63 million for the Sierra Blanca Regional Airport in Ruidoso.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Tim Jennings, Roswell Air Center employees and representatives with the Airport Advisory Commission and Armstrong Consultants, the airport's engineering consultants, met to discuss potential projects to be funded.

“We talked about outlining some of the projects and getting engineering estimates of some of the real costs,” said Mike Espiritu, an advisory commission member and president of the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp.

A decision hasn't been made about the exact list of projects that could be funded by the bill, Espiritu said, but some of the projects discussed specifically Tuesday included erecting a fabric and metal hangar already purchased by the Air Center that could be used for storage or other purposes, the planned airport terminal renovation project and development of the south side of the airfield for future commercial and industrial development.

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or reporter02@rdrnews.com.


Local
featured
Legislative session begins

With women now comprising a majority in the New Mexico House of Representatives, Republicans nominated a long-time Chaves County lawmaker as their party's candidate for Speaker of the House Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, announced the nomination of Candy Spence Ezzell from the floor.

A rancher from Roswell who has represented New Mexico House District 58 since 2005, Ezzell is the longest-serving Republican woman in the chamber. Her Republican colleagues voiced their support for the possibility of Ezzell as speaker.

“I want more Candy,” state Rep. William Rehm, R-Albuquerque, said when called on to cast his vote.

Ezzell ultimately fell well short of clinching the speaker post, losing to Democratic state Rep. Javier Martinez of Albuquerque. Democrats hold a 20-seat majority in the House, and Martinez prevailed in a party-line 45 to 25 vote.

Martinez will replace now-former Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, who last year announced he would not seek re-election.

The idea to nominate a woman came from state Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, during a meeting of the House Republican Caucus. He said Democrats have lauded the fact the House is now majority female and floated the idea of nominating a woman.

In a statement, Ezzell said she was honored to have been nominated.

“I am also honored to have watched over the years as so many women entered this Chamber and have led in developing policy for New Mexico. The historic women-majority in our Chamber is something I and so many of our other women lawmakers are very proud of,” she said.

Before his victory, Martinez in a press conference vowed to seek input from New Mexicans of all backgrounds, including Republicans.

“Democrats don’t have all of the answers. I know, our colleagues on the other side have ideas as well, and I’ve committed to them and I commit to the people of the state to make sure that those ideas are heard and incorporated, and we can find common ground,” Martinez said.

New first-time members

The speaker election occurred as members of the House and New Mexico Senate convened for the start of the 60-day Legislative session at the Roundhouse.

Nibert noted in an interview with the Roswell Daily Record last week that this session both Democrats and Republicans in the House will have totally new leadership teams.

“There's no one in past leadership who will be serving in leadership this upcoming session,” he said.

In addition to Martinez as speaker, state Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, will be House Majority Floor Leader; just-elected state Rep. Reena Szczepanski, D-Santa Fe, is House Majority Whip and state Rep. Raymundo Lara, D- Chamberino., House Democratic Caucus Chair.

On the Republican side, state Rep. Ryan Lane, R-Aztec, takes on the role of House Minority Leader, while state Reps. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, and Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, are now Minority Whip and House Republican Caucus Chair respectively.

A whole new crop of first-time members were elected to the House in November. Nibert says while none of the Senate was up for re-election, the entire House was and many of its members last year opted not to run again.

Nibert, who has been in the House since 2016, said newly minted members will likely experience a steep learning curve, but it will not have a negative effect on the Legislature. “I don't see that is going to be a huge disruption,” he said.

Restrictions lifted

The session is also markedly different than those in recent years. Rules mandating the wearing of masks and social distancing, and requirements for Round House visitors to show their vaccine status lapsed.

State Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, in an interview from the House Floor, said people were in close physical contact and he had only seen one mask or face covering so far that day. “Things are back to normal,” he said.

Spending

Lawmakers begin the session as state coffers are filled with record revenue and the state has on hand record reserves.

During the session, the Legislature will have $3.5 billion in “new money” — funds in excess of what was appropriated in last years budget. The Legislative Finance Committee attributed the tide of revenue to the ongoing boom in oil production and expected increases in collections of income and Gross Receipts Taxes.

In their recommendation last week, the Legislature called for a budget of $9.44 billion, representing a 12% or $1.04 billion increase over planned spending for FY 23.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in her own budget proposal outlines $9.4 billion in spending, or 11.9% more than the budget for the last Fiscal Year.

Spending in both budgets includes big boosts in education and other social spending. The governor's proposal sets aside money for a 4% increase in salaries for state and public school employees. That bump in pay is 5% under the Legislature's proposal.

The governor's budget also set aside $1 billion for tax rebates. Under the governor's plan, individuals who file taxes in New Mexico will receive a $750 rebate.

Despite the robust economy and current fiscal picture, Republicans from southeast New Mexico have expressed unease about the rising spending levels, worried it would mean new recurring obligations in years ahead, and steep cuts in years when revenues come in lower.

“I think we can get by with having a lot of money to spend, if its one-time obligations in infrastructure, but I'm concerned when we create new programs that we have to fund year in and year out,” Nibert said.

The budgets of the governor and Legislature each call for maintaining cash reserves at 34.9% and 30% respectively, which would represent a record for the state. But some think those levels are still too low.

“I would have done a minimum of 40%,” Townsend said, explaining that oil and gas prices are sliding, something which could mean big reductions in state education and other programs if that revenue recedes.

“It will have a devastating effect, if we have to slow stuff down,” he said.

Crime

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 100 bills were already filed in both the House and Senate for consideration.

Many of those will focus on addressing the state's high crime rate. Rehm has addressed a spate of bills that would stiffen criminal penalties. But in his press conference Tuesday, Martinez indicated tackling the state's persistent public safety concerns will require more than stiffer penalties.

More investments and improvements in behavioral health, housing assistance and gun safety measures will also need to be part of the equation.

“It has to be an all hands on deck approach. It has to be a thought out approach to ensure that our communities can be safer,” he said.

One of the newest members of the New Mexico House, state Rep. Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis, who represents House District 64, which includes Chaves County, says tackling crime is a top priority for her.

A former district attorney in New Mexico's 9th Judicial District, Reeb hopes to co-sponsor some of Rhem's crime bills and push for measures such as a state Constitutional amendment to rescind some of the bail reforms passed by voters in 2016, which critics have said amount to a “catch and release” program.

“With the crime problem we are having, I am hoping we can get some of those bills passed,” Reeb said.

Legislative modernization

Also considered this session will likely be measures to modernize the Legislature itself. New Mexico has an all-volunteer legislature with no year-round staff.

Martinez said revamping the Legislature is a top priority in the coming session. One proposed constitutional amendment would extend all legislative sessions to 60 days and increase the number of items that can be introduced and considered in odd-numbered years. Others have called for a paid legislature with paid staff.

Martinez said such proposals are not lawmakers voting to give themselves a pay raise, but is something needed to create a more modern and efficient Legislature.

Some legislators such as Townsend though remain skeptical. He said providing staff in each lawmaker's district is something he might be supportive of, but he is wary of proposals that would pay lawmakers.

However, he would possibly consider such a plan if it also included term limits on representatives and senators.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.


Local
Council workshop will explain proposed code changes that affect top city officials

Members of the Roswell City Council will meet Thursday to talk about an ordinance proposed to update and clarify the responsibilities of the mayor, city manager and other top city employees.

This workshop begins at 2 p.m. at City Hall, 425 N. Richardson Ave., in the large conference room.

The city’s Legal Committee has spent the past couple of months creating revisions and additions to Chap. 2 of the city code. The proposed version is about 16 pages long, with pages of new material.

Explanations about how management responsibilities are divvied up between the city manager and its elected officials, particularly the mayor and council, are just one portion revamped in this proposal.

Another process being described has to do with how council decides what items require their focus. For example, Sec. 2-46 of the city’s Administrative Code doesn’t require every item be recommended to councilors for possible action by a committee. An addition proposed provides an alternative by allowing that an item could be taken up by the council if four counselors or the mayor ask for it.

In addition, Sec. 2-53 is a new portion of the code titled “Creation of Offices, Appointed Officers.” The language, as proposed, declares as appointee officers the city manager, city clerk, city treasurer-finance officer, chief of police, city auditor and city attorney. It also describes which offices will be independent and apart from city departments, Clerk, Treasurer-Finance, Chief of Police, City Auditor and City Attorney.

The suggested language of the next section, 2-54, then puts in words a process for appointing these employees, excluding the city manager and auditor.

This includes the mayor and councilors coming together for an organizational meeting, during which the mayor will submit names of people to fill appointive officers as well as for “various boards or commissions of the city.”

Any openings that remain unfilled after that meeting will call for a repeat of this process at subsequent regular council meetings until the positions have been filled.

Also spelled out are the qualifications and responsibilities of these key employees.

Starting in Sec. 2-96, the city auditor’s investigative scope is proposed to not be limited by the city manager or city attorney, though there are some exceptions for the latter, such as when the auditor’s work interferes with another agency’s criminal investigation, including one being handled internally by the police and fire departments, for example.

This officer and employees of this office couldn’t involve themselves in “any partisan political activities or the political affairs of the city during working hours,” either.

The city manager, a position at the city that’s being filled currently by Mike Mathews, the deputy city manager and referred to as acting city manager, is mostly explained under New Mexico Statutes, Chap. 3-14 with some additions.

The information packet for the workshop also includes an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office dated June 23, 2022, responding to an inquiry made by State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, (District 58, R-Roswell).

Questions in this document mostly pertain to the city’s mayor-council form of government and how it characterizes the reach of a city manager. Among them were whether certain offices — manager, clerk, attorney, police officer (chief), treasurer — are within administrative service, and whether the city manager could eliminate the office of the clerk and “require the person holding the position of clerk to report to the city attorney?”

The second question stems from that occurring in Roswell city government in 2022 after longtime City Clerk Sharon Coll resigned this past February, less than a month before the March 1 election for mayor and city councilors.

There were two city clerks employed during part of 2022: An interim city clerk appointed by then-Mayor Dennis Kintigh, and a city clerk who arrived in May after being appointed by the city manager.

The response from the Attorney General’s office is that the city manager has no authority within the municipal code “to fill appointed municipal offices,” “eliminate or change the duties of the office of the clerk,” or “make unilateral changes to the salary and benefits of appointed municipal officers.”

Further, the “city manager serves at the pleasure of the city council and, like other municipal officers, is responsible for reporting to and carrying out the policy decisions of the council,” the opinion also stated.

The city is still looking for a new city manager after the resignation of Joe Neeb in November 2022, after having been suspended by Mayor Timothy Jennings. Neeb is using accrued time until his resignation becomes effective next month.

Now-City Clerk Amalia Martinez was appointed to the position in November.

City Attorney Hess Yntema explained that the opinion from the Attorney General’s office helped to form the proposed local code changes, though other portions are from other sources, including the city’s Legal Committee.

City officials aren’t able to make requests directly for written opinions on local issues to the Attorney General’s Office but can ask a state representative to inquire on their behalf, Mayor Timothy Jennings said during a recent committee meeting about a separate issue, the Municipal Infrastructure Reimbursement Program.

No action will be taken during the workshop.

Reporter Terri Harber can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 308, or reporter03@rdrnews.com.


National
AP
Ex-GOP candidate arrested in shootings at lawmakers' homes
A failed Republican candidate who authorities say was angry over his defeat and made baseless claims the election last November was rigged against him has been arrested in connection with a series of drive-by shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico’s largest city

A failed Republican candidate who authorities said was angry over his defeat and made baseless claims the election last November was “rigged” against him was arrested in connection with a series of drive-by shootings targeting the homes of Democratic lawmakers in New Mexico’s largest city.

Solomon Pena, 39, was arrested Monday evening, just hours after SWAT officers took him into custody and served search warrants at his home, police said.

Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina described Pena as the “mastermind” of what he said appears to be a politically motivated conspiracy leading to shootings at the homes of two county commissioners and two state legislators between early December and early January.

No one was injured in the shootings but in one case three bullets passed through the bedroom of a state senator’s 10-year-old daughter.

Pena ran unsuccessfully in November against incumbent state Rep. Miguel P. Garcia, the longtime Democrat representing House District 14 in the South Valley. Garcia won by 48 percentage points, or roughly 3,600 votes.

After the election, police said, Pena showed up uninvited at the elected officials' homes with what he claimed were documents proving he had won his race. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in New Mexico in 2020 or 2022.

The shootings began shortly after those conversations.

“This type of radicalism is a threat to our nation and has made its way to our doorstep right here in Albuquerque, New Mexico," Mayor Tim Keller said. “But I know we are going to push back, and we will not allow this to cross the threshold.”

Four men conspired with Pena, who is accused of paying them cash to carry out at least two of the drive-by shootings in stolen vehicles, while Pena “pulled the trigger” during one of the crimes, Deputy Police Commander Kyle Hartsock said.

Detectives identified Pena as their key suspect using a combination of cellphone and vehicle records, witness interviews and bullet casings collected at the lawmakers’ homes, police said. His arrest came one week after Medina announced they had identified a suspect in the shootings.

A lawyer for Pena who could comment on the allegations wasn’t listed Monday night in jail records.

No one was injured in the shootings, which unfolded amid a rise in threats to members of Congress, school board members, election officials and other government workers around the nation. In Albuquerque, law enforcement has struggled to address back-to-back years of record homicides and persistent gun violence.

The shootings began Dec. 4, when eight rounds were fired at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Adriann Barboa. Days later, state Rep. Javier Martinez's home was targeted, followed by a Dec. 11 shooting at the home of Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley. More than a dozen rounds were fired at her home, police said.

The final related shooting, targeting state Sen. Linda Lopez's home, unfolded in the midnight hour of Jan. 3. Police said more than a dozen shots were fired and Lopez said three of the bullets passed through her 10-year-old daughter’s bedroom.

Investigators received a break in the case after technology that can detect the sound of gunfire led an officer to Lopez's neighborhood shortly after the shots were fired.

The officer found bullet casings matching a handgun found later that morning in a Nissan Maxima registered to Pena. Around 1:30 a.m., about an hour after the shooting at Lopez's home, police stopped the Nissan about 4 miles (6 kilometers) from the lawmaker's neighborhood.

The driver, identified Monday night as Jose Trujillo, was arrested on an outstanding warrant, leading to the discovery of more than 800 fentanyl pills and two firearms in the car, police said.

A criminal complaint outlining the exact charges against the former political candidate was expected to be released in the coming days. Additional arrests and charges also were expected, but police declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation.

Detectives also were investigating two additional shootings they initially believed could be related to the Pena case: one in the vicinity of New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez’s former campaign office and another at state Sen. Antonio Maestas’ office. Police on Monday said the shootings do not appear to be connected.

The New Mexico Republican Party condemned Pena in a statement Monday night. “If Pena is found guilty, he must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”


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