New Mexico Democratic agenda, oil boom make 2019 headlines
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Democratic election victories set New Mexico on a progressive political path in 2019 that included a surge in government spending on education and infrastructure, new restrictions on gun possession and ambitious mandates for renewable energy development.
The governor’s office passed from one Latina governor to another with the inauguration of Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham on New Year’s Day. She made headlines early, working with an expanded Democratic majority in the state House of Representatives to enact the first minimum wage hike in over a decade and provide pay raises across state government.
In other headlines, Columbus Day gave way to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, New Mexico joined an interstate compact that might someday elect the president by popular vote, and income taxes were raised on high income households.
But efforts to shore up abortion rights faltered, as did a bid to legalize recreational marijuana.
A windfall in state government income from record-breaking oil production allowed lawmakers to lavish spending on public education initiatives as the governor overhauled how New Mexico evaluates teacher performance and student achievement.
Here are other top stories of the year:
New Mexico marked another year of unprecedented production in the oilfield, with activity in the Permian Basin making headlines for everything from the resulting economic boon to pollution concerns, a lack of housing and highways being clogged with heavy truck traffic.
State economists warned in early December that New Mexico needs to keep its spending on government programs in check in case of another downturn in the industry, while environmental regulators began discussions about curbing methane emissions from oil and gas development.
Reducing pollution and transitioning toward more renewable energy were among the governor's campaign promises. Earlier this year, she signed a landmark law that sets aggressive goals for renewable energy development and aims to ease the economic pains of closing the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station near Farmington in 2022.
A power struggle over the plant's closure is ongoing before the Public Regulation Commission. But the state's largest utility has vowed to be emissions-free by 2040 — five years before the deadline imposed by the new law. ___
Lujan Grisham's administration launched a far-reaching overhaul of funding and oversight of public schools, undoing many of the previous Republican governor's initiatives. School grades were scrapped, the process for evaluating teachers was changed, and the state adopted a new annual testing system to assess academic progress among students.
The changes came as school districts and parents revived litigation that accused the state of failing to provide a sound education to vulnerable children from minority communities, non-English speaking households, impoverished families, as well as students with disabilities.
Lawmakers increased spending during the 2019 legislative session. But the school districts and parents involved in the lawsuit say more needs to be done to help disadvantaged children.
CRIME IN ALBUQUERQUE
New Mexico's largest city marked a homicide record in 2019 as city leaders came under fire for releasing statistics that dramatically overstated a reduction in crime.
State Police launched “Operation Surge” in Albuquerque following high-profile homicides of a mail carrier and a University of New Mexico baseball player amid perceptions that the city's short-staffed police force was overwhelmed. But a review found that more than half of the arrests made during the surge were tossed for various reasons, including shoddy paperwork or a lack of evidence.
Albuquerque's struggle with crime made international headlines in August after Uruguay's Foreign Ministry issued a travel warning, saying the city was among the 20 most dangerous in the world.
In December, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that Albuquerque would be one of seven cities across the U.S. to see intensified federal law enforcement resources to fight violent crime.
IMMIGRATION AND HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
New Mexico once again found itself in the spotlight amid a jump in the number of migrants from Central America seeking asylum in the U.S.
At times, large groups of more than 300 migrants arrived at entry ports, overwhelming federal agents. Authorities responded by releasing migrants into local border communities, leaving churches and nonprofit groups to scramble for donations. food and temporarily housing.
The governor's office at one point paid to bus several dozen migrants to Colorado, and Otero County declared an emergency over concerns that border checkpoints in southern New Mexico were forced to close since agents were reassigned to help with the migrant surge.
The state ended up suing federal immigration officials, claiming they were shirking their duties. A judge is considering a motion by the federal government to dismiss the case.
TV AND FILM BOOM
New Mexico cleared its backlog of pledged tax rebates to film and video production companies in September by reimbursing about $30 million of in-state spending. The payments fulfill a campaign promise by Lujan Grisham, who is leveraging more taxpayer dollars to attract jobs and spending by the film industry.
The cap on rebates didn't apply to Netflix and NBCUniversal, which have made long-term commitments to invest in New Mexico.
NBCUniversal announced in June it would build a state-of-the-art television and film studio in a warehouse district just north of downtown Albuquerque as it sought to expand its footprint in one of the fastest-growing film production hubs in the country.
An executive with Netflix said the streaming giant has boosted its original content exponentially over the last several years, and that will mean more action for its production hub in New Mexico. The company partnered with the state and the city of Albuquerque in purchasing a studio complex, pledging to invest $1 billion in production over the next decade.
Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from a remote spot in the New Mexico desert. The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility was transformed in 2019 into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.
The company moved more employees to New Mexico to prepare for test flights and eventual commercial service.
In December, CEO George Whitesides said Virgin Galactic was on the verge of making more history following an “incredible” year of progress. Virgin Galactic has not announced a specific date for beginning commercial flights, but it’s expected that 2020 will finally be the year. The idea was first hatched by billionaire Richard Branson and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson about 15 years ago.
CLERGY SEX ABUSE
Nearly 400 claims were filed against New Mexico's largest and oldest Roman Catholic diocese as part of a pending bankruptcy case that stems from the clergy sex abuse scandal.
The deadline to make a claim was in June. But it's expected to take time to resolve the bankruptcy case because lawyers have to gather more information about the archdiocese's finances to determine how much is available to divvy up among the claimants.
AIR FORCE CONTAMINATION
New Mexico sued the U.S. Air Force in April, saying the military has a responsibility to clean up toxic chemicals left behind by past firefighting activities at Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis and Holloman near Alamogordo. The contamination is linked to chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
In August, Lujan Grisham accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of failing to protect public health and the environment by not helping with the legal battle. Air Force officials say they have been working with regulators to identify and implement long-term solutions to prevent exposure.
Associated Press writers Russell Contreras and Morgan Lee contributed to this report.