New Mexico Wildfire Law

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burns in the mountains near Pecos, N.M., on May 25, 2022. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Feb. 20, 2023, signed a law to use zero-interest loans to help local governments repair or replace public infrastructure damaged by wildfires or subsequent flooding.


Governor signs law to help wildfire, flooding recovery

SANTA FE — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Feb. 20 signed a bill to use zero-interest loans to help local governments in the arid, Southwest state repair or replace public infrastructure damaged by wildfires or subsequent flooding.

The law follows last year's historic Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon blaze that exploded into the largest wildfire in New Mexico's recorded history.

Begun in early April as a prescribed burn by the U.S. government, it grew into a monstrous blaze that blackened more than 530 square miles. Hundreds of homes in northern New Mexico were lost.

A subsequent report by the U.S. Forest Service said its employees made multiple miscalculations, used inaccurate models and underestimated how dry conditions were. Experts say the resulting environmental harms will endure for decades.

Congress and President Joe Biden have approved nearly $4 billion in recovery funds.

The state law just signed sets aside $100 million in loans for counties, cities and municipalities to begin work on projects that could include a water treatment plant in Mora County or roads, bridges and fences in Las Vegas, where thousands of residents evacuated last spring.

Supporters of the legislation said earlier that state funding would go toward projects FEMA has indicated it will cover under federal guidelines. That means FEMA funds could be used by the local governments later to repay the state loans.

Former state lawmaker tapped for USDA leadership role

ALBUQUERQUE — A former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico has been nominated to serve as the next deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The granddaughter of migrant farm workers, Xochitl Torres Small has been working as an undersecretary in the agency with a focus on rural development. Her nomination was announced on Feb. 15 by the agency and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation.

Torres Small served on the House Agriculture Committee during her one term in Congress. For nearly two years, she has overseen loans and grants to provide infrastructure improvements, broadband expansion and business development as undersecretary for rural development.

Torres Small started out as an organizer in southern New Mexico before joining former U.S. Sen. Tom Udall's team as a field representative. She also practiced water and natural resources law after earning a degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law.

In 2018, Torres Small won by less than 4,000 votes to flip a traditionally Republican-leaning district that spans oil and gas country, border communities and desert valleys known for their agricultural production.

She lost her reelection bid to Republican Yvette Herrell in 2020 and was tapped the following year by the Biden administration to lead the agency's rural development office.


State House passes ban on gender-affirming medical care

BOISE — A bill criminalizing gender-affirming healthcare for minors overwhelmingly passed the Idaho House on Feb. 9, despite warnings from opponents who said it would likely increase suicide rates among teens.

The bill, which would subject physicians to felony charges if they provide puberty blockers, hormone treatment or gender-affirming surgeries to transgender youth under 18, is just one of several proposals critics say target Idaho's LGBTQ+ residents this year. Proponents of the bill have acknowledged that gender-affirming surgeries on minors are not currently being performed in Idaho.

Rep. Bruce Skaug, a Republican from Nampa, said the legislation is needed to "protect children," and that puberty blockers and hormone treatment could cause permanent harm. But every major medical organization, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychiatric Association support gender-affirming care for youth.

The bill passed on a near party-line vote, with only one Republican voting no.

Democratic Rep. Chris Mathias, of Boise, said transgender youth already self-harm and take their own lives at disturbingly high rates.

"This bill is going to throw gasoline on that problem," he said.

The bill goes to the Senate, where a similar gender-affirming care ban died last year. At the time, the Idaho Senate Republicans issued a statement saying they strongly oppose gender-affirming surgery for children but fear the bill could affect medically necessary care for non-transgender kids, and they did not want to interfere in parents' medical decision-making authority.


Estimated 300,000 to lose Medicaid coverage in state

OKLAHOMA CITY — Nearly one-quarter of Oklahomans receiving health care through Medicaid, about 300,000 people, will no longer be eligible by the end of this year, mostly because they or a parent earn too much to qualify, state health officials said on Feb. 14.

Oklahoma Health Care Authority CEO Kevin Corbett outlined the state's plan to notify people who are losing coverage over the next nine months. Corbett says most of those people, including children, will be phased out because they or a caregiver earn more than 138% of the federal poverty level, the income threshold to qualify for the program called SoonerCare in Oklahoma. The threshold translates to about $18,000 a year for an individual or about $39,000 for a family of four.

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the federal government agreed to allow people to stay on Medicaid even if they started to make more money than usually allowed. That ended in December when Congress passed a bill that included ending the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The first group of people losing coverage will be out of SoonerCare by April 30, and consist of those earning more than the income threshold, who have no children and already have other health coverage, Corbett said. Roughly a month later, more people without children will be cut off, even if they have no other coverage. That group will be limited to people with few or no health care claims over the last six months.


Kari Lake loses appeal in governor race challenge

PHOENIX — An Arizona appeals court has rejected Republican Kari Lake's challenge of her defeat in the Arizona governor's race to Democrat Katie Hobbs, denying her request to throw out election results in the state's most populous county and hold the election again.

In a ruling on Feb. 16, the Arizona Court of Appeals wrote Lake, who claimed problems with ballot printers at some polling places on Election Day were the result of intentional misconduct, presented no evidence that voters whose ballots were unreadable by tabulators at polling places were not able to vote. The court said that even a witness called by Lake to testify had confirmed that ballots that couldn't initially be read at polling places could still ultimately have their vote counted.

And while a pollster who testified on behalf of Lake claimed the polling place problems had disenfranchised enough voters to change the outcome in Lake's favor, the court said his conclusion were baseless.

Shortly after the ruling, Lake tweeted: "I told you we would take this case all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, and that's exactly what we are going to do. Buckle up, America!"

Lake, who lost to Hobbs by just over 17,000 votes, was among the most vocal 2022 Republicans promoting former President Donald Trump's claims of election rigging, which she made the centerpiece of her campaign. While many others who espoused the same beliefs around the country conceded after losing their races in November, Lake did not.

County officials say everyone had a chance to vote and all ballots were counted since ballots affected by the printers were taken to more sophisticated counters at the elections department headquarters.

Hobbs' attorneys said Lake was trying to sow distrust in Arizona's election results and offered no proof to back up her allegations of election misconduct.

Hobbs took office as governor on Jan. 2.

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