TUES: New Mexico considers hourly $15 minimal for state staff, ABQ’s 101st murder, + Extra

KUNM’s morning newscast with Bryce Dix. Tuesday, November 9, 2021

New Mexico considers hourly $15 minimum for state workers -Associated Press 

Momentum appears to be building behind proposals to lift minimum pay in New Mexico state government to $15 an hour for at least 1,200 public workers who make less than that, amid a state budget surplus and national trends toward higher wages.

State Personnel Office Director Ricky Serna confirmed Friday that efforts are underway to increase bottom-tier salaries and boost overall state government payroll for rank-and-file employees at executive agencies. His agency oversees compensation guidelines for nearly 17,000 employees at executive agencies, with an $870 million annual payroll.

At a legislative hearing in late October, Serna outlined preliminary targets, including a $15-per-hour minimum and a 7% increase in annual payroll. Those estimates are for pay at executive agencies overseen by the governor and other elected officials such as the state attorney general, auditor and treasurer. 

The $10.50 statewide minimum wage for all sectors of the economy steps up to $11.50 on Jan. 1, 2022.

Salaries have surged among many political appointees in the upper echelons of state government since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office in 2019. At the same time, legislators have scaled back annual pay increases for rank-and-file workers in permanent state jobs since the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Legislature convenes in January to forge a state spending plan for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, 2022, with state government income expected to exceed current spending obligations by $1.4 billion. The surplus is linked to a quick recovery of oil and gas markets and robust tax receipts as consumers tap into federal pandemic aid.

Democratic state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, chairwoman of the Legislature’s lead budget writing committee, said New Mexico is having trouble recruiting and retaining public workers on the low end of the pay scale — wasting resources in the process.

“The cost of losing someone is far more expensive than paying them a decent wage. That turnover is a killer,” Lundstrom said Monday.

Lundstrom described even $15-an-hour pay as “ridiculously low,” and said she was eager to see the governor’s proposal.

Dan Secrist, a union chapter president for an array of state government workers under the Communications Workers of America, estimates it would take nearly $6 million to provide an hourly $15 minimum salary at executive agencies along with the Legislature and judiciary.

He said it would take nearly $25 million to meet that minimum pay mark on a broader scale including public schools, colleges and universities.

New Mexico government salaries lost ground to private-sector competition in the decade following the mortgage lending crisis and Great Recession, from 2008-2017, according to the Legislature’s budget and accountability office.

In the first budget signed by Lujan Grisham in 2019, state employees got a 4% pay increase. Further pay increases were scaled back during the first year of the pandemic, with a 1% pay bump for state workers with annual salaries of $50,000 or less in July 2020, and then a 1.5% pay increase this summer with some additional money for front-line health workers.

Lundstrom said she also favors higher executive salaries for key leadership positions in state government, such as the secretaries of the Public Education Department and the Department of Health amid, amid intense challenges of the pandemic. Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus earns $158,340 as the state searches for a Health Department secretary.

Democratic state Rep. Candie Sweetser of Deming, who operates a local broadcasting company and has grocery and real estate holdings, cautioned against moving aggressively to increase state government pay.

“The trend seems to be that we are going with higher salaries and better benefits, which makes it very difficult to hire in the private sector,” Sweetser said. “I just feel the need to say we can’t outpace the people that are contributing to government funds through the tax base, we have to also make sure that the markets remain competitive.”

Albuquerque man’s shooting death marks city’s 101st homicide – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The city of Albuquerque has now surpassed 100 homicides since the start of the year. 

A man officers found dead with a gunshot wound to the head Sunday night near Mountain Road and San Mateo Boulevard is the city’s 101st homicide victim, the Albuquerque Journal reported. 

Several hours earlier around 1 a.m. police responded to a shooting at an Albuquerque food market that left one man dead and another wounded. The second man is in stable condition, the newspaper reported. 

These events come a week after a chaotic Halloween weekend of shootings at house parties in the city and Bernalillo County that left three dead.

Albuquerque is now at its highest homicide total and rate in recorded history. 

“We have devoted a lot of resources to the increase in homicides during the pandemic,” Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said in a statement Sunday. “At the same time, our detectives are committed to solving homicides from past years, whether they occurred last year or decades ago.”

As of October, the number of shootings in which people were injured had increased by nearly 16% when compared to the same period last year. Law enforcement has recorded more than 250 shooting incidents so far this year, including more than three dozen accidental shootings. Most of the victims have been men between the ages of 20 and 30.

Incumbent mayor Tim Keller signed an executive order last month creating a task force to focus on gun violence. He and other officials called it a public health crisis.

US ex-diplomat defends private mission to troubled Myanmar – By Grant Peck Associated Press

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson acknowledges criticism of his humanitarian visit to Myanmar, but says he feels his trip was constructive.

Richardson, also a former governor of New Mexico, is the highest-profile American to visit the Southeast Asian nation since its military seized power in February from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. He traveled there last week with three colleagues, his office said, to discuss delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, medical supplies and other public health needs.

The U.S. government, along with a number of other Western nations, shuns Myanmar’s military-installed government and urges a return to democracy.

“I’m deeply invested in this country and they invited me,” Richardson said in an online interview with The Associated Press on Monday from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. “I have a letter from the foreign minister to talk about vaccines … that’s what I was invited to do. And I care about the country and I think I can make a difference. It’s a small difference.”

Richardson has a long history of involvement with Myanmar, starting in 1994 when as a member of Congress, he met Suu Kyi at her home in the city of Yangon, where she had been under house arrest since 1989 under a previous military government.

He last visited Myanmar in 2018 to advise on a crisis over the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh after Myanmar’s military in 2017 launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the western state of Rakhine, where most lived.

Since this year’s military takeover, violence has swept through much of Myanmar. Widespread peaceful demonstrations against army rule were savagely suppressed by security forces, and armed resistance has grown to the point that U.N. experts have warned the country risks sliding into civil war.

The instability has also caused a humanitarian crisis with food supplies badly disrupted and a breakdown of the already feeble public health system in one of Asia’s poorest countries. When a new wave of the coronavirus hit during the summer, crematoriums in Yangon struggled with a backlog of bodies.

Opponents of the military-installed government who are conducting a militant civil disobedience campaign inside the country want the outside world to treat the generals as pariahs. Richardson, as a prominent U.S. political figure well known in Myanmar, ran into a storm of online criticism for engaging with the government.

“Well, I knew that the trip would face some criticism,” Richardson said. But he disputed the idea that he could confer any kind of legitimacy on Myanmar’s government.

Legitimacy, he said, “is conferred by the people and by governments. I’m neither. I’m one person, a citizen who cares deeply about Myanmar, who was invited to come in a situation where there’s horrendous violence, human hurting, humanitarian needs, vaccine needs. And I felt I could make a difference and I believe I have.”

He is realistic enough to realize that some might try to exploit his presence. But he is satisfied with what he says he has accomplished so far: the release from prison of a young woman who had worked for his Richardson Center for Global Engagement; increased access to humanitarian aid and vaccines for the people of Myanmar; and a resumption of Red Cross visits to the country’s prisons, which the government had banned because of the coronavirus.

Richardson said he avoided politics in his discussions, as he did in the interview with AP.

“I didn’t want to get into politics. I think humanitarian assistance should precede any kind of movement that would just divide the people even more. This is a country in great need, a country I’ve been to many times. I’ve invested a lot of myself in this country, and 55 million people should not have to pay with bad vaccine distribution, humanitarian problems, for the political divisions.”

Richardson said he met for about 90 minutes with Myanmar’s leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

“We only talked about humanitarian access. We only talked about vaccines. He listened, he responded. It seemed like he liked my ideas,” Richardson said.

These ideas, he said, included the revival of the Red Cross prison visits and shortening the amount of time needed for travel permissions from the government for U.N. agencies and NGOs to carry out humanitarian missions, as well as finding ways to distribute vaccines more quickly and equitably.

“So, it was a constructive discussion,” he said.

Richardson also met with other top government officials, foreign diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador, and representatives of U.N. agencies and other international organizations.

“I think there’s been a logjam on activity and progress on the humanitarian front, the access to vaccines, … the humanitarian efforts,” he said. “So, I think my visit may be a catalyst.”

Navajo Nation: No COVID-19 deaths for 25th time in 40 days -Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported 39 more COVID-19 cases but no additional deaths for the 25th time in the past 40 days.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe’s totals to 37,455 confirmed COVID-19 cases from the virus since the pandemic began more than a year ago.

The known death toll remains at 1,498.

Based on cases from Oct. 22-Nov. 4, the Navajo Department of Health on Monday issued an advisory for 56 communities due to an uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

“We have to be very careful, take precautions, wear masks in public, get fully vaccinated, and limit traveling off the Navajo Nation,” tribal President Jonathan Nez said. “We all have to do our part to push back on COVID-19.”

All Navajo Nation executive branch employees had to be fully vaccinated against the virus by the end of September or submit to regular testing.

The tribe’s reservation is the country’s largest at 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) and covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. 

US reopens to international travel, allows happy reunions – By Elliot Spagat and Carolyn Thompson Associated Press

Parents held children born while they were stuck abroad. Long-separated couples kissed, and grandparents embraced grandchildren who had doubled in age.

The U.S. fully reopened to many vaccinated international travelers Monday, allowing families and friends to reunite for the first time since the coronavirus emerged and offering a boost to the travel industry decimated by the pandemic. The restrictions closed the U.S. to millions of people for 20 months.

Octavio Alvarez and his 14-year-old daughter zipped through a pedestrian crossing in San Diego in less than 15 minutes on their way to visit his mother-in-law in California.

“It’s a big feeling,” said Alvarez, 43, who lives in Ensenada, Mexico, a two-hour drive from San Diego. Prior to the pandemic, his family would visit California twice a month. The emotional cost of the border restrictions were “very high,” he added.

American citizens and permanent residents were always allowed to enter the U.S., but the travel bans grounded tourists, thwarted business travelers and often keep families far apart. Travelers must have proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test.

“I think a lot of people have been waiting for this day,” said Eileen Bigelow, area port director for Vermont for Customs and Border Protection. “They look at it as a light at the end of the tunnel for some return of normalcy.”

There were lots of prolonged hugs at airports from coast to coast. At Newark International Airport in New Jersey, Nirmit Shelat repeatedly embraced his girlfriend, Jolly Dave, after she arrived from India, ending their nine-month separation. She was on the first flight out of the country to the United States.

“I can’t even explain in my words how happy I am,” Dave said.

Gaye Camara, who lives in France, last saw her husband in New York in January 2020, not knowing it would be 21 months before they could hold each other again.

“I’m going to jump into his arms, kiss him, touch him,” said Camara, 40, as she wheeled her luggage through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, where the humming crowds resembled those before the pandemic, except for the face masks.

On the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada, where traveling back and forth was a way of life before the pandemic, the reopening brought relief. Malls, restaurants and shops in U.S. border towns were devastated by the lack of visitors from Mexico.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, flanked by U.S. and Mexican officials at a celebratory news conference at the San Ysidro crossing, said the economic losses were hefty and the cutting of family ties “immeasurable.”

Retail sales in San Ysidro fell about 75% from pre-COVID levels, forcing nearly 300 businesses to close.

Edith Aguirre of Tijuana took off work to go shopping in San Diego. Bubbling with laughter, she accepted a gift bag from a duty-free store at the San Diego border crossing. She was a regular at SeaWorld in San Diego and last came to the U.S. to celebrate her 50th birthday at Disneyland in February 2020.

“It was very draining,” she said of the interruption to her cross-border life.

Sales dropped in half at David’s Western Wear shop in Nogales, Arizona, which manufactures boots popular among Mexicans.

Owner David Moore hopes his specialty products lure back customers, but he said it won’t happen overnight. Many Mexicans are still trying to get expired visas renewed amid a backlog. Those who do come may be disappointed to find shelves empty because of supply chain problems.

“I really don’t think Mexican shoppers are going to come across in hordes because they have now gotten used to buying a lot of products they need in Mexico,” he said.

David Jerome, president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce on Mexico’s border in Texas, said: “It won’t come back as quickly as it was shut off.”

Still, “we feel like we’re getting our neighbors back and we’re glad to get people going back to work,” Jerome said. 

Along Canada’s boundary, cross-border hockey rivalries were upended by the travel restrictions. Churches that had members on both sides of the border were suddenly cut off from each other.

But on Monday, border traffic quickly returned.

At Vermont’s busiest international crossing with Canada, U.S. border agents said they began to notice the uptick in border crossing shortly after midnight. By mid-morning, traffic appeared steady.

Travelers at the Peace Bridge in Buffalo, New York, one of the northern border’s busiest crossings, found a 2½-hour wait at 2 a.m., officials said, though within a few hours traffic was flowing more freely. The bridge typically handles about 2 million passenger vehicles from Fort Erie, Ontario, yearly, many of them bound for the region’s shopping malls, ski slopes and sporting events. Volume dropped by more than 90% during the pandemic.

River Robinson’s American partner wasn’t able to be in Canada for the birth of their baby boy 17 months ago. She was thrilled to hear about the U.S. reopening and planned to take the child to the U.S. for Thanksgiving.

It’s “crazy to think he has a whole other side of the family he hasn’t even met yet,” said Robinson, who lives in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Airlines are preparing for a surge in activity — especially from Europe — after the pandemic and resulting restrictions caused international travel to plunge.

The 28 European countries that were barred made up 37% of overseas visitors in 2019, according to the U.S. Travel Association. As the reopening takes effect, carriers are increasing flights between the United Kingdom and the U.S. by 21% this month over last month, according to data from travel and analytics firm Cirium.

In a sign of the huge importance of trans-Atlantic travel for airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic celebrated the reopening by synchronizing the departures of their early morning flights to New York on parallel runways at London’s Heathrow Airport. 

Maria Giribet, 74, who lives on the Mediterranean isle of Majorca was headed to San Francisco where she planned to “suffocate” her twin grandchildren with hugs after missing half their lives. Gabriel and David are now 3½.

The U.S. will accept travelers who have been fully vaccinated with any of the shots approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, not just those in use in the U.S. That’s a relief for many in Canada, where the AstraZeneca vaccine is widely used.

But millions of people around the world who were vaccinated with Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s CanSino or other shots not approved by the WHO will not be able to travel to the U.S.

Testing and quarantine requirements remained obstacles for others. A mobile testing truck was parked near the Peace Bridge in New York, promising results in 30 minutes for $225 and next-day results for $160.

Marcela Picone, 39, of the Buffalo suburb of Williamsville, has been waiting for the day her fiancé and father of her 2- and 3-year-old children can visit from Stoney Creek, Ontario. But his 15-year-old son would have to miss school to quarantine upon their return if they traveled.

“He’s a dad to two American kids,” she said. “He should have had the right to come into this country the entire 19 months.”

Air-scrubbing machines gain momentum, but long way to go – Cathy Bussewitz Associated Press Business Writer

On a field ringed by rolling green hills in Iceland, fans attached to metal structures that look like an industrial-sized Lego project are spinning. Their mission is to scrub the atmosphere by sucking carbon dioxide from the air and storing it safely underground.

Just a few years ago, this technology, known as “direct air capture,” was seen by many as an unrealistic fantasy. But the technology has evolved to where people consider it a serious tool in fighting climate change. 

The Iceland plant, called Orca, is the largest such facility in the world, capturing about 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. But compared to what the planet needs, the amount is tiny. Experts say 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide must be removed annually by mid-century. 

“Effectively, in 30 years’ time, we need a worldwide enterprise that is twice as big as the oil and gas industry, and that works in reverse,” said Julio Friedmann, senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Leading scientific agencies including the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that even if the world manages to stop producing harmful emissions, that still won’t be enough to avert a climate catastrophe. They say we need to suck massive amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and put it back underground — yielding what some call “negative emissions.”

“We have already failed on climate to the extent to which direct air capture is one of the many things we must do,” Friedmann said. “We have already emitted so many greenhouse gases at such an incredible volume and rate that CO2 removal at enormous scales is required, as well as reduction of emissions.”

As dire warnings have accelerated, technology to vacuum carbon dioxide from the air has advanced. Currently, a handful of companies operate such plants on a commercial scale, including Climeworks, which built the Orca plant in Iceland, and Carbon Engineering, which built a different type of direct air capture plant in British Columbia. And now that the technology has been proven, both companies have ambitions for major expansion.

DIRECT AIR CAPTURE AT WORK

At Climeworks’ Orca plant near Reykjavik, fans suck air into big, black collection boxes where the carbon dioxide accumulates on a filter. Then it’s heated with geothermal energy and is combined with water and pumped deep underground into basalt rock formations. Within a few years, Climeworks says, the carbon dioxide turns into stone. 

It takes energy to build and run Climeworks’ plants. Throughout the life cycle of the Orca plant, including construction, 10 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted for every 100 tons of carbon dioxide removed from the air. Carbon Engineering’s plants can run on renewable energy or natural gas, and when natural gas is used, the carbon dioxide generated during combustion is captured.

Carbon dioxide can also be injected into geological reservoirs such as depleted oil and gas fields. Carbon Engineering is taking that approach in partnership with Occidental Petroleum to build what’s expected to be the world’s largest direct air capture facility in the Southwest’s Permian Basin — the most productive U.S. oil field. 

Direct air capture plants globally are removing about 9,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually, according to the International Energy Agency. 

Climeworks built its first direct air capture plant in 2017 in Hinwil, Switzerland, which captured 900 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually that was sold to companies for use in fizzy beverages and fertilizer. The company built another plant, called Artic Fox, in Iceland that same year; it captured up to 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually that was injected underground. 

“Today we are on a level that we can say it’s on an industrial scale, but it’s not on a level where we need to be to make a difference in stopping climate change,” said Daniel Egger, chief commercial officer at Climeworks. 

BIG PLANS, CHALLENGES

Their plans call for scaling up to remove several million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually by 2030. And Eggers said that would mean increasing capacity by a factor of 10 almost every three years. 

It’s a lofty, and expensive, goal.

Estimates vary, but it currently costs about $500 to $600 per ton to remove carbon dioxide using direct air capture, said Colin McCormick, chief innovation officer at Carbon Direct, which invests in carbon removal projects and advises businesses on buying such services. 

As with any new technology, costs can decrease over time. Within the next decade, experts say, the cost of direct air capture could fall to about $200 per ton or lower. 

For years, companies bought carbon offsets by doing things like investing in reforestation projects. But recent studies have shown many offsets don’t deliver the promised environmental benefits. So McCormick said companies are looking for more verifiable carbon removal services and are investing in direct air capture, considered the “gold standard.” 

“This is really exploding. We really didn’t see hardly any of this until a couple of years ago,” he said, referring to companies investing in the technology. “Two years ago Microsoft, Stripe and Shopify were really the leaders on this who first went out and said, ‘We want to procure carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere.'”

Companies are setting targets of net zero carbon emissions for their operations but can only reduce emissions so far. That’s where purchasing carbon removal services such as direct air capture comes in.

Individuals can buy atmosphere-scrubbing services too: Climeworks offers subscriptions starting at $8 a month to people who want to offset emissions. 

In the U.S., direct air capture facilities can get a tax credit of $50 a ton, but there are efforts in Congress to increase that to up to $180 a ton, which if passed, could stimulate development.

The Department of Energy announced Friday a goal to reduce the cost of carbon removal and storage to $100 per metric ton, saying it would collaborate with communities, industry and academia to spur technological innovation.

Oil companies such as Occidental and Exxon have been practicing a different form of carbon capture for decades. For the most part, they are taking carbon dioxide emissions from production facilities and injecting it underground to shake loose more oil and gas from between rocks.

Some question the environmental benefits of using captured CO2 to produce more fossil fuels that are eventually burned, producing greenhouse gases. But Occidental says part of the goal is to make products such as aviation fuel with a smaller carbon footprint — since while producing the fuel, they’re also removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it underground.

Capturing carbon dioxide from oil and gas operations or industrial facilities such as steel plants or coal-burning power plants is technically easier and less costly than drawing it from the air, because plant emissions have much more highly concentrated CO2.

Still, most companies are not capturing carbon dioxide that leaves their facilities. 

Worldwide, industrial facilities capturing carbon dioxide from their operations had a combined capacity to capture 40 million tons annually, triple the amount in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency. 

But that’s less than 1% of the total emissions that could be captured from industrial facilities globally, said Sean McCoy, assistant professor in the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary. 

If governments created policies to penalize carbon dioxide emissions, that would drive more carbon removal projects and push companies to switch to lower-carbon fuels, McCoy said.

“Direct air capture is something you get people to pay for because they want it,” he said. “Nobody who operates a power plant wants (carbon capture and storage). You’re going to have to hit them with sticks.”

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