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KUNM News Update

TUES: Governor Says Schools Will Re-Open And Calls For More Spending In Speech, + More

John Phelan
CREATIVE COMMONS https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en
La Cueva High School in Albuquerque


New Mexico Governor Says Schools Will Reopen In February - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says the state will soon reopen schools to students of all ages. The vast majority of New Mexico students have been consigned to distance learning during the pandemic, which has led to learning loss and failing grades.

The Democratic governor has pushed back the start of in-person learning since August, citing COVID-19 case numbers. The governor said Tuesday in her State of the State address that New Mexico will be ready by Feb. 8 with a plan for in-person learning.

It will include middle- and high-school students who until now have not been allowed to participate in any partial in-person programs.

That plan requires masking, cleaning and the spacing of students, It also requires teachers to participate in COVID-19 testing.

Schools with lots of positive tests in a short amount of time will have to close for 14 days.

Rules for air filters, initially so strict that they would require schools to replace their entire air systems, were loosened last year, removing one more barrier to schools opening up again.

The schools will need to install the highest quality filter possible, open windows and doors, and use fans to circulate more air.

Under the hybrid model that all schools can implement on Feb. 8, schools are allowed to bring 50% of students back at a time. Advocates for in-person learning believe that will give schools flexibility to offer more in-person time to those who need it.

Lujan Grisham's announcement followed growing pressure to reopen schools for students of all ages — including a bipartisan bill in the Legislature that would have given the power to reopen schools to local officials.

The legislative session, which began earlier this month and runs through March, will give state leaders an opportunity to resuscitate the battered public education system in the coming years.

The statewide green light from the governor is no guarantee that all students will have access to in-person learning immediately.

Some school districts such as Rio Rancho put in place hybrid plans after COVID-19 benchmarks were met. Other school boards are still hesitant to reopen. Santa Fe Public Schools tried a hybrid model last semester and then abandoned it as cases soared.

State health officials reported 602 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and 14 additional deaths, pushing the total number of deaths to 3,171.

Governor Seeks New State Investments In Relief, EducationAssociated Press

New Mexico's governor urged legislators to approve increased spending on public schools, health care and aid to small businesses in her annual State of the State address.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced new details of her economic relief platform Tuesday and touted state achievements in coronavirus testing. She also set a Feb. 8 deadline for allowing school districts to reopen classrooms to students of all ages.

Ordinarily, Lujan Grisham would address a joint session of the Legislature with her Cabinet and the state Supreme Court in attendance. However, her speech was recorded at the state Capitol and transmitted via webcast and Facebook without a live audience as a precaution against the coronavirus.

She made no mention of proposed policing reforms or efforts to overturn the state's dormant ban on most abortion procedures, but rather focused on the toll the pandemic has taken on the state.

The first-term Democratic governor quoted inaugural poet Amanda Gorman and announced in her own words that "we will stand up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the climb."

Lujan Grisham says her approach to economic recovery from the pandemic will involve increased state spending and be a departure from the austerity-minded approach of her Republican predecessor, Gov. Susana Martinez.

Lujan Grisham has outlined a $7.3 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year starting on July 1, 2021 — an increase of 3.3% that emphasizes economic relief, public education and mental health services.

New Mexico can draw on $2.5 billion in financial reserves as it seeks to sustain vital public services in the midst of severe economic distress brought on by the pandemic and companion public health orders.

The governor urged the legislature to commit half of annual infrastructure spending — about $200 million — to high-speed internet infrastructure as school districts struggle with barriers to online learning, especially in remote, rural areas.

She also called on the Legislature to improve a small business loan program to unlock $200 million in aid and to make another $200 million available in rent relief to small businesses.

About $40 million in low-interest loans were allotted to small businesses last year in response to the economic downturn.

The governor used the speech to announce that "every school district in the state will be able to welcome all ages of students safely back to the classroom on Feb. 8."

The vast majority of students statewide are studying online only as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. Republican and Democratic legislators have introduced legislation that gives school districts greater autonomy to restart in-person learning.

With enrollment plunging at New Mexico's colleges and universities, the governor renewed her call for "opportunity scholarships" to cover the cost of tuition and fees for in-state undergraduate students.

She says an additional $22 million would allow 30,000 more New Mexico residents to access two years of college without financial strain.

Lujan Grisham renewed her call for legislators to broaden cannabis sales to recreational marijuana to create jobs and boost government income from taxes.

She also is asking the Legislature to steer more money toward local businesses by reforming the state procurement process. Newly proposed legislation backed by the governor and Democratic legislators aims to boost state contracting with businesses owned by women, Native Americans and other minority groups.

The governor is touting the job-creating potential of public investments in companies that monitor greenhouse gas emissions by the oil industry.

Lujan Grisham is promoting a bill that would increase state health care subsidies for families and individuals of moderate incomes earning too much to qualify for Medicaid.

The initiative is aimed at expanding health insurance coverage to an estimated 23,000 residents and reduce insurance premium payments for tens of thousands of additional people, the governor said.

The proposed budget from the executive branch also would increase spending on suicide prevention services.

New Mexico Seeing Downward Trends For Virus MetricsAssociated Press

New Mexico's weekly average for new confirmed COVID-19 cases is continuing its downward trend, as state health officials reported just over 600 additional cases Tuesday.

The death toll increased only slightly as 14 additional people succumbed to the virus, and hospitalizations due to the virus marked another decline.

Officials have said they're encouraged by the latest numbers and are hopeful that the federal government will begin distributing more vaccine doses soon.

New Mexico's allocation has remained steady, but with current supplies it could be weeks before more people become eligible.

So far, more than 90% of the 235,000 doses that have been delivered to New Mexico have been administered. State health officials say more than 750,000 people are eligible, and more than 522,000 people have registered online to get their shots.

New Mexico's nursing homes and assisted living facilities were part of the first phase of vaccinations, and officials announced Tuesday that all 309 such facilities in the state have had a vaccine clinic where the first dose was provided.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged in a statement that she knows people want the process to be faster and for vaccines to be accessible in more places.

State health officials said the nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are working with the Health Department and pharmacies to set up more clinics so that second doses can be provided and to give first shots to any residents or staff who missed the first round of clinics.

"It's important to remember that you are not fully protected until you have had both doses of the COVID vaccine," Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins. "We are very eager to see this vulnerable population fully vaccinated and better protected from COVID-19."

In all, more than 12,000 long-term care staff and residents were vaccinated during the first clinics.

New Mexico City To Invest $1M More In Homeless ShelterAssociated Press

Officials in New Mexico's largest city are investing more money in an existing homeless shelter west of Albuquerque as they continue looking at options for establishing a new, more accessible shelter.

The $1 million investment announced this week will pay for upgrades at the Westside Emergency Housing Center. It will include better ventilation to address COVID-19 concerns.

The city is using federal grant funds to pay for the work. The center served an average of about 4,760 people monthly in 2020. Officials say that number will likely increase as the pandemic continues.

Voters in 2019 approved a bond that included $14 million for a new shelter. Since then, the city has narrowed down the list of possible locations for a new shelter.

They acknowledge that many who could use the westside shelter's services shelter don't because it's too far away and transportation for busing people back and forth cost taxpayers about $1 million a year.

Bobby Sisneros, a planning manager with the city's Family and Community Services Department, said Monday that the city is still negotiating to acquire a former medical complex on the city's southeast side. The idea is that it would serve as the main component of Albuquerque's overall shelter system, with the westside center still playing a role.

The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness this week is coordinating an effort in New Mexico to quantify homelessness. As part of the annual survey, volunteers are asking homeless people where they slept the night of Jan. 25.

The data is used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to track homelessness and determine where resources are needed. Local officials can use the information to advocate for more funding.

The 2019 count showed New Mexico with the highest percentage increase in homelessness in the nation, at 27%.

The count put the number of homeless people in Albuquerque at just over 1,500. But homeless shelter and meal program operators said the actual number was probably in the range of 4,000 to 4,500, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

That survey also showed that about 40% of the unsheltered people in New Mexico were Native American.

In addition to its westside shelter, Albuquerque and other partners have been using hotels to provide emergency housing during the pandemic.

Eighty-seven families with 186 children were being sheltered across that network as of this week.

Biden To Pause Oil And Gas Sales On Public Lands - By Matthew Daly Associated Press

President Joe Biden is set to announce a wide-ranging moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on U.S. lands and water, as his administration moves quickly to reverse Trump administration policies on energy and the environment and address climate change.

Two people with knowledge of Biden's plans outlined the proposed moratorium, which will be announced Wednesday.

The move follows a 60-day suspension of new drilling permits for U.S. lands and waters announced last week and follows Biden's campaign pledge to halt new drilling on federal lands and water as part of his plan to address climate change.

Oil and gas extracted from public lands and waters account for about a quarter of annual U.S. production. Extracting and burning those fuels generates the equivalent of almost 550 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a 2018 study.

Under former President Donald Trump, Interior officials approved almost 1,400 permits on federal lands, primarily in Wyoming and New Mexico, over a three-month period that included the election, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. Those permits, which remain valid, will allow companies to continue drilling for years, potentially undercutting Biden's climate agenda.

The leasing moratorium could present a political dilemma for Biden in New Mexico, a Democratic-leaning state that has experienced a boom in oil production in recent years, much of it on federal land.

Biden's choice to lead the Interior Department, which oversees oil and gas leasing on public lands, is New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to lead the agency that oversees relations with nearly 600 federally-recognized tribes.

Haaland, whose confirmation hearing has been delayed until next month, already faces backlash from some Republicans who say expected cutbacks in oil production under Biden would hurt her home state.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, a top official with the League of Conservation Voters, called that criticism off-base. "The reality is we need to transition to 100% clean energy" in order to address climate change, she said Tuesday. "The clean energy economy in New Mexico is thriving,'' Sittenfeld added, citing gains in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

Rob Black, president of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, said the expected moratorium would be "devastating" to his state, while failing to reduce carbon emissions in the Southwest.

 A leasing moratorium "won't reduce demand for oil," Black said, but would merely move production from federal lands to private lands in New Mexico and Texas, where an oil boom is occurring in the Permian Basin. Only 2% of land in Texas is federally controlled, compared with about one-third in New Mexico.

The Biden administration has pledged to spend billions to assist in the transition away from fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, and Biden has said creating thousands of clean-energy jobs is a top priority.

Police Say Woman, Child In Car Seat Found Dead On HighwayAssociated Press

New Mexico authorities say a truck driver faces felony charges for allegedly leaving the scene of an accident in which a woman and an infant in a car seat were found dead along Interstate 40.

New Mexico State Police released details about the case Monday, saying a call had come in about a woman walking on the highway just west of Gallup on the night of Jan. 19.

A short time later, a state police officer and a McKinley County sheriff's deputy arrived to find a car seat with the dead infant in it and the woman's body in the median.

Investigators said the woman — identified as Jessica Ann Copey, 24, of Tohlakai — and the unidentified child were hit by a semi truck. They located a truck with heavy front-end damage the next day at a truck stop east of Gallup.

The driver — identified by police as Jagjeet Singh, 24, of Indiana — was taken into custody and booked into the McKinley County jail.

He also faces drug charges after a search of the truck turned up heroin, methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, authorities said.

Singh's public defender, Jason Dunn, did not immediately return an email message seeking comment.

Court records show a preliminary hearing is scheduled for next week.

The case remains under investigation. State police did not say why Copey was walking in the roadway.

Democrats Defend Status Quo On Abortion Access In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Democratic legislators are advancing a bill to repeal New Mexico's dormant, 50-year-old ban on most abortion procedures that could go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. 

A bill that would shore up abortion rights statewide won its first committee endorsement on a 5-3, party-line vote on Monday with Republicans in opposition after lengthy and divided public comments. 

Twenty-five senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. That's an indication of strong support in the 42-member, Democrat-led state Senate. 

The state's voters last year ousted five conservative-leaning Democratic senators who voted in 2019 against a failed bill to overturn the state's abortion ban. 

The state House approved that bill and appears unlikely to waiver this year. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, wants the abortion ban overturned.

Abortion legislation in New Mexico has implications for residents of neighboring states such as Texas, which has more stringent restrictions on abortion than New Mexico. Out-of-state patients accounted for about one-quarter of the abortions performed in New Mexico in 2017.

Governor Reboots Speech On Legislative Agenda For New Mexico - Associated Press

New Mexico's governor is rebooting her annual State of the State speech about accomplishments, economic challenges and her legislative agenda after a weeklong delay. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s remote speech is expected to air today via Facebook and several statewide media outlets amid safety precautions against the pandemic. 

Ordinarily Lujan Grisham would address a joint session of the Legislature with her Cabinet and the state Supreme Court in attendance at the start of the legislative session. 

Lujan Grisham is calling for legislation aimed at reviving a battered state economy during aggressive restrictions on business activity and school attendance. She is also pushing for increased spending on early childhood education and authorization of sales and taxes on recreational cannabis. 

On Monday she promoted a bill that would increase state health care subsidies for families and individuals of moderate incomes earning too much to qualify for Medicaid.

Highlighting fiscal challenges, the Legislature's budget and accountability office said Monday that state government income decreased by $53 million, or 8.3%, to a total of $576 million in September 2020 versus the previous September.

The governor has outlined a $7.3 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year starting on July 1, 2021 — an increase of 3.3% that emphasizes economic relief, public education and mental health services.

Outlining legislative priorities, Lujan Grisham has vowed to sign a proposed repeal of the state's dormant ban on most abortion procedures. A Senate committee advanced the bill after lengthy, divided public comments on Monday.

New Mexico can draw on $2.5 billion in financial reserves as it seeks to sustain vital public services in the midst of severe economic distress brought on by the coronavirus and companion public health orders. 

Republicans say the Legislature deserves a say in public health orders and are backing legislation that gives school districts greater autonomy to restart in-person learning.

New Mexico Officials Advocate For More Vaccine Doses - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Nearly one quarter of New Mexico's population has registered to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, but officials at some of the state's largest health care providers said Monday that inconsistencies with the supply chain are among the barriers to getting more shots in arms.

More than half a million residents have registered on New Mexico's vaccine website. Health officials have been urging people to be patient as the focus shifts from vaccinating front-line health care workers, first responders and those at long-term care facilities to senior citizens. Those with chronic illnesses that put them at higher risk also are on the list.

Roughly 750,000 people fall within the groups eligible now. Dr. Tracie Collins, state health secretary, said it could be weeks before New Mexico can expand eligibility given the uncertainties around federal vaccine allocations. She did expect more doses to be delivered in the coming weeks.

New Mexico receives between 50,000 and 60,000 doses weekly. About half of the doses are aimed at people getting their first shots, and the remainder goes to those ready for their second injection, which is needed for full protection.

Of the more than 221,000 doses that have been shipped so far, nearly 204,000 have been administered, putting New Mexico among the top states for vaccine distribution rates.

Top officials with some of the state's largest health care providers acknowledged during a briefing Monday that the number of doses is one thing preventing more people from getting shots. They said they are ready to set up more clinics to administer vaccines after more doses arrive.

The continued push for mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing by hospital officials comes as New Mexico has seen its daily numbers of confirmed infections fall along with COVID-19 hospitalizations. In fact, the daily infection total has been below 1,000 for the last several days.

However, deaths are still high, with more than 200 reported in the last week. Officials said there is about a four-week lag before changes in the case total are reflected, so the death rate is expected to ease up in February.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker Chosen For Second Term - Associated Press

Lawmakers on the Navajo Nation have chosen Seth Damon to serve another two-year term as speaker. 

The lawmakers are meeting this week for their winter session in Window Rock, Arizona. The first item on their agenda was to select a speaker to oversee the tribe's legislative branch. 

Seth Damon received the only nomination. 

Damon has served on the 24-member council for six years, representing a handful of communities around Gallup, New Mexico. 

As speaker, he presides over quarterly Navajo Nation Council sessions. 

The position also is second in line to succeed the Navajo Nation president.

Damon said he will continue to support the council while working to improve the health and well-being of Navajo citizens. The council and the president's office often have conflicting ideas about how that should be done, and it's been no different at times during Damon's tenure as speaker.

The lawmakers heard reports Monday and take up legislation during the rest of the weeklong session.

Navajo Nation reports 89 new COVID-19 cases, 4 more deathsAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Monday reported 89 new COVID-19 cases and four more deaths as a revised public health order is set to take effect.

The latest figures bring the total reported coronavirus cases on the reservation to 27,573 with 977 known deaths.

On Monday, the tribe extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Navajo Department of Health has identified 53 communities with uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, down from 75 communities in recent weeks.

The Navajo Nation also is lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events.

Convict Who Faked Bomb Threats In Online Feud Loses Appeal - Associated Press

A New Mexico resident has lost his appeal after pleading guilty to making bomb threats against a school and a Walmart in southern Delaware. 

A federal appeals court last week affirmed the 27-month sentence Stephen Scott Landes received for engaging in several instances of "swatting" in an online feud with a Delaware resident. 

Swatting refers to schemes that cause police and SWAT teams to respond to fake emergencies. 

Prosecutors said Landes, while posing as his online rival Rodney Allen Phipps, falsely reported in May 2018 that he had planted bombs at the school and store, prompting police and SWAT teams to respond to the fake emergencies.

Landes had argued that the judge failed to properly consider his mental health history. But the judge said other factors held sway, including that thousands of children and other innocent people were traumatized.