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WED: State To End Quarantine Requirements For Travelers, Wildfire Risks At Los Alamos Labs + More

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New Mexico To End Quarantine Requirements For TravelersAssociated Press

New Mexico officials on Wednesday said they would be ending mandatory self-quarantine requirements for visitors and residents arriving in the state.

The state Health Department cited what it described as “a brighter pandemic outlook” for the change in policy.

Despite January having marked the deadliest month yet of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., New Mexico has fared better in recent weeks as rolling seven-day average of new confirmed cases has been dropping. Deaths and hospitalizations also are down in the state.

Beginning Thursday, visitors from anywhere outside of the state will instead be advised to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days and to seek out a COVID-19 test upon their arrival in or return to New Mexico.

Previously, visitors or arrivals from “high-risk” states were required to physically separate from others for at least 14 days from the date of their entry into New Mexico or for the duration of their presence in the state, whichever is shorter.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged the sacrifice of residents and visitors. But she urged them to remain vigilant.

“Please consider continuing to limit travel to only what is necessary for your work and family," she said in a statement. "This is the best way to ensure our progress is sustained and we can continue to save lives and protect New Mexicans’ health and livelihoods.”

State health officials pointed to testing efforts and high vaccine distribution rates for the recent suppression of the virus in parts of New Mexico.

Nearly 5% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and state officials have been pushing for more doses to be delivered to the state as the number of residents who have registered to receive a shot was approaching 605,000.

The Biden administration plans to have the federal government administer vaccines directly through community health centers as a way to distribute vaccines more equitably. It’s also planning to have 100 federally run vaccination centers operating by the end of February.

Some states are worried that the vaccines going to the community health centers and the federal vaccination centers would be subtracted from the allotments normally going to the states. New Mexico health officials did not immediately say Wednesday whether they support the federal plans given the state’s successful distribution efforts so far.

The latest data from the Health Department shows nearly half of New Mexico's 33 counties have now reached the yellow level under the state’s color-coding risk system. Four additional counties are considered green, meaning they have the least risk.

According to the data, all but four counties saw a positivity rate below 10% in the most recent two-week period.

New Mexico has recorded more than 178,000 COVID cases since the pandemic began, with some of the lowest daily case totals since October being reported over the last week. The death toll stands at 3,430.



Audit Raises Concerns About Wildfire Risks At US Nuclear Lab - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

One of the nation’s premier nuclear laboratories isn’t taking the necessary precautions to guard against wildfires, according to an audit by the U.S. Energy Department’s inspector general.

The report comes as wildfire risks intensify across the drought-stricken U.S. West. Climatologists and environmentalists have been warning about worsening conditions across the region, particularly in New Mexico, which is home to Los Alamos National Laboratory and where summer rains failed to materialize last year and winter precipitation has been spotty at best.

The birthplace of the atomic bomb, Los Alamos has experienced hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and damage from major wildfires over the last two decades. That includes a blaze in 2000 that forced the lab to close for about two weeks, ruined scientific projects, destroyed a portion of the town and threatened tens of thousands of barrels of radioactive waste stored on lab property.

Watchdog groups say the federal government needs to take note of the latest findings and conduct a comprehensive review before the lab ramps up production of key plutonium parts used in the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

“The threat and risks of wildfire to the lab and northern New Mexico will continue to increase because of climate warming, drought and expanded nuclear weapons production,” said Jay Coghlan, director of the group Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

The audit released this month found that cutting back vegetation along power lines and other measures to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires were not always done, increasing the potential for another devastating fire like the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000.

Federal auditors said not all fire roads were maintained to ensure safe passage for firefighters and equipment responding to blazes on lab property.

The audit also cited federal policy that requires a comprehensive, risk-based approach to wildfire management — something the inspector general's office said had not been developed by the contractor that manages the lab for the U.S. government. It also pointed to a lack of oversight by Energy Department field staff.

“Without documenting planning and preparedness activities, there was no assurance that all prevention and mitigation options were considered and that the site was fully prepared for wildland fire events," the audit says.

The report included photos that depicted overgrown areas. In Los Alamos Canyon, for example, specialists indicated there were about 400 to 500 trees per acre. Auditors said the ideal number should be 40 to 50 trees per acre.

Lab spokesman Peter Alden Hyde said that since the audit was conducted in late 2018 and early 2019, the lab has adopted “an aggressive approach” to wildfire management on its 39-square-mile (101-square-kilometer) campus. That has included thinning vegetation along access routes, improving fire roads and recently removing thousands of trees downed by wind storms.

“We continue to review our wildfire and forest health plans and have already implemented most of the recommendations the Department of Energy offered to improve our efforts to protect the public, the environment and the laboratory,” he said.

It was not immediately clear how many acres were thinned during the last year or whether the lab had any major projects planned for 2021.



Legislators Consider Financial Pandemic-Relief Measures - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators pressed forward Wednesday with proposals for pandemic-related financial relief measures, including minimal-interest loans to small businesses that have been battered by the pandemic and emergency health restrictions.

The Democrat-led state Senate was scheduled Wednesday to hold its first floor votes of the year on a package of economic relief bills.

A centerpiece bill from state Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque would authorize loans of up to $150,000 to small businesses at sub-prime interest rates of less than 2% annual interest.

The bill allows a state trust fund to invest up to $500 million in the loans to businesses with ownership ties to New Mexico through May 2022 — forsaking traditional investments based on risks and returns.

The proposed investment policy builds on a more limited small business loan program last year that provided about $40 million in loans of up to $75,000 each. The new program would allows those loans to be refinanced at more favorable terms to small businesses.

“The best thing we can hope for in terms of our recovery is that firms across the state begin to grow again, take risks, taking out loans, taking out credit to build, to invest, to grow, to employ more people, to make capital investments," Candelaria told a Senate panel this week.

The Legislature is racing against the clock during a 60-day legislative session that ends March 20 to enact economic relief measures, amid uncertainty about a possible new round of direct federal aid to state and local governments.

A pending decision from the state Supreme Court could allow businesses to pursue compensation from the state in response to aggressive emergency health restrictions on nonessential businesses by the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Across most of the state, health restrictions have shut down entertainment venues and still prohibit public gatherings of more than 10 people, ban indoor dining at restaurants and limit occupancy at essential businesses such as grocery and hardware stores.

Other prominent state relief proposals would allot a $600 tax rebate to working low-income families and provide a break on business sales and services taxes to food service establishments such as restaurants, craft breweries and food trucks.

Another bill would waive fees for all liquor licenses in the hard-hit hospitality industry. 


New Mexico Lawmakers Support School Funding In Native Areas - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

A bill that would undo an education funding formula that disproportionately deprives Native American communities of school funds earned support Wednesday from members of the New Mexico House Education Committee.

School districts surrounded by tribal lands, as well as federal lands like military bases, rely on federal education Impact Aid instead of the traditional land taxes that other communities can raise.

New Mexico’s education funding formula has for decades deducted federal Impact Aid from state education funding. In recent years, 75% was withheld under this formula, depriving affected school districts of around $60 million in the 2020 fiscal year.

Chronic underfunding of education for Indigenous students and other vulnerable group was ruled unconstitutional by a state court in 2018. The ruling was upheld last summer after a motion to dismiss by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was rejected.

Instead of deducting the 75%, schools would be able to use the funding on things like language education or capital improvements — items deemed to be deficient in the state lawsuit.

The bill, which passed the committee on a 14-0 vote, has the support of Democratic leadership.

After initially fighting to preserve the withholding in a separate federal lawsuit last year, the Lujan Grisham administration embraced changing the practice. The administration's education secretary advocated for the change last year and welcomed Wednesday's vote.

“Removing the credit for federal Impact Aid is a priority of the Public Education Department and the governor, and equity demands that we get that done as quickly as possible,” Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said. 


New Mexico Sheriff Embraces Body Cameras After Resistance – Associated Press

A county sheriff in New Mexico who has previously resisted the use of deputy-worn body cameras is now embracing the technology, officials said.

“We’re learning from this and there is value in this,” Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales said on Tuesday. “We’re just in the infancy stage of this camera program, so I’m looking forward to what it has to offer in the future.”

The Bernalillo County sheriff’s office outfitted deputies with police body-worn cameras last month, KOB-TV reported.

Gonzales unveiled the device on Jan. 22 that each of the 310 deputies are now wearing after a newly approved state law requiring law enforcement to have body cameras.

“I’m embracing it to figure out where it’s going to take us,” Gonzales said.

Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, has agreed to a more than $3 million, five-year contract for the BodyWorn camera by Utility, Inc. The contract covers two cameras in each vehicle, Wi-Fi hot spots for the cruisers, uniform tailoring to hold the devices and a holster that will automatically activate the cameras when a gun is drawn.

New Mexico Trying To Organize Broadband Efforts - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

The New Mexico Legislature is considering a bill that would consolidate the efforts of multiple state agencies to expand high-speed internet.

The effort comes a year into the pandemic that has pushed education and health care online, eroding residents' access to public services proportional to how far they are from an internet connection.

“We watched the collapse of our educational system during the COVID, and during the shutdown. And we all were watching our kids and our grandkids, dealing with this problem,” said Rep. Susan Herrera, of Embudo, who represents residents in three surrounding rural counties north of Santa Fe.

One in five students didn’t have access to the internet at all in the first months of the pandemic, according to a survey by the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority.

At-home COVID-19 testing rolled out by the state last year required participants to use video chat. Vaccine distribution efforts focus on getting residents to sign up online.

That might complicate things for residents 65 and older, who are less likely to have internet access. However, there is a workaround via phone.

The Connect New Mexico Act introduced by Rep. Herrera and four others won’t solve the state’s internet woes during the pandemic but could increase the rate at which broadband is expanded.

The bill made it through a House committee focused on infrastructure Tuesday in an 8-1 vote. It will next be heard in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. The state's annual legislative session started in January.

If passed, it would allocate $950,000 to create a broadband clearinghouse inside the Department of Information Technology. The new agency would distribute an existing $19 million fund to match federal broadband grants, a task currently shared by departments including DoIT.

“Most of the money that comes in for broadband is through federal grants. That’s just how this works. So what we needed was a pool of money, and a staff to really get those grants in and to provide the match,” said Rep. Natalie Figueroa, of Albuquerque.

Other bills under consideration in the house would allocate funds to expand broadband directly, including a proposal a one-time allocation of $95 million for the Native American Library Internet and Education bill.

The New Mexico Department of Information Technology estimated last year that providing internet access to all New Mexicans would cost between $2 billion and $5 billion for fiber optic cable, and under $1 billion for a combination of fiber optic and radio technology.

Worldwide, companies like SpaceX and Google are testing technologies — satellite networks and high altitude balloons — that could cut costs for rural broadband in the future.

“We don’t specify that it has to be fiber line, it might be a dirigible in the sky, it might be a satellite, it might be a tower,” Figueroa said.

New Mexico Red-Flag Gun Law Seldom Used To Withdraw Firearms - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Records show a red-flag gun law aimed at removing firearms from people who pose a danger to themselves or others has been applied just four times across New Mexico since it went into effect in May. 

The Administrative Office of the Courts confirmed Tuesday that petitions for extreme risk firearm protection orders have been filed in Eddy, Santa Fe, Taos and San Juan counties. 

Three resulted in one-year court orders for the surrender of firearms — with one order later rescinded. 

A petition for one Santa Fe man to surrender his firearms was eventually rejected because threats of violence were reported by his physician. Current law allows testimony from relatives, employers and school administrators only.

New Mexico's red-flag law was approved by a Democratic-led Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in response to a mass shooting by a lone gunman at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, that killed 23 people in August 2019.

Advocates for the law also hope it will address the state's suicide epidemic. New Mexico had the nation's highest suicide rate in 2018, and firearms were the most common means.

The legislation was a lightning rod for criticism from rural sheriffs — Republicans and Democrats — in the state with a strong culture of gun ownership.

Democratic legislators are currently proposing changes that would allow police officers to seek a court order based on their own observations without a recommendation from someone else who witnesses a gun owner in crisis. 

Officers could base decisions on information from a physician or a mental health provider, bill co-sponsor and state Rep. Daymon Ely of Corrales said Tuesday at an initial legislative hearing. The committee delayed a vote on whether to advance the bill.

Other proposed changes would ensure that evidence obtained in the firearms emergency protection process cannot be used for criminal prosecution, Ely said.

A panel of House lawmakers advanced a separate bill Tuesday that would restrict the creation of guns from plastics on a 3D printer to federally licensed arms manufacturers, on a 3-2 vote, with Republicans in opposition.

New Mexico Employee Accepts Position In Biden Administration - Albuquerque Journal, Washington Post, Associated Press

A top human resources employee for New Mexico's governor has stepped down after more than two years in the position to take a new role with President Joe Biden's administration.

Pam Coleman, who was appointed to serve as director of the state personnel office in January 2019 under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, will now transition into a top-ranking job with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

Coleman will serve as head of the federal budget office's office of performance and personnel management, according to The Washington Post.

The Albuquerque Journal reports Coleman, 55, said in her Jan. 27 resignation letter that she would take a "mutual passion for public service" to the Biden administration.

Coleman previously worked in Washington D.C. for former President Barack Obama's administration before being called to New Mexico. In New Mexico, Coleman worked to undo a state government human resources consolidation order implemented by the previous state governor and implemented a new parental paid leave policy for state employees. 

Lujan Grisham said Ricky Serna, a former deputy secretary at the department of workforce solutions and the higher education department, is serving as acting state personnel director.

Interior Nominee Focus Of Colorado Bid To Keep Lands Agency - Grand Junction Sentinel, Associated Press

Colorado U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper says he is urging President Joe Biden's Interior secretary nominee to keep the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management in Grand Junction. 

Hickenlooper's office says the senator met Tuesday with Deb Haaland, a Democratic U.S. representative from New Mexico, and invited her to western Colorado. 

Hickenlooper sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will hold a hearing on Haaland's nomination in coming weeks. 

Members of Colorado's congressional delegation and Grand Junction leaders met Monday to discuss lobbying Haaland on the issue.

The Grand Junction Sentinel reported that Haaland has criticized the decision by the Donald Trump administration to move the public lands agency headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction.

Supporters of the move argued BLM headquarters staff should be closer to the lands they manage. Critics say the effort effectively weakened the agency.

Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz has said the department's new leadership will study the issue.

Fresh Funding Aims To Revitalize Indigenous Oral History - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A major effort is getting underway at several universities, tribal museums and libraries to digitize the oral histories of thousands of Native Americans. 

The recordings were collected a half century ago as part of a project initiated by the late philanthropist Doris Duke. 

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has awarded more than $1.6 million to help with the translation and transcription of the recordings so they can be accessible to Native communities, students and the wider public. 

Plans also call for expanding the collections with contemporary voices. 

The recordings come from a pivotal time in U.S. history when the civil rights movement spurred greater visibility of minority populations, including Native Americans.

Navajo Nation Reports 54 New COVID-19 Cases, 15 More DeathsAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Tuesday reported 54 new COVID-19 cases and 15 more deaths.

The latest figures raised the totals to 28,994 cases and 1,075 known deaths since the pandemic began.

The Navajo Department of Health has identified 44 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Jan. 22 to Feb. 4, down from 75 communities in recent weeks.

The tribe has extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the virus' spread on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

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