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FRI: Bill Preserving Abortion Right Heads To Governor, Legislature Considers Minimum Wage, + More

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New Mexico Legislature Moves To Preserve Abortion Rights - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A bill to shore up abortion rights in New Mexico by overturning a dormant 1969 ban on most abortion procedures has been approved by the Legislature, which is led by Democrats.

The state House passed the bill Friday and sent it to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has said she will sign it. The initiative stands as a counterpoint to proposed abortion bans this year in several Republican-led legislatures.

If left in place, New Mexico's ban on most abortion procedures could go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

Abortion bans have been proposed in at least 10 states with Republican-led Legislatures that could test where the current U.S. Supreme Court stands after the appointment of three conservative justices by former President Donald Trump.

Legislative approval came with a 40-30 vote of the House after a three-hour floor debate. The state Senate approved the bill last week with a 27-15 vote. Two Democrats joined Republicans in opposition.

Supporters of New Mexico's restrictions on abortions say a repeal would drive valued medical professionals from New Mexico who are conscientious objectors to abortion procedures.

The House deliberations were dominated by pro-abortion rights comments from female legislators who make up a majority of the chamber and the Democratic caucus.

Five Democratic state senators who joined Republicans to keep the abortion law in place in 2019 were ousted from office last year.

Report: Emergency Exits At State Capitol Violated Fire CodeKRQE-TV, Associated Press

A report by a New Mexico television station found that the emergency exits at the state Capitol building violated the fire code.

A report by KRQE-TV the marked emergency exits at the state Capitol were locked from the inside during business hours,

The fire code states that any door marked with an illuminated exit sign is considered an emergency exit and cannot be locked from the inside while the building is occupied during normal business hours, the TV station reported.

The doors have since been unlocked.

Department of Public Safety Interim Cabinet Secretary Tim Johnson told the station Officials Say Albuquerque Had Grueling Two Months Of Big FiresAssociated Press

The mayor and fire chief say Albuquerque firefighters had a grueling two months in December and January, responding to a big increase in what are characterized as serious fires.

Mayor Tim Keller and Fire Chief Dow didn't give a cause for the spike in a Friday briefing that tallied 209 significant fires during the span, along with more than 14,000 other calls for medical, rescue and other services.

They said calls in February appear to be returning to a more normal level.

By comparison, Albuquerque Fire Rescue responded to an average of 64 significant fires each in October and November.

Keller says the department handled the jump in the number of calls, even during a pandemic, without missing a beat.

Fire Chief Paul Dow called every structure fire response unique, with dangers including erratic fire behavior and the threat of structural collapse always a possibility.

The department responded to 90,208 calls of all kinds in 2020, the officials said.that the oversight was not intentional.


Legislature Explores Changes To Minimum Wage In New Mexico - Associated Press

The minimum wage for working high school students would rise by $2 to $10.50 an hour under a bill endorsed by the New Mexico Senate. 

The bill won approval Thursday on a 26-15 vote. 

The state currently provides a lower minimum wage of $8.50 to people 18 and under. 

The initiative would guarantee the same statewide minimum wage for adults and youths who stay in school. 

Reforms adopted in 2019 gradually raise the statewide minimum wage to $12 by 2023. 

President Joe Biden is proposing to raise the federal minimum wage requirement for most workers to $15 an hour from $7.25.

Advocates for New Mexico's current discount minimum wage argue that it helps small businesses provide part-time work that might not otherwise be available to young people.

A competing bill from a coalition of state House Democrats would raise the minimum hourly wage for students and tipped employees, a mainstay of the hospitality industry.

The House proposal, scheduled for its first committee hearing next week, sets out a schedule for raising the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024.

New Mexico House Speaker Responds To Ethics Complaint - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf says a recent ethics complaint against him is an effort to distract him from work as a legislator. 

Egolf made the comments Thursday in an online forum with reporters. 

Retired state district judge and former district attorney Sandra Price of Aztec has filed a complaint with the State Ethics Commission that accuses Egolf of promoting legislation that may financially benefit his legal practice without disclosing a conflict of interest. 

The Albuquerque-based commission has not yet made any decision on the merits of the complaint.

Egolf is co-sponsor this year of a bill that would open the way for civil rights lawsuits in state district court against state and local public officials.

The bill builds on recommendations of a civil rights commission, chartered by the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in June as protests over police brutality and racial injustice swept the nation and New Mexico's largest city.

Price alleges that Egolf failed to disclose during deliberations on the bill that his legal practice in Santa Fe handles civil rights claims and other civil litigation and stands to benefit financially.

Egolf called the complaint a deliberate distraction.

"I believe it is something that is designed to distract me and to discourage me from doing the work that the people of New Mexico and members of the House elected me to do," Egolf said.

The Senate is vetting Egolf's legislative proposal after a vote of approval by the state House this week. Egolf voted in favor of the measure on the House floor and in committee.

Price says legislators must disqualify themselves under the state Government Conduct Act from official actions if they stand to benefit financially more than the general public.

Egolf noted that the state's unsalaried Legislature is structured to draw on the diverse professional experience of its members.

New Mexico Schools Make Plans For Virtual, Hybrid Learning - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Albuquerque Public Schools officials are defending their decision to keep the state's largest school district in remote learning.

On Wednesday night, the school board rejected a proposal aimed at partially returning students to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic as part of a hybrid learning model.

Critics of the decision argued that it chose the needs of teachers, who have not been able to receive widespread vaccinations, over students, whose grade-failure rates have doubled under remote learning.

The board voted 4-3 against hybrid learning, keeping the district virtual through the end of the year with limited in-person groups.

Officials said that around two-thirds of teachers would not volunteer to participate in hybrid learning until vaccines were available to them or virus outbreaks dropped significantly. That would hobble the rollout and create large waiting lists for families, about half of whom want to return to in-person learning.

The board also approved a measure to allow some groups in-person instruction, including students at risk of failing or seniors who need additional help. It will be up to each school to identify which students need additional in-person instruction, district officials said.

The proposed hybrid plan would have brought back kindergarten through second grade on March 1, followed by all elementary students.

New Mexico state officials said all schools should enter a hybrid mode, with students attending school about two days per week, starting Feb. 8. Medium-sized districts aver already started, while others also decided to remain online.

In Las Cruces, school officials rolled out their plan this week. It allows high school students who opted to return to attend class in person two days a week.

Cyberattack Strikes Hospital That Serves Navajo Nation - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A pandemic-besieged hospital on the edge of the Navajo Nation says it has been the focus of a cyberattack. 

The nonprofit operator of Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital in Gallup on Thursday issued a brief statement acknowledging "unauthorized activity" on its computer network. 

Hospital spokeswoman Ina Burmeister says hospital operators have hired private investigators and taken other undisclosed measures to prevent further unauthorized activity. 

The scope and consequences of the intrusion were unclear.

Former hospital employee Cassandra Martinez says she sought emergency services at the hospital on Feb. 7 and that hospital personnel were unable to access her online records.

A wave of digital assaults has been taking U.S. health care providers hostage as they contend with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In September 2020, a ransomware attack paralyzed a chain of more than 250 U.S. hospitals and clinics, with related outages that delayed emergency room care.

Burmeister declined to comment on possible responses by law enforcement.

"We will fully comply with our legal obligations, including contacting any impacted individuals, as appropriate," the hospital said in a statement.

Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital and an adjacent hospital run by Indian Health Service have been wrestling with stubbornly high coronavirus infection rates in a city that serves as a trading post for remote areas of the Navajo Nation.

In McKinley County, which encompasses Gallup, there has been roughly one infection confirmed for every four residents since the outset of the pandemic. The virus death rate is above six per 1,000 residents.

Navajo Nation Reports 43 New COVID-19 Cases, 13 More Deaths – Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials reported 43 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday with 13 additional deaths.

The latest numbers bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 29,386 since the pandemic began.

There have been 1,127 reported deaths that were related to COVID-19. Tribal President Jonathan Nez said the Navajo Area Indian Health Service has administered 101,332 vaccines doses on the Navajo Nation as of Thursday.

That surpasses the goal of administering at least 100,000 doses by the end of this month.

Nez says that even those who have been fully vaccinated need to continue taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

Utility Financing Bill Clears New Mexico Senate Panel Associated Press

A measure aimed at saving customers money when utilities opt to close power plants and recover lost investments has narrowly cleared its first legislative hurdle.

A New Mexico Senate panel voted 5-4 Thursday to advance the bill. Supporters of the legislation say it would clear the way for other utilities to use the same financing mechanisms that were afforded Public Service Co. of New Mexico under the state's landmark Energy Transition Act.

In the case of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, PNM was allowed to recover its lost investments with $361 million in low-cost bonds that will be paid for by ratepayers.

Utility officials have said those additional charges will be offset by the savings from abandoning the coal-fired power plant and replacing it with renewable energy and battery storage systems.

Some lawmakers raised questions about potential risks in the bond market overall, while others said the legislation could conflict with existing state laws that deal with bankruptcy and property rights.

New Mexico Senate Endorses $200 Million For Business Grants - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's Senate has endorsed a bill that would provide $200 million from the state general fund to thousands of businesses that experienced income declines in 2020, in a nearly unanimous vote Thursday.

The bill would provide individual grants of up to $100,000 without repayment to businesses for the reimbursement of rent, lease or mortgage obligations on property located in New Mexico. The bill returns to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

The arrangement tests the boundaries of the state Constitution's "anti-donation clause" that prohibits government donations as a precaution against corruption.

The proposal from Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf and allied state Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos stands among a long list of bills aimed at reviving the local economy as New Mexico emerges from the pandemic and aggressive emergency health orders from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Republican Sen. Pat Woods of Grady bristled at the prospect of continued business restrictions as relief initiatives are drafted.

¨There still aren't any assurances that we'll have those businesses open," Woods said. He cast the lone "no" vote against the bill on Thursday.

The proposed grants would be contingent on the hiring or rehiring of employees. Similar grants with more restrictions under the Local Economic Development Act are exempt from the constitutional provisions that prohibit the direct donation of taxpayer dollars as an anti-corruption measure.

A House-approved version of the bill would keep grant applications confidential — an exception to transparency provisions in the state inspection of public records act. The Senate-approved bill would keep only tax-return information confidential, Muñoz said.

Businesses owned by five state senators benefited last year from small business grants enacted by the Legislature and underwritten by the federal relief funds, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under provisions of the public records act.

Separately, state legislators are advancing proposals for minimal-interest loans to small businesses, tax rebates to low-wage workers and a monthslong tax holiday for restaurants.

It was unclear whether the governor supports the bill as written. Lujan Grisham has indicated her support for $475 million in relief spending during the coming fiscal year, deferring to legislators on many details.

New Mexico's current emergency health order limits public gatherings to 20 people or less depending on local COVID-19 infection rates, with limited capacity at most businesses and no access to entertainment or close-contact recreational venues.