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MON: Some Hospitals Ease Visitation Restrictions, Draft Budget Would Boost Spending, + More

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Visitation Restrictions Eased At Some New Mexico Hospitals - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Citing downward trends in new COVID-19 cases, top administrators with some of the largest health care networks in New Mexico said Monday that visitation restrictions at some hospitals were being eased for non-coronavirus patients.

The officials said during an online briefing that the changes include longer visiting hours and in some cases, more than one person will be allowed in.

Still, they noted that while the daily case totals have been declining, the seven-day rolling average of infections in New Mexico remains higher now that it was last spring and summer. They urged people to continue wearing masks and to keep their distance from others.

Chief quality and safety officer at University of New Mexico Hospital Dr. Rohini McKee said two factors need to be kept in mind: current vaccination rates and emerging variants. She said it could be the summer before more groups of people are vaccinated under the state's phased plan and there's still not enough information on how the new variants will affect transmission rates.

The hospitals also are continuing with vaccination efforts but said the focus has been on getting people their second shots per guidance from the state Health Department. The agency did not immediately answer questions about how long that would be the case.

Top health officials have said in recent weeks that demand continues to outpace supply despite an uptick in the allotment from the federal government.

As of Monday, data from the Health Department shows over a half-million shots have been administered in New Mexico, with about 34% of those being second shots.

More than 642,200 New Mexicans — 30% of the population — have registered online with the Health Department to receive a vaccination.

Health officials on Monday also reported 237 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to 183,023 since the pandemic began. More than 3,635 New Mexicans have died from the virus.

Interior Nominee Haaland Vows 'Balance' On Energy, Climate - By Matthew Daly Associated Press

President Joe Biden's nominee to head the Interior Department says oil and natural gas will continue to play a major role in America for years to come.

But New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Biden's nominee to be interior secretary, says the United States also must address climate change and recognize that the energy industry is changing.

In testimony prepared for her confirmation hearing Tuesday, she said the Interior Department has a role in "harnessing the clean energy potential of our public lands to create jobs" while restoring and conserving federal lands.

Biden's agenda, including the possible creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, “demonstrates that America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production" and “has the potential to spur job creation,'' Haaland said in testimony prepared for her confirmation hearing Tuesday.

Haaland's remarks are intended to rebut criticism from some Republicans who have complained that her opposition to drilling on federal lands will cost thousands of jobs and harm economies throughout the West.

If confirmed, Haaland would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency. The Laguna Pueblo member and two-term congresswoman often draws on her experience as a single mother and the teachings of her ancestors as a reminder that action the U.S. takes on climate change, the environment and sacred sites will affect generations to come.

Native Americans see Haaland's nomination as the best chance to move from consultation on tribal issues to consent and to put more land into the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements. The Interior Department has broad oversight of tribal affairs and energy development.

"The historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say that it is not about me,'' Haaland said in her prepared testimony. "Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans — moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us.''

As the daughter of a Pueblo woman, Haaland says she learned early to value hard work. Her mother is a Navy veteran and worked for a quarter-century at the Bureau of Indian Education, an Interior Department agency. Her father was a career Marine who served in Vietnam. He received the Silver Star and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

"As a military family, we moved every few years when I was a kid, but no matter where we lived, my dad taught me and my siblings to appreciate nature, whether on a mountain trail or walking along the beach,'' Haaland said.

The future congresswoman spent summers with her grandparents in Mesita, a Laguna Pueblo village. "It was in the cornfields with my grandfather where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources and where I gained a deep respect for the Earth,'' she said.

Haaland pledged to lead the Interior Department with honor and integrity and said she will be "a fierce advocate for our public lands."

She promised to listen to and work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and ensure that the Interior Department's decisions are based on science. She also vowed to "honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America's story.''

She said she fully understands the role the Interior Department must play in Biden's "build back better" plan for infrastructure and clean energy and said she will seek to protect natural resources for future generations "so that we can continue to work, live, hunt, fish, and pray among them.''

Haaland's nomination has stirred strong opposition from some Republicans who say "radical ideas" don't fit in with a rural way of life, particularly in the West. They cite her support for the sprawling Green New Deal and Biden's recent moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands — which doesn't apply to tribal lands — and her opposition to fracking and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

"I have serious concerns with Rep Haaland's radical views and support for the Green New Deal," Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., tweeted after a meeting with Haaland. "Unless my concerns are addressed, I will not only oppose her confirmation for Interior, I will do all I can to defeat it."

Daines is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will consider Haaland's nomination at a hearing Tuesday. The panel's chair, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has not said how he will vote on Haaland's nomination, which Democrats generally support. Manchin, a moderate, said he plans to oppose Biden's choice for budget director, Neera Tanden, a crucial defection that could sink her nomination in the evenly divided Senate.

National civil rights groups have joined forces with tribal leaders and environmental groups in supporting Haaland.

A joint statement by the NAACP, UnidosUS and Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum praised her nomination as "historic" and called Haaland "a proven civil rights/racial justice advocate."

A letter signed by nearly 500 national and regional organizations representing Native Americans, environmental justice groups, outdoor businesses and others urged senators to confirm Haaland.

"Rep. Haaland is a proven leader and the right person to lead the charge against the existential threats of our time – tackling the climate, biodiversity, extinction and COVID-19 crises, and racial justice inequities on our federal public lands and waters,'' the groups said.

Draft State Budget Would Boost Salaries, School Spending - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's state government is likely to deliver a jolt of one-time spending amid the pandemic and provide sustained funding increases on health care and public education under a newly drafted budget bill.

The lead House budget committee on Monday unanimously endorsed the spending plan for the coming fiscal year that increases general fund spending by $332 million for the fiscal year that starts July 1. That represents a 4.6% increase over current fiscal year spending.

Total general fund spending would increase to $7.39 billion under the plan that includes a 1.5% raise for employees throughout state government, K-12 schools and public colleges and universities. Larger raises are slated for prison guards.

Legislative budget analyst Bill Valdes said a decrease in the state inmate population is making more money available for prison-guard raises and programs to address recidivism and substance abuse.

A vote on the draft budget plan by the full House of Representatives is scheduled this week before the proposal moves to the Senate for possible amendments and approval.

Public schools in New Mexico rely on the state for most is their funding, and the draft budget would increase K-12 spending by 5.5% to $3.39 billion — a $175 million increase.

Albuquerque Asks State To Split Hybrid Learning, Activities Associated Press

New Mexico's largest school district has asked the state to separate athletics and other extracurricular activities from the hybrid learning structure being used because of the coronavirus pandemic.

KRQE-TV reports Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education members said during a special meeting Monday they do not believe activities should be connected to a hybrid learning model, which is a current requirement set by the state Public Education Department.

Board members say students involved in extracurricular activities overseen by the New Mexico Activities Association would perform better in school if they were allowed to continue doing extracurricular activities they love.

Athletes, parents and coaches over the weekend protested the school board's decision to remain in the online hybrid class model through the remainder of the school year, which would prevent participation in activities including band, choir, chess, drama and others overseen by the New Mexico Activities Association.

The Albuquerque board approved a letter Monday to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking for the separation with assurances the split can be conducted safely.

The Public Education Department issued a statement saying it has remained focused on safety, maximizing in-person learning opportunities and basing decisions on science and data.

Tribes Have High Hopes As Haaland Confirmation Hearing Nears - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Deb Haaland has stood with fellow tribal members in protesting an oil pipeline, advocating for protecting cultural landmarks and criticizing destruction of Native American sites near the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Native Americans have reason to believe the two-term U.S. congresswoman will push forward on long-simmering issues in Indian Country if she's confirmed as secretary of the Interior Department, which has broad oversight of tribal affairs and energy development. Unlike most people who have held the job, she won't need to be schooled on the history of Native Americans or tribal sovereignty. She already knows. 

The Laguna Pueblo woman often draws on her own experience as a single mother and the teachings of her ancestors as a reminder that action the U.S. takes today on climate change, the environment and sacred sites will impact generations to come.

Haaland, 60, would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency. A confirmation hearing is scheduled Tuesday. And while her support of the Green New Deal has put her in the crosshairs of some Republicans, Haaland is expected to have enough votes to secure the post.

Drought-Stricken West Holds Out For More Than Just Dry Snow - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico is getting some much needed snow but don't count on it to end the drought. 

Every square mile of the arid state is dealing with some level of dryness, with more than half locked in the worst category — exceptional drought. 

And much of the West is no better off, with parts of Arizona, Utah and Nevada among the hardest hit. 

The latest storms to cross New Mexico came with frigid temperatures. Experts say the colder the air, the less moisture in the snow. That means less water to recharge the soil and less that will find its way into rivers and reservoirs this spring.

New Mexico Governor Used Fund To Buy Groceries, Dry Cleaning - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she regrets discretionary spending of taxpayer money that included $6,500 on groceries and alcohol. 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the Democratic governor over a six-month period in 2020 spent almost $13,500 from a taxpayer-funded expense account. 

The account is for spending on functions, events or other items that promote the state. 

Lujan Grisham's spokesperson said some of the groceries were used to feed the governor's cabinet and staff at long meetings.

Lujan Grisham said Friday she knew the purchases didn't look good and she didn't want New Mexicans to feel she didn't take their hardship seriously.

One of the receipts showed that the governor's office spent more than $200 during one trip to Sam's Club on at least five bottles of tequila, two bottles of vodka, two bottles of merlot, a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of gin, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

Stelnicki said the liquor was bought by a staffer for a holiday party that never ended up happening. He added that the alcohol remains unopened.

Facebook Seeks $6B To Expand Data Center In New Mexico - Associated Press

A subsidiary of Facebook has filed an application with Los Lunas city officials for billions of dollars in additional funding that could double the size of its data center and bring about 300 additional jobs. 

The Albuquerque Journal reported that Greater Kudu, LLC is seeking $6.6 billion under a series of six bonds that will help it expand its Facebook Data Center in Los Lunas, south of Albuquerque.

The center currently employs more than 200 people. 

The Los Lunas Village Council is expected to consider the proposal next month to build up to six additional buildings, two within the next two years. 

The center currently has three fully operational buildings and three under construction, one of which is near completion, company officials said. The center acts as a storage facility for the company's social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

An industrial revenue bond, or IRB, is a tax break for companies that plan to expand by way of construction and equipping of a future project. Los Lunas Mayor Charles Griego said economic development will play a big factor in considering issuing the company bonds to expand the center.

Both the village and Greater Kudu are hoping a decision is reached by mid-March.

Albuquerque Police Fatally Shoot Man Who Charged At Officers - Associated Press

Police say officers have fatally shot a man who charged at them on a street in northeast Albuquerque. 

Interim Police Chief Harold Medina says the man was walking in the middle of the street and forcing vehicles to drive around him. 

Police say officers unsuccessfully tried to use a stun gun on the man who ignored their commands to get off the street. 

Albuquerque TV station KOB reports that video footage taken by a witness shows the man throwing an object toward officers before being shot. 

The man was transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. His name hasn't been released yet.

New Mexico Reports 320 New COVID-19 Cases, 14 More Deaths - Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico on Sunday reported 320 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 14 more deaths. 

The latest numbers increased the state's pandemic totals to 182,789 cases and 3,624 known deaths. 

Four counties accounted for over half the additional cases. Bernalillo County had 101 cases, Doña Ana 44, Sandoval 23 and Valencia 22. Doña Ana County had three of the 18 new deaths with Bernalillo, Lea and San Juan each having two deaths. 

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Navajo Nation Reports 48 New COVID-19 Cases, 4 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials have reported 48 new confirmed COVID-19 cases with four additional deaths. 

The latest numbers released Saturday night bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 29,509 since the pandemic began. 

There have been 1,142 reported deaths that were related to COVID-19.  The tribe has a nightly curfew in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to limit the spread of the virus. 

Tribal health officials said nearly 16,000 people have recovered from COVID-19 on the reservation and more than 242,000 tests have been administered.