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MON: NM Teachers Now Eligible For Vaccine, Las Cruces Solar Leases Approved, + More

Gina McCaleb


New Mexico Expands Vaccine Eligibility To Teachers -- By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico on Monday expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations to all school teachers, early childhood educators and other staff with the goal of getting the group its first shots by the end of March.

The state is making the move as part of a directive by the Biden administration to get more schools reopened amid the coronavirus pandemic. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said last week that the ability of New Mexico to meet the timeline will depend on the federal government increasing vaccine supplies.

Collins said the state had been in discussions with the White House about how the directive would affect vaccinations for other groups. Under the latest plan, the state will start with educators outside of the Albuquerque area this week. Those in the metro area can get shots next week, likely at a mass vaccination site, and the final week will target all of those statewide who have yet to be vaccinated.

More than 15,000 educators already have received shots, as some were eligible as part of New Mexico's phased-in approach to distributing vaccinations. The focus until now has been on the most vulnerable populations, including those 75 and over and younger people with chronic health conditions that put them at greater risk.

Absent the White House's directive, teachers and other educators were next in line to be prioritized under New Mexico's phased-in approach to distributing vaccinations.

According to the state Public Education Department, there were more than 17,400 teachers on the rolls as of early December. That does not include other school staff, higher education employees or those who work in early childhood education programs.

Teacher unions have been pushing for more widespread vaccinations as pressure mounts to get back to in-person learning. Many New Mexico school districts have opted not to dramatically increase in-person learning despite approval from Lujan Grisham. Some have opened on a limited basis, allowing students to attend in-person based on the availability of teachers who volunteer.

In Santa Fe, the public school district and the union National Education Association-Santa Fe recently reached an agreement in which teachers and staff would be required to return to work in-person once they have been vaccinated or have had the opportunity to get a shot. A memorandum of understanding also notes that no employee will be required to get a vaccination.

Union President Grace Mayer said nearly all members have indicated their willingness to get vaccinated and she was excited about educators being added to the list.

Santa Fe Superintendent Veronica Garcia said in a statement that her schools have been ready to reopen since the beginning of the school year.

"Our hurdle to bringing students back has been access to vaccinations," Garcia said. "I'm greatly encouraged with the federal prioritization of educational employees. ... We all want to get our students back on campus as soon as possible."

Overall, more than 677,000 shots have been administered in New Mexico, ranking the state among the top in the U.S. when it comes to distribution. About 14.5% of the population is fully vaccinated and about one-quarter has received a first shot, according to state data.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and deat

New Mexico Land Office Approves Las Cruces Solar Leases -  Associated Press

New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard on Monday signed four leases with the city of Las Cruces that will boost the community's renewable energy initiatives.

The agreements mark the first time the State Land Office has approved a municipality for renewable energy development for utility generation on state trust land. When completed, the four solar projects will replace existing power to four utility-scale water wells serving Las Cruces residents and businesses.

Garcia Richard said in a statement that she hopes the leases will serve as a framework for other cities as they seek alternatives to either power or provide utilities with renewable energy. She called it an affordable and tangible option for communities that are near state trust land.

"In order to meet the demands for more sustainable energy sources and reach the goals set in statute by the Energy Transition Act, New Mexico communities and government entities need to work together on innovative, clean energy solutions," she said.

Under the 25-year leases, the city will pay roughly $20,000 annually for the use of 10 acres (4 hectares) of trust land in different areas of Las Cruces. The proceeds of the solar leases will directly benefit New Mexico public schools.

State May Pioneer Public Financing Of Lower-Court Campaigns – Associated Press

New Mexico could become the first state to offer public campaign financing to candidates seeking to serve as judges in general jurisdiction courts that handle the bulk of criminal and civil-law trials, under a bill aimed at reducing reliance on private campaign donations in the judiciary.

The bill from Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, of Santa Fe, and Sen. Katy Duhigg, of Albuquerque, advanced toward a likely Senate floor vote this week, after the endorsement Friday of legislative budget committee.

New Mexico currently offers public financing to candidates in statewide elections to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

The initiative would extend the option of public financing to candidates for nearly 100 judicial seats in state district courts that handle criminal trials on charges ranging from murder to burglary, as well as a broad gamut of civil litigation related to personal injury, contract disputes, divorces and more.

New Mexico's district judges are initially elected in partisan elections to six-year terms, and then subject to nonpartisan retention elections. They also may be appointed initially through a nominating commission.

Alicia Bannon, managing director for the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice, says no other states currently provide public financing for lower-court races, while a bill in the Maryland Legislature would extend public financing to state circuit and orphans' court races.

"One advantage of public financing is that it can open the door to a more diverse set of judicial candidates," Bannon said. "In addition, it avoids putting judges in the awkward position of having to fundraise, which can raise conflicts of interest."

Sydney Tellez, associate state director for the progressive good-government group Common Cause New Mexico, said Friday that current safeguards against conflicts of interest border on the absurd in lower state courts.

"Judges find themselves compelled to raise private funds for their election campaigns without learning the name of contributors who submit checks to the campaign treasurers," she said. "This consistently puts them in an awkward position of holding fundraisers with a room full of potential donors, but also they are expected to turn a blind eye where the check is written and hand it to their campaign treasurer."

"Several judges have indicated to us how problematic the process is," Tellez said.

Wirth said the initiative will rely on money from the state's public election fund that previously went toward campaigns for the state utilities commission. Reforms approved by a statewide vote in 2020 transform the elected commission to a three-member board appointed by the governor.

No one spoke in opposition to the bill at Friday's committee hearing.

The level of public financing for district-court candidates would vary, depending on the population of the judicial district, and judges would need to qualify for public campaign support by gathering as many as 400 small campaign contributions of $5 as a gesture of interest and confidence among voters.

New Mexicans In Majority As U.S. Senate OKs COVID-19 Relief Bill - Associated Press

New Mexico Democrats Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján were both in the razor-thin majority Saturday as the U.S. Senate approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. 

The 50-49 vote gives President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies a victory that they say is crucial for hoisting the country out of the pandemic and economic doldrums. 

Senate passage sets up final congressional approval by the House this week. 

Heinrich said New Mexico's residents "are facing daunting economic hardships and need assistance to help weather this crisis," while Luján said the bill "provides crucial relief at a time when New Mexicans are still struggling financially."

Republicans call the measure a wasteful spending spree for Democrats' liberal allies that ignores recent indications that the pandemic and economy could be turning the corner. 

New Mexico Governor's Top Aide Accused Of Ethics Violation - Associated Press

A former trustee for New Mexico's retirement system for its public employees has filed an ethics complaint against Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's chief operating officer.

Claudia Armijo, an attorney, has accused Teresa Casados of pressuring her to take part in voting to endorse a state Senate bill Lujan Grisham strongly backed in an attempt to eventually bring the state's pension system out of debt, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported Tuesday.

In 2020, the system had an estimated $6.6 billion in unfunded liabilities.

Armijo said Casados never explicitly told her to vote in support of the measures, but she felt an implicit threat that she would lose her job if she did not vote with the governor, according to the newspaper.

"It's very inappropriate of her to even order me to vote," Armijo said in a phone interview with the newspaper. "What she did was improper."

Casados' office did not respond to requests for comment made by the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Armijo said she was told that the State Ethics Commission will investigate her complaint.

Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's spokeswoman, said Armijo's claims about Casados were unfounded. "The allegations are thoroughly unsubstantiated," Sackett wrote in an email.

The bill proposed giving pensioners under the age of 75 an annual 2% raise for multiple years. That rate would not be a compounding rate, Armijo said, a measure that she opposed. 

New Mexico Reports 183 New COVID-19 Cases, 12 More Deaths - Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico on Sunday reported 183 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 12 more deaths. 

The latest numbers increased the state's totals to 186,922 cases and 3,808 known deaths since the pandemic began.

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. 

Bernalillo County, which includes metro Albuquerque, had 54 of the latest cases.

Nine of the new cases were among New Mexico Corrections Department inmates at the Lea County Correctional Facility and three among inmates at the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center in Cibola County.

Of the 12 new deaths, Bernalillo County and San Juan County each had four with Chavez County having two and Cibola and Socorro counties one apiece.

Navajo Nation Reports 16 More COVID-19 Cases, 3 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported 16 additional COVID-19 cases and three more deaths from the virus. 

As of Saturday night, the tribe has reported 29,857 confirmed cases and 1,198 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began about a year ago.

Health facilities on the reservation and in border towns are conducting drive-thru vaccine events or administering doses by appointment. The Navajo-area Indian Health Service has vaccinated more than 135,000 people so far.

A daily curfew from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. and a mask mandate remain in effect for residents of the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to prevent the spread of the virus.

New Mexico Senate Backs Bill To Change School Funding - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

With the clock ticking and hundreds of bills on the table, New Mexico legislators are advancing funding priorities for public schools, higher education and early childhood programs.

In the Senate, lawmakers on Friday considered landmark changes to the public school funding formulas amid court judgments that require the state to funnel additional money to underserved students.

In a unanimous vote, the chamber advanced a funding bill that would increase the amount of money sent to school districts with non-taxable lands such as Native American reservations, military bases and federal housing. Currently, the state subtracts 75% of those federal dollars from state education funding.

Sen. George Muñoz pointed to his own district that covers part of western New Mexico. The Democrat said the problem is that 80% of McKinley County is non-taxable, meaning school districts there have to rely on the federal impact payments in lieu of taxes.

"This fixes a lot of problems for us," he said.

Some senators were concerned the proposed changes would erode per-pupil funding equality, which sets New Mexico apart from states that fund schools largely based on local property wealth. Still, they voted for the bipartisan bill.

Many of the school districts that will benefit serve large populations of Indigenous students, who are part of two lawsuits that prompted court rulings on constitutional deficiencies in the way the state funds day-to-day operations and long-term projects. A ruling in a federal case determined that impact aid was being unfairly assessed by the state.

"The impact aid districts will get more," said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. "And they need it."

A competing bill in the House would also lead to increased funding, but requires more of it to be used for capital projects.

The Senate also was scheduled to consider long-standing Democratic priorities to increase funding for two-year colleges, and to increase payouts from the state's $20 billion common schools endowment, aiming more funding at early childhood education.

Albuquerque To Pay $350K To Settle Police Retaliation Claims - Associated Press

The Albuquerque Police Department on Saturday announced that the city will make $175,000 payments to a police sergeant and a police officer to settle retaliations claims. 

The department said in a statement that Sgt. Steven Martinez and  Officer Tillery DiCenzo both alleged violations of a whistleblower law after then-Police Chief Mike Geier transferred them after they reported misconduct by a now-former commander of the police academy. 

The department said former academy commander, Angela Byrd, was terminated last October after an investigation substantiated allegations of threats directed at cadets and of retaliation against staff.

After Byrd was terminated and Geier left the department, the department said Martinez and DeCenzo were restored to their previous positions at the academy. 

Bill Advances To Exempt New Mexico From Time Changes - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico would eliminate twice-annual seasonal time changes under a bill endorsed Friday by the New Mexico state Senate.

On a 22-18 vote, the Democrat-led Senate approved a bill that would keep New Mexico on daylight saving time throughout the year.

It was unclear if the House will bring the measure to a floor vote before the legislative session ends on March 20. Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf was co-sponsor of a similar bill in 2015 that won Senate approval and stalled in the House without a vote.

Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a dairy farmer from Roswell, has championed the initiative since 2013 without success, arguing that the time change is disruptive and that many people prefer to have extra daylight in the evening.

"The majority of people enjoy daylight savings time," he said. "They enjoy that extra hour to play baseball."

Democratic state Sen. Bobby Gonzales of Taos cast a no vote. He says the bill would result in children spending more time in freezing cold morning weather in northern New Mexico as they wait for school buses at sunrise.

"One hour makes a huge difference in the winter," he said.

Pirtle said schools are in the best position to determine starting times for attendance.

For the bill to go into effect, the state would need to request an exemption from federal transportation authorities.

Hawaii, Arizona and several U.S. territories do not make adjustments for daylight saving.

Daylight saving adjustments do take place at the Navajo Nation that encompasses portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

4 Arrested Before Trial Of New Mexico Prison Gang Member - Associated Press

Federal authorities have arrested four people, suspected of making threats against a judge and other officials, hours before testimony in the racketeering and murder trial of a Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang member began last week in Albuquerque. 

The Albuquerque Journal reported that FBI agent Bryan Acee testified on Wednesday that 41-year-old Jody Rufino Martinez was linked to two threats to kill FBI agents and prosecutors, including threats that have since surfaced. 

Martinez faces a potential life sentence. 

Acee said the threats involved an unidentified judge. No one has been harmed.

An FBI spokesman said he had no details about who was arrested on Wednesday or their charges.

Authorities said about 150 Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico members and associates have been arrested with the majority convicted of crimes that range from racketeering to murder to witness intimidation.