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WED: Navajo Nation To Re-Open 2 Casinos, Governor Signs Bill Allowing Alcohol Home Delivery, + More

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Navajo Nation To Reopen 2 Casinos In Northwestern New MexicoAssociated Press

Two casinos on the Navajo Nation will reopen this week as the tribe eases its restrictions on businesses amid a downturn in coronavirus cases.

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise has four casinos but will open only two Friday and limit patrons to those who live on the vast reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

The enterprise will keep Fire Rock east of Gallup, New Mexico, and Northern Edge in Farmington, New Mexico, open for two weeks before determining whether to reopen two other casinos — one in northwestern New Mexico and the other east of Flagstaff.

The casinos will operate at 25% capacity with no food or drink services at reduced hours. All employees must test negative for COVID-19 before they return to work and be retested at least every two weeks. Customers must wear masks, get their temperatures checked and provide their contact information.

Service lights on the slot machines will let customers request that the machines be sanitized.

Smoking will be allowed only in designated outdoor areas. Social distancing will be enforced throughout the properties.

The casinos also are setting aside a couple of hours on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings for elderly patrons.

The Navajo Nation reported its first case of the coronavirus a year ago, on March 17, 2020. The tribe is planning a virtual day of prayer Friday to remember the more than 1,200 people who have died.

"We recognize the hardships, sacrifices and losses that our people continue to endure and we pray for protection and recovery from COVID-19, and we thank our health care workers and frontline workers who put themselves in harm's way to help our Navajo people to save countless lives," Navajo President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.

New Mexico Governor Signs Alcohol Bill OK'ing Home Delivery - Associated Press

The governor has signed a sweeping liquor reform law that will allow home delivery in New Mexico.

The bipartisan law makes it easier for businesses to get a liquor license. To compensate existing license holders, it provides for a tax break.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she signed the reform in part to increase revenue opportunities for the hospitality industry, which has been hit hard by shutdowns during the pandemic.

The bill directs officials to study the effect of the delivery policy on public health, and it bans the sale of wine and spirits at gas stations in McKinley County.

The prohibition was included at the urging of a centrist Democrat representing that area of northwestern New Mexico, citing high levels of alcoholism.As of Tuesday, the tribe reported 29,957 cases of the coronavirus and 1,219 deaths.

Vice President's Husband Tours New Mexico Vaccination Clinic - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, joined officials in New Mexico on Wednesday to tour a tribal vaccination clinic that he says serves as a model for bringing communities together.

Kewa Pueblo, formerly known as Santo Domingo Pueblo, has vaccinated the majority of its tribal members. Tribal officials said they're looking forward to funding that will trickle down in the coming months to help with continued vaccine efforts for the broader community.

The latest federal coronavirus relief package included $31 billion for tribes, marking what Democrats billed as the largest, single investment in Indian Country.

The health center at Kewa Pueblo, located between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, can vaccinate about 200 people per day.

Emhoff called it a vaccination model and acknowledged how hard the coronavirus has hit Native American communities. He said he was inspired by the work Kewa and other New Mexico pueblos have done to bring their communities together at such a trying time.

At Sandia Pueblo just outside Albuquerque, tribal leaders said they have vaccinated 99.9% of their population.

At Acoma Pueblo west of Albuquerque, Gov. Brian Vallo said the focus has been on vaccinating cultural leaders and those who are fluent in the tribe's native language to ensure the survival of the pueblo's culture and way of life.

Tribal leaders also told Emhoff that the federal Indian Health Service has been chronically underfunded but they're hopeful the new funding will help the agency catch up.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also was on the tour.

Warning Issued Not To Drink Vegas-Based 'Real Water' Product - By Ken Ritter, Associated Press

Health officials are warning people not to drink a Las Vegas-based bottled water brand, Real Water, after linking it to liver illness in five hospitalized children.

Company President Brent Jones on Wednesday said stores should stop selling the product until the issue is resolved. It comes in boxy blue plastic bottles labeled "alkalized" and "infused with negative ions" at stores in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and the Los Angeles area.

The company also was sued Tuesday in Nevada state court by a father, mother and their young son seeking damages and saying they became sick from the water.

Will Kemp, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said it is sold throughout the Southwest at stores including Sprouts, Whole Foods and Costco. It is also delivered to homes in large bottles.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers, restaurants and retailers not to drink, cook with, sell or serve the product.

The Southern Nevada Health District said it began investigating five cases of acute non-viral hepatitis in November 2020 and notified the FDA.

It said it also investigated the illness of six other people — three children and three adults — who reported less severe symptoms including vomiting, nausea, appetite loss and fatigue.

Five children required hospitalization but recovered, the health district said. The patients lived in four different households. The district said so far the consumption of “Real Water” was the only common link between all the cases.

Acute non-viral hepatitis is a liver inflammation that can be caused by exposure to toxins, autoimmune disease or drinking too much alcohol, the district said. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-colored stools, joint pain and yellow skin or eyes.

The district advised people experiencing symptoms to contact their health care provider.

New Mexico Lawmakers OK More School Time, Fewer Mandates - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

Legislators are advancing a plan to make up for lost learning time during the pandemic by paying teachers for additional learning time — but they won't mandate an extended school calendar.

On Wednesday, the House education committee voted unanimously to recommend a Senate bill that tackles extended learning after the sponsor loosened requirements for the programs and cut a proposed one-year mandate for up to 25 additional school days.

Extended learning funding is central to the Legislature's attempts in recent years to improve outcomes in New Mexico's public schools, which are regularly ranked last in the nation.

Years of research on programs in and out of the state suggest that extended learning programs can increase achievement and narrow the gap between affluent and low-income households. The programs work best when they extend the school year and keep students with their same teacher, according to non-partisan legislative research reports.

But school districts have resisted adopting the programs.

District leaders have said that staffing schools during the summer is the biggest barrier: Teachers often work other jobs, take vacations, or visit family in their home country. That's despite the additional 6% to 14% they can gain in take-home pay by working the extra hours.

"Many educators in the rural areas choose education as a profession because it is 180 days or 190 days and whatever this brings us to, because they also farm and ranch," said Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow, of southwestern New Mexico, who voted in favor of an amended Senate bill in the House education committee.

So few school districts have taken advantage of the extra funding that around $200 million has gone unspent.

Universal participation in the extended learning programs would cost the state around $285 million according to legislative analysts. Around half of schools have turned the program down in the past. Around $50 million is drawn from the unspent, reverted funds. The rest of the money would come from the general fund.

While the exact funding mechanism for extended learning may be further amended, Legislative analysts estimate the existing funds could cover a massive increase in use next year without drawing much on the general fund.

"Last year when districts wanted more flexibility, they all said to us, 'It's too hard when it's voluntary, just mandate it for us.' So, this year, everybody's changed their mind. So I've also changed mine," said Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart, who sponsored the bill.

With backing from Republican lawmakers, teacher unions and school administrators, the changes approved Wednesday by the House education committee are expected to pass both chambers of the Legislature in the final days of the regular session, which ends Saturday.

"Both were pretty popular in our respective chambers. And that's what brought us together, and I think we have come to a good compromise," said House education committee chairman Rep. Andres Romero of Albuquerque.

The amendments removed conflicts between Romero's bill, a pilot program for extending the school day, and Stewart's bill, which directs the bulk of the funding.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's education secretary, Ryan Stewart, also endorsed the Senate bill Wednesday.

The amended bill retained a measure that would make it easier for schools operating four days per week to access the extra funds by adding a fifth day.

It also creates an exception allowing students to be moved between teachers on a case-by-case basis.

But Stewart said the exception won't allow school districts to "pick and choose and say, 'we're just gonna have a class with these students from all of these other classes.' That's summer school. It's not these programs."

Former Tax Official Accused Of Changing, Rerouting RefundsAssociated Press

A former New Mexico state tax official faces dozens of counts of wire fraud and other crimes accusing him of stealing nearly $690,000 by altering taxpayers' refunds and routing them to his own bank accounts.

George Martinez of Albuquerque appeared in federal court Wednesday after being arrested Tuesday on a March 12 federal indictment's 42 counts each of wire fraud and identity theft and six counts of money laundering.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said between May 2011 to July 2018, Martinez allegedly used his position as head of the Taxation and Revenue Department's questionable refund unit to manipulate the system for his own benefit.

Online court records did not list an attorney for Martinez who could comment on his behalf about the allegations.

If convicted, Martinez faces between two and 22 years in prison.

New Mexico Puts Surging Income Into Schools, Economic Relief - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The state Senate opened deliberations Friday on the provisions of a $7.45 billion budget plan that would shore up educational spending and provide an array of relief to low-income workers and businesses.

Recent amendments to the spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 would tap into newly approved federal pandemic aid to pay down the state's unemployment insurance debt and funnel more dollars toward health care for the poor under Medicaid.

Full Senate approval sends recent amendments to the House for approval or a negotiated settlement by conference committee. The Legislature has until noon Saturday to send the bill to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who can veto any and all budget appropriations.

The Senate proposal would increase general fund spending by 4.8% over current annual spending obligations, a $373 million boost. State spending on public education would increase by 5.8% to $3.35 billion.

The amended bill would provide a 1.5% pay increase for state agency and K-12 school employees, along with increased taxpayer spending toward public school pension plans.

State employees are making a last-minute push for higher salaries and a $15 minimum wage.

State reserves would hold steady about $1.8 billion — or nearly 24% of current annual spending commitments.

The state used $1 billion in reserves to prop up general fund spending during the current fiscal year. State income forecasts have rebounded on surging oil production and market prices for petroleum.

New Mexico state government expects to receive $1.63 billion directly from the landmark $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill approved by congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden. The budget proposal would put $600 million into the state unemployment trust to stave off future payroll tax increases on businesses.

Proposed Senate budget amendments would boost student financial aid programs, including the governor's signature tuition-free college program for in-state students, by $21.5 million.

New Mexico Gang Member Convicted Of Murder, RacketeeringAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A federal court jury has convicted a self-proclaimed member of a New Mexico prison gang of ordering and participating in the 2008 killing of a man who allegedly disrespected the gang and was left dead, naked and facedown in an icy river.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that 41-year-old Jody Rufino Martinez faces life in prison after the jury found him guilty on Tuesday of racketeering and murder in the death of 34-year-old David Romero to advance his own standing in the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico gang.

Three other people who allegedly participated in Romero's killing gave statements that implicated Martinez. Martinez's defense attorney Nicholas Hart said the claims were false.

Martinez is now the 10th member of the gang to be convicted at trial under the federal Violent Crimes in Aid of Racketeering law. The prosecution stemmed from an ongoing six-year investigation by the FBI to dismantle the criminal enterprise.

Up to 150 Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico gang members and their associates have been arrested. Most have been convicted of crimes that range from racketeering to murder to witness intimidation, authorities said. At least 10 homicides have been solved.  

New Mexico Seeks End To Police Immunity From Prosecution - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A bill that would end police immunity from prosecution in New Mexico to allow civil right lawsuits in state court cleared its last major hurdle with Senate approval shortly after midnight on Wednesday, as Democratic legislators responded to concerns and protests about police brutality and accountability.

The bill would apply to violations of state civil rights guarantees ranging from racial discrimination to illegal search and seizure and freedom of speech violations. It would apply not only to state and local police agencies but also most local governments including school districts, allowing damage awards of up to $2 million against public employers, while waving any individual liability.

The Senate endorsed the bill 26-15, with Republicans and one Democratic senator in opposition. House concurrence with changes sends the bill to a supportive Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The legislation advanced days after Minneapolis agreed to pay $27 million to settle a civil lawsuit from George Floyd's family over the Black man's death in police custody last year, with jury selection underway in the related murder trial of a former police officer.

County sheriffs, police associations and insurance authorities for local governments assembled a united front against the bill from leading Democratic state legislators including House Speaker Brian Egolf and Rep. Georgene Louis, a tribal government attorney running for a vacant congress seat in Albuquerque.

The bill has attracted attention and support beyond New Mexico from police-reform advocates including the co-founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and the conservative-backed nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity.

Last-hour amendments would require a review of plaintiff's attorney fees by a judge with no payout for baseless claims.

Republican state senators blasted the bill as an affront to police that would soak local taxpayers, with no guarantee of better policing.

Sen. Craig Brandt, a former public school board member in Rio Rancho, said taxpayers will be caught in the middle between union-backed public employees and plaintiffs in civil right suits.

"This bill doesn't do anything to address the problem of public employees who violate the law," he said. "It's just a slap in the face to all the officers in our state."

The bill, titled the "New Mexico Civil Rights Act," builds on recommendations from a commission chartered last year by the Legislature and Lujan Grisham amid nationwide protests over police brutality and racial injustice.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, a co-sponsor of the final legislation, noted that federal civil rights claims allow for unlimited financial damage awards, often in faraway courts. He says state courts would bring swifter justice at a lower price tag, closer to home.

Seeking Senate approval, Cervantes invoked nationwide outrage over the videotaped death last year of Floyd in Minneapolis.

"The horror of that video caused us as a country to once again reexamine and reevaluate our civil rights and our justice system," he said.

Federal authorities in 2014 issued a scathing report in response to a series of deadly police shootings in the city of Albuquerque that pointed to patterns of excessive force, constitutional violations and a lack of training and oversight of its officers.

The Albuquerque Police Department began implementing reforms years ago under a prior administration as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department.

New Mexico Budget Plan Advances Toward Senate Vote Associated Press

A budget bill is advancing toward a Senate vote in New Mexico that would boost public salaries, shore up spending on public education and provide at least $400 million in state spending on economic relief measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate finance committee voted 6-4 with majority Democrats in support and Republicans in opposition to endorse amendments to a House-approved budget plan for the coming fiscal year.

State general funds spending would increase by $373 million to $7.45 billion under the proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1.

State spending on public education would increase by 5.8% to $3.35 billion. Public schools in New Mexico rely almost entirely on state spending for operations.

Senate amendments include a $1 million financial lifeline to the athletics department at the University of New Mexico, $750,000 toward the state government transportation fleet as it accelerates the transition to electric vehicles and $2 million toward tourism marketing in the wake of severe financial losses in the hospitality sector.

Approved pandemic relief measures include a tax holiday to restaurants and rebates of up to $600 to low-income residents.

House-approved tax reforms that are under study in the Senate would reduce state income by an estimated $52 million.

New Mexico Senate Advances, Increases Childhood Funding Bill - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

With less than a week remaining in the New Mexico legislative session, state senators are hashing out a proposal that could change the way education is funded for decades by increasing withdrawals from a unique $20 billion public endowment.

The initiative advanced Tuesday toward a Senate floor vote that would tap the trust fund to increase spending on preschool and K-12 education by about $250 million a year. Legislative approval would send the proposed constitutional amendment to a statewide vote.

The Land Grant Permanent Fund currently pays out 5% of its average five-year balance, mostly to K-12 schools. Oil income and investment gains doubled the value of the fund over the past 11 years.

Lawmakers in the Senate want to distribute more of the gains to children now by increasing the withdrawals to 6.25%.

Child well-being in the state is ranked near-last in the nation, and early childhood education advocates argue that universal preschool, home visits to new parents, and other programs can reverse the trend.

But older students are struggling, too. State courts ruled as recently as last summer that K-12 schools are underfunded. High school graduation rates are also near-last, despite gains in recent years.

Democrats in the Senate finance committee voted Tuesday to advance an additional 1.25% from the fund each year, splitting it with 0.75% targeting early childhood education programs, and 0.5% to K-12 schools.

Early childhood education is not currently one of the 21 beneficiaries in the fund.

The amendment was a compromise between Democrats who wanted a 1% increase aimed solely at early childhood programs and those who wanted some portion of the funds to support K-12 education.

The amendment also included a provision to stop the new 1.25% distribution if the fund ever shrinks to $17 billion.

Republicans in the committee voted against the measure over concerns that the endowment could be drained too quickly, in part because current projections assume stable oil and gas revenues.

New Mexico Awards $500K Grant To Bueno Foods Family Business - Associated Press

Bueno Foods has been awarded a $500,000 state grant to expand its 70-year-old family business and help boost sales of New Mexico products nationwide. 

Economic Development Department Cabinet Secretary Alicia J. Keyes announced Tuesday that Bueno Foods' economic assistance will be used to expand storage and manufacturing capacity and better distribute New Mexico chiles and food products throughout the U.S. 

The expansion will be on Bueno Foods property in Albuquerque. 

The $10 million project is expected to begin this summer and be completed by the end of 2022, at which time Bueno will start to add 49 employees over five years. 

The company already has about 280 full-time employees.

New Mexico Hires Pitino, As Minnesota Aims Higher Once Again - By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer

Richard Pitino was hired on Tuesday as New Mexico's head coach, hours after Minnesota finalized his firing following eight seasons with the Gophers.

Lobos athletic director Eddie Nuñez picked the 38-year-old Pitino to be the 22nd head coach in the history of their program. He's replacing Paul Weir, who went 58-63 in four seasons.

New Mexico last reached the NCAA Tournament in 2014, in head coach Craig Neal's first year. The Lobos, playing in the Mountain West Conference, went three times in six seasons under Neal's predecessor, Steve Alford.

Pitino took Minnesota to the NCAA Tournament twice. Over his eight years in the rugged Big Ten, the Gophers were 54-96 in conference play with only three regular season finishes higher than 10th place. The son of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, who's back in the NCAA Tournament this year with Iona, Richard Pitino had one season of prior experience as a head coach at Florida International when he was hired at Minnesota.

Cowboys For Trump Leader Won't Resign His Otero County Post Associated Press

Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin has said he will not resign his seat on the Otero County Commission as he awaits trial in connection with the Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol.

The Alamogordo Daily News reported Griffin made the declaration in response to a press release issued last week by county commissioners Gerald Matherly and Vickie Marquardt calling for Griffin's resignation.

The topic took up more than an hour of the commission's meeting last Thursday after it was placed on the agenda for discussion. Matherly attempted to have it removed from the agenda, but was overruled. Marquardt defended the letter and reasons for requesting it.

"Starting last June, when you went off 100% Cowboys for Trump, I felt like you left the County behind," said Marquardt, who is in his first year as a commissioner. "I don't feel like you are earning your paycheck."

Griffin, who is in his third year as a commissioner, said the press release asking for his resignation violated the New Mexico Open Meetings Act on rolling quorums.

New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Melanie Majors said that is probably not the case because press releases are not subject to the regulations in the act and do not need board approval for dissemination to the public.

Griffin also took the time to answer, line by line, the allegations made in the statement, including denying that he "called for violence" and was involved in the riots at the Capitol.

Griffin argued that a statement he made while speaking at a rally in Truth or Consequences — "... the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat" — was misconstrued as calling for violence against the Democratic Party. He also denied that other statements he made were meant to incite violence.

Griffin also defended his criticism of the playing of the Black National Anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at national sporting events by telling players to "go back to Africa." He argued the statement was not racist but said the song itself was.

"It was said to those Black NFL football players that were kneeling at our flag and wanting to play something as racist as a Black National Anthem. There's nothing any more racist than a national anthem that only recognizes people by the color of their skin. What a racist thing that they want to do," he said.

Griffin was arrested in January and charged with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and was held in a Washington jail for about three weeks before returning to New Mexico pending trial.

Griffin has denied the federal charges that he knowingly entered barricaded areas of the Capitol grounds with the intent to disrupt government as Congress considered Electoral College results.

Griffin is banned from visiting Washington outside of court proceedings, must surrender his passport and must not possess a firearm.

Paul Sanchez, member of the Committee to Recall Couy Griffin, informed the Otero County Commission that a recall lawsuit was filed and Griffin had been served notice of the lawsuit prior to the meeting last week.

Sanchez said it would take "some months" to come to a resolution.

Albuquerque Schools Board Appoints Elder As SuperintendentAssociated Press

The Albuquerque Public Schools board has named Scott Elder as superintendent of New Mexico's largest school district, a post he has held on an interim basis since last summer.

The board's announcement of Elder's appointment Monday noted his work helming the district during the pandemic and also said Elder was "has committed to making APS classrooms culturally and linguistically responsive."

APS plans to reopen all of its schools by April 5.

Elder took over on an interim basis with the retirement of Raquel Reedy.

Elder was selected by the board after a lengthy search process initially launched after Reedy announced in October 2019 that she would retire. The replacement process later was suspended and then restarted.

The board's selection on a permanent appointment was recently delayed while the district waited for results of FBI background checks for the finalists.

Elder is a New Mexico native and graduate of the University of New Mexico.

Before becoming interim superintendent, Elder worked nearly three decades with APS as a teacher, principal and district administrator.

Navajo Nation Reports 2 New Cases Of COVID-19, 1 More Death - Associated Press 

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported two new cases of COVID-19 and one more death. 

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's pandemic total to 29,957 confirmed cases and 1,219 known deaths. 

The Navajo Nation had a soft reopening Monday with 25% capacity for some businesses under certain restrictions.  

Still, mask mandates and daily curfews remain.  

The Navajo Department of Health has identified two communities, Baca Prewitt and Coyote Canyon, as having uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Feb. 26 to March 11. 

That compares with 75 communities that were identified in January as having uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus.

US Seeks More Time To Rewrite Mexican Wolf Management Rules - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

U.S. wildlife officials are asking a federal judge for more time to rewrite rules that guide management of Mexican gray wolves in the wild.

The population of endangered predators is starting to rebound despite many hurdles since releases began more than two decades ago.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contends that progress is being made under the current rules and that extra time is needed to gather more data and to conduct public meetings. The agency also said it’s short-staffed.

Environmentalists are opposed to more delays, saying the agency has had nearly three years to draft a final rule.

Bryan Bird with Defenders of Wildlife said he believes the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to get recovery right but a 14-month extension isn't necessary.

He said the approach needs to focus on reducing livestock losses, releasing bonded wolf pairs from captivity and expanding the recovery area to include more northern reaches of the Southwest.

But ranchers are worried their concerns are being ignored as the legal maneuvering continues.

Livestock deaths spiked in 2018 and 2019 and more than 150 cattle kills were confirmed last year. They said that's despite changes to grazing rotations, moving cattle to other pastures when wolves are around and using riders on horseback, flagging and firecrackers to scare away the animals.

Court Overturns Order On Cause Of Albuquerque Lawyer's Death Associated Press

The New Mexico Court of Appeals has overturned a District Court judge's order requiring the state Office of the Medical Investigator to rule that the cause of a prominent Albuquerque attorney's 2010 death was unknown.

The Court of Appeals' ruling Monday said the judge abused his discretion by ordering the Office of the Medical Investigator to change its finding that lawyer Mary Han's death was a suicide as police believed.

Han was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in a vehicle in her garage, and her estate contended that police violated state constitutional protections for Han as a crime victim when her death was investigated.