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THURS: State Facing Population Decline, New Policies To Encourage Unemployed To Seek Jobs, + More

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Study Says Future Of New Mexico May Include Fewer People - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Flanked by booming economies and community growth, New Mexico is likely to watch its population count plateau in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and then slowly decline with a pronounced drop in school- and working-aged residents and a drain on rural areas, authors of a report on demographic trends announced Thursday.

The report from the Legislature's budget and accountability office adds to indications in the 2020 Census of a population slowdown across large swaths of the high-desert state. It suggests that schools and universities in particular may want to plan accordingly to conserve resources and adapt.

At the same time, an increase in the number of elderly residents will place a greater financial strain on programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

"In about a decade, New Mexico is projected to start seeing overall declines in population. ... Declines in younger ages and rural areas will continue and likely be exacerbated by Covid-19," states the report from staff at the Legislative Finance Committee. "Given the status quo, New Mexico is heading toward having more, older New Mexicans using relatively expensive public services and fewer, younger New Mexicans in school and working."

Authors told a panel of state legislators on Thursday that the projections, based on the 2010 census and interim surveys, are likely to be revised based on the results of the 2020 census.

The first available numbers this week from the 2020 census show New Mexico's population grew by 2.8% over the last decade, making it one of the slowest-growing states in the West. In the West, only Wyoming had a slower growth rate.

Neighboring Texas and Colorado are set to gain congressional seats as a result of population increases.

State lawmakers economic development officials have been trying for years to attract new employers and shore-up the working-age population with subsidies and tax incentives for businesses, while grappling with a relatively weak economy and poor national rankings in education, health and safety.

"It sounds like this is going to be a new issue for the legislature to tackle," said Republican state Rep. T. Ryan Lane of Farmington. "I worry about my kids and my grandkids when you have a decline in population. That has a trickle-down effect to the rest of the economy and the rest of our way of life."

In a counterpoint to those worries, state Rep. Susan Herrera of Embudo says she's witnessed an influx of people and competitive bidding on real estate in northern New Mexico.

Among other findings, the number of white, non-Latino residents across New Mexico is falling and may soon be surpassed by Latinos.

The report notes that a declining statewide birthrate — partly attributed to reduced births among teens — is likely to decline further amid the economic stress of the pandemic and its aftermath.

One notable exception is the state's Native American population, which has grown by about 20,000 people — a 9.7% jump — between 2010 and 2019.

Hopes still abound that the pandemic and a shift to remote work with bring new interest in New Mexico.

"Once we start coming out of the pandemic, you know I think New Mexico's going to be the place people really want to be," said Dominic Gabello, a senior adviser to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in a media briefing earlier this year. He left the administration this month. "They want to get out of the big cities. They want to get away from the coast. We have great quality of living. ... We're where people are looking to be right now."

New Mexico To Encourage Unemployed To Return To WorkAssociated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told business leaders in Albuquerque that the state will soon adopt new policies encouraging residents receiving jobless benefits to go back to work.

The Democratic governor said the policies would be unveiled in the next week or so and that extended benefits should not be a "disincentive" to work, the Albuquerque Journal reported  Wednesday.

"We need to both incentivize employees to go back to work and we're going to need some accountability aspects," Lujan Grisham said during a virtual Economic Forum meeting. She did not provide further details on the policies.

Lujan Grisham also said her administration would use much of the $1.6 billion it will get over the next two years in federal relief aid to bolster the state's largely depleted unemployment fund. She said she would also push for federal approval to use much of the available money to ensure businesses do not face an increase in the tax rates they pay into it.

"The first priority with that money is clearly unemployment," Lujan Grisham said.

New Mexico has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. for months — only New York and Hawaii had a higher number of unemployed residents. The state reported an 8.3% unemployment rate in March and waived its job search requirements for people receiving jobless benefits.

Some business owners have said they are struggling to compete against expanded unemployment benefits, saying referral bonuses, sign-on bonuses and other incentives have yet to attract a large applicant pool. Advocacy groups have argued that workers should not be blamed for not wanting to put their families at risk of COVID-19 for low-paying jobs that offer minimal benefits.

New Mexico Chamber of Commerce CEO Rob Black said changes to the state's public health order that take effect Friday could encourage some employees to go back to work.

New Mexico Tribe, US Agency Reach Agreement Over Hospital - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. government has agreed to provide emergency and in-patient care at a hospital on tribal lands in New Mexico at least through next February after patients for weeks were forced to travel to other hospitals, including those about an hour away, during the height of the pandemic.

The Indian Health Service reached an agreement with Acoma Pueblo to keep the hospital open while officials determine what resources will best meet the surrounding communities' health care needs going forward. The pueblo announced the court-approved agreement Thursday.

A federal judge signed off earlier this week but noted the case could be reopened if the deal is violated.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo called the agreement a significant victory, saying it was unfortunate that the pueblo had to sue to restore services. At the time the case was filed in January, Vallo said previous pleas had fallen on deaf ears and that losing services couldn't have come at a worse time as the tribe was among those hit hard by the coronavirus.

While the agreement with the Indian Health Service has its limits, Vallo said in a statement that he's optimistic.

"This is a chance to redesign the hospital and determine what's best to meet the medical and health care needs of both tribal and surrounding nontribal communities going into the future," he said. "We need a permanent solution. Unfortunately, the agreement is only in place until February of 2022, and there's no assurance of continued or increased funding by the federal government. Congress and the IHS need to step up."

The agency said in a statement Thursday that it continues to communicate regularly with tribal leaders. It did not answer questions about the hospital's future, other than saying it was committed to providing comprehensive, quality care to patients.

Criticism of the Indian Health Service and chronic funding inadequacies have spanned decades and numerous presidential administrations. Lawyers for Acoma said last fall's closure was just the latest example as the agency has been moving to downsize smaller hospitals in favor of having centralized health care facilities.

Tribal officials had argued that the agency is required under federal law to provide a year's notice to Congress whenever it plans to close one of its hospitals. They say that didn't happen before critical services were halted in November at the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit hospital. The hospital was converted to an urgent care unit offering limited services only during regular business hours.

The federal court in late January ordered the agency to maintain emergency services at the hospital while the parties negotiated.

In February, the Indian Health Service submitted its closure plan for the hospital and talks continued.

As part of the agreement, the agency committed to using temporary resources, on a one-time basis, to fund emergency and in-patient departments at the hospital through February 2022. It also agreed to make its best efforts to maintain staff levels and secure additional staff if necessary to continue operations for the period.

Questions about the hospital's future came up last year after the Indian Health Service received a proposal from Laguna Pueblo, a neighboring community that had plans to open a health clinic that would offer similar services. The agency indicated at the time that it would redesign what would be offered at Acoma and began notifying employees — prompting many to retire, resign or transfer.

The agency announced in March that it had transferred management and operation of some programs to the new Laguna clinic.

New Mexico Schools Begin To Spend $1.5 Billion Pandemic Aid - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico education officials have started to spend about $1.5 in pandemic relief aid set aside for them by the federal government.

Around 4% or $60 million of the anticipated windfall to school districts has actually been spent, as officials begin to file for reimbursements for the added costs of the pandemic, according to a legislative report released Thursday.

School districts bought thousands of laptops and tablets for students across the state, with more purchases expected to replace devices damaged by continuous use at home over months of remote learning. About 76% of the spending documented so far went to computers, WiFi hot spots, and safety and cleaning supplies, the Legislative Finance Committee report estimates.

Another 18% went to staff salaries and benefits. Schools also offered hazard pay to frontline workers such as bus drivers who delivered meals and homework assignments directly to students' homes.

A total of $1.5 billion in federal funding has been set aside for schools in New Mexico, with around 9.5% going to the Public Education Department and the rest going directly to school districts.

The first of three rounds of federal funding, which is comparatively small, must be spent by fall of 2022, while the most recent one totaling around $900 million doesn't have to be allocated until 2024.

"Federal funding, you know, that's a huge one and let me tell you we are planning and we have spent a lot of dollars," said acting Las Cruces Public Schools superintendent Ralph Ramos. "Number one priority was the safety equipment."

Las Cruces Public Schools recently returned to in-person learning, reversing a decision to stay remote all year. The school board recently voted to not access state aid to extend the school year. But federal funding could fill in the gaps for summer programming, as West Las Vegas school districts say they plan to do.

Around 20% of the largest round of funding is meant to be used for recovering from learning loss, which some districts are already planning to use for summer school programs and extra tutoring.

"Now we get into socially emotional needs for students," Ramos said. "That's a big one where we're going to be spending a lot of dollars to give them the support."

Detailed spending plans were not immediately available for individual districts such as Las Cruces, which will receive more than $100 million, according to the report.

Albuquerque Public Schools, which covers around 1 in 5 public school students, will get around $375 million.

That means up to a third of the Albuquerque budget will come from pandemic relief funding in the coming years, according to the Legislative Finance Committee, which met with district officials Wednesday.

Albuquerque Public Schools also did not immediately share pandemic relief spending records. Both schools have spent around 60% of the first tranche of funding, according to the Legislative Finance Committee Report.

US Pushes Ahead With Nuclear Plans Despite Watchdog Concerns - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The Biden administration appears to be picking up where former President Donald Trump left off as the federal agency that oversees U.S. nuclear research and bomb-making has approved the first design phase for a multibillion-dollar project to manufacture key components for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The National Nuclear Security Administration in a decision announced Wednesday stated that planning and construction could cost upwards of $4 billion initially.

The agency did not articulate what exactly that money would be spent on nor does it include the cost of other preparations that would be needed for Los Alamos National Laboratory to begin producing 30 plutonium cores per year.

The push to resume production of the nuclear triggers has spanned multiple presidential administrations, with supporters arguing that the U.S. needs to ensure the stability and reliance of its arsenal given growing global security concerns. The nuclear agency also has said most of the cores in the stockpile date back to the 1970s and 1980s.

Democratic members of New Mexico's congressional delegation have supported production at Los Alamos because of the billions of dollars in federal funding and thousands of jobs that are at stake.

But watchdog groups have been sounding alarms over the potential for more security and safety lapses at the northern New Mexico lab and the potential for environmental contamination.

Another concern is the nuclear waste that would be generated by the work.

Watchdog groups have said that the cost estimate outlined by the agency in its decision is about double the projections made just last year.

Greg Mello with the Los Alamos Study Group said the ballooning budget and uncertainty over whether the lab can meet the federal government's mandated production schedule "throw further doubt on the wisdom of proceeding with industrial pit production" at Los Alamos.

"LANL's facilities are simply too old and inherently unsafe, its location too impractical," he said. "Even with a much smaller stockpile, LANL could not undertake this mission successfully."

Some groups have threatened to sue the U.S. Energy Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration, saying a more comprehensive review should have been done on the plans to produce plutonium cores Los Alamos and at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. They argue that nearby communities already have been saddled with legacy contamination from previous defense work.

Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico called the federal government's plans "unnecessary and provocative," saying more production will result in more waste and help to fuel a new arms race.

The nuclear agency in a statement said it expects to set cost and schedule baselines in 2023 as part of the ongoing process. It also plans to continue reviewing the project "to improve the fidelity" of price and timeline estimates.

Lab Director Thom Mason is scheduled Thursday evening to host a community meeting to talk about the lab's work — which also includes projects related to space exploration, the coronavirus pandemic, water supplies in the arid West and wildfires.

New Mexico Reopens State Capitol To General Public – Associated Press

The New Mexico state Capitol building has reopened to the public as the COVID-19 pandemic eases. It was closed to the general public for four consecutive legislative sessions.

About 50 visitors wandered the corridors of the circular Statehouse on Wednesday as the doors were unlocked to all visitors for the first time in roughly a year. They were asked to wear masks and most if not all abided.

Legislators shifted last spring to mostly virtual committee hearings as the pandemic took hold. Voting even took place remotely from outside the Capitol among members of the House of Representatives.

The Capitol also was ringed by fencing and barricades, with troops on hand, between January and March as a consequence of security concerns linked to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

A 60-day legislative session ending on March 20 focused on economic relief and progressive initiatives such authorization for medical aid in dying. Recreational marijuana was legalized during a separate special session this year.