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THURS: New Mexico Leads Nation In Funding Child Care,+ More

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New Mexico Gives Most US Funding To Child Care Of Any State - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

New Mexico is directing the nation's biggest chunk of federal coronavirus relief money to helping middle-class families pay for child care, a vast expansion aimed at getting parents back to work in one of the poorest states in America.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Thursday that the state will subsidize child care at 350% of the federal poverty line, or about $93,000 for a family of four. That's up from about $54,000.

"We're going to double the subsidies for child care," said the Democratic governor, who was flanked by balloons and overlooked a gaggle of young children wearing party hats. She added that the state could one day go even further: "Why don't we have universal access for child care?"

New Mexico's two-year spending commitment will expand eligibility to the highest income levels of any state. It's the largest and latest example of states using pandemic relief aid to subsidize child care. Others include Georgia and Montana, while California is debating a child care funding package.

Some states, like New Jersey, offer subsidies at 350% of the federal poverty line but only when relatives are providing care.

New Mexico also will be the first state to increase payments to child care providers by using a reimbursement formula that focuses on the local cost of running child care businesses, instead of the market rate of what parents can pay.

State Early Childhood Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky called the announcement an "important landmark on our journey towards creating a true cradle-to-career education system that helps all New Mexicans thrive."

Groginsky was pivotal for winning federal approval of the new formula in Washington, D.C., where she served as assistant superintendent of early learning for the District of Columbia before taking the job in New Mexico. While the formulas are not identical, the experience there provides an idea of how much child care providers will benefit.

Child care providers in Washington got a 24% to 57% increase in reimbursement during the transition in 2019, according to officials there. No providers saw a decrease.

Early childhood advocates say the new rules will lead to increased pay for child care workers, who often make just above minimum wage. They also expect improvements in worker-to-child ratios, the main benchmark of child care center quality.

"So for your child what that means is that there's a lower ratio between (staff) and children," said Katherine Freeman, CEO at Growing Up New Mexico. "Why is that the most significant thing? Because children need individual attention."

Parents should see immediate benefits, especially those who earned too much to qualify for past subsidies but too little to pay for child care without spending half their paycheck.

The expansion is paid for in part by $300 million in federal awards that expire in 2024.

Democratic state lawmakers already have a plan in motion to increase child care funding long term by tapping into a unique $20 billion state endowment funded by resource extraction royalties and market investments.

A ballot initiative before voters next year could increase the amount of funding from the endowment to the state's Early Childhood Education and Care Department and possibly replace the federal funding when it expires.

Indigenous Group Questions Removal Of Boarding School Plaque - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A historical plaque memorializing the dozens of Native American children who died while attending a boarding school in New Mexico more than a century ago has gone missing, sparking concern among Indigenous activists.

Members of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women are among those pushing the city of Albuquerque to investigate. The small plaque was in a park near the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the original site of the Albuquerque Indian School.

The plaque noted the site of a burial ground for students who attended the school between 1882 and 1933. They included children from the Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo and Apache tribes.

The removal of the plaque comes as the U.S. government embarks on a nationwide investigation aimed at uncovering the troubling history of boarding schools that sought to assimilate Indigenous youth into white society over many decades. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the massive undertaking last month while addressing tribal leaders from across the nation.

Advocacy groups have praised the effort as a first step toward acknowledging what many have referred to as a "dark history."

Coalition member Jovita Belgarde — who is Isleta, Ohkay Owingeh and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa — said the discovery of the missing plaque added insult to injury. Many Indigenous families have been reeling since hearing about the bodies of hundreds of children being uncovered at the sites of boarding schools in Canada. The launch of the Interior Department's investigation also has stirred unresolved feelings in the U.S.

Belgarde sees the recent taking of the plaque as a continuation of efforts to silence Indigenous voices and perpetuation of violence against Indigenous people.

"These atrocities — people talk about them like they're in the past. These are not the distant past," she told The Associated Press. "These actions left deep scars for many of our elders, our families, our friends ... and many people have not had any support to heal that trauma and have had to live with this pain and silence for generations."

Albuquerque officials said Thursday they are working with tribal leaders, historical experts and others to determine the next steps with regard to the missing plaque. They also noted that a public art piece and a second plaque that references the history of the site are still at the park.

"As we continue to work with the respective leaders on this issue, we urge the public to respect the cultural and spiritual significance of this site," city parks director Dave Simon said in a statement.

With more light being shined on past boarding school policies, tribal governors from around New Mexico have advocated for accountability and justice.

All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman Wilfred Herrera Jr., who is from Laguna Pueblo, said recounting what Pueblo parents and children experienced has been painful.

"While some of our children endured years of abuse for speaking our languages, practicing our cultures, and maintaining our traditions, the unbearable truth is that many of our young never returned to their Pueblo homelands, ever," he said in a statement.

The Albuquerque Indian School was started in 1881 by the Presbyterian Church. It came under federal control a few years later and was among hundreds of known boarding schools across the country. The school closed in the 1980s, and the property was put into trust for New Mexico's 19 pueblos. The buildings eventually were torn down, and a tribal development corporation is working to make it a commercial hub.

Aside from determining the fate of the missing plaque, Belgarde said advocates want an investigation into the site overall in hopes of turning up more information about exactly how many children might have been buried there. She said the site demands more reverence, and city officials need to be transparent about how they proceed.

Richard Branson Announces Trip To Space, Ahead Of Jeff Bezos - By Marcia Dunn, AP Aerospace Writer

Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson is aiming to beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos into space by nine days.

Branson's company announced Thursday evening that its next test flight will be July 11 and that its founder will be among the six people on board, all company employees. The winged rocket ship will soar from New Mexico — the first carrying a full crew.

Bezos, meanwhile, plans to blast into space from West Texas on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He'll be on the debut flight of a Blue Origin rocket with people, accompanied by his brother, a female aerospace pioneer and the winner of a $28 million charity auction.

As late as Wednesday, Branson declined to say when he would rocket into space because of restrictions placed on him by his publicly traded company. But he stressed he was healthy and fit to fly as soon as his engineers give him the go. He'll turn 71 a week after the scheduled launch.

Virgin Galactic launches its rocket ship from an aircraft, reaching an altitude of roughly 55 miles. Blue Origin launches its New Shepard rocket from the ground, with its capsule soaring to about 66 miles. Both those heights are considered the edge of space. By comparison, SpaceX launches its capsules — both crew and cargo — into orbit around the world.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story follows below.

Sixty years after acing astronaut tests but barred because she was a woman, Wally Funk will rocket into space alongside Jeff Bezos in just three weeks.

Bezos' company Blue Origin announced Thursday that the pioneering pilot will be aboard the July 20 launch from West Texas, flying in the capsule as an "honored guest." She'll join Bezos, his brother and the winner of a $28 million charity auction, as the first people to ride a New Shepard rocket.

At 82, she'll be the oldest person to launch into space.

Funk was the youngest of the so-called Mercury 13 women who went through astronaut testing in the early 1960s, but never made it to space — or even NASA's astronaut corps — because they were female. Back then, all of NASA's astronauts were male military test pilots.

Funk said she feels "fabulous" about finally getting the chance to go to space.

"I'll love every second of it. Whoooo! Ha-ha. I can hardly wait," Funk said in an Instagram video posted by Bezos.

"Nothing has ever gotten in my way," she added. "They said, 'Well, you're a girl, you can't do that.' I said, 'Guess what, doesn't matter what you are. You can still do it if you want to do it and I like to do things that nobody has ever done."

In a cosmic twist, she'll beat the late John Glenn, who set a record at age 77 when flying aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1998. Glenn pooh-poohed the idea of women flying in space, shortly after he became the first American to orbit the world in 1962.

"No one has waited longer," Bezos said via Instagram. "It's time. Welcome to the crew, Wally."

The Amazon founder is stepping down as the company's CEO on Monday.

The upcoming launch — which follows 15 successful test flights — will open the door to paying customers. Blue Origin has yet to announce ticket prices or when the public might strap into the spacious six-seat capsule, which reaches an altitude of about 65 miles, just beyond the edge of space. The up-and-down flights last 10 minutes.

The reusable rocket is named for Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and July 20 is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Funk, who lives near Dallas, was the first female inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration and the first female air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. In the posted video, she said she has 19,600 flying hours and has taught more than 3,000 people to fly.

She was among two dozen female pilots who underwent six days of rigorous physical tests — the same ones administered to the Mercury astronaut candidates — in 1960 and 1961. The doctor who had tested the Mercury 7 men had heard the Soviets planned to send a woman to space and he wanted to see if women could endure the effects of weightlessness.

The candidates had to spend hours in an isolation water tank, swallow rubber hose, and get needles stuck in their heads, among other things.

Thirteen of the women — including Funk — passed. But the program was abruptly canceled, and the Soviets went on to launch the first woman into space — Valentina Tereshkova — in 1963.

"They told me that I had done better and completed the work faster than any of the guys," Funk recalled. "So I got hold of NASA four times. I said I want to become an astronaut, but nobody would take me. I didn't think that I would ever get to go up."

It wasn't until 1983 that the first American woman soared into space — Sally Ride, who died in 2012. And it wasn't until 1995 that an American woman piloted a spaceship — Eileen Collins aboard shuttle Discovery. Many of the Mercury 13 women gathered at Cape Canaveral for that launch.

Keen to get to space, Funk reserved a seat years ago on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic rocket ship. She remains on the passenger list; the company plans three more test flights from New Mexico, one of them with Branson on board, before launching customers.

In the video, Bezos describes to Funk how the four Blue Origin passengers will experience zero gravity for a few minutes, then land gently on the desert surface and open the hatch.

"You step outside. What's the first thing you say?" he asked her.

"I will say, 'Honey, that was the best thing that ever happened to me!" Funk replied, embracing Bezos in a big bear hug.

New Mexico Taking Over Operations Of Another Private PrisonAssociated Press

For the second time in two years, the state of New Mexico is taking over operations of a private prison.

The medium security prison in Santa Rosa, currently run by the GEO Group, is expected to be turned over to the state by November.

The state took over operations of the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton in 2019.

The New Mexico Corrections Department reportedly has entered into a lease agreement to transition the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility to a publicly operated facility, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

Discussions between the state and GEO over the past few weeks led to the decision about the prison in Santa Rosa.

It comes amid a large decrease in prison population levels across New Mexico following a pandemic-related executive order to decrease inmate numbers by the hundreds.

Four of the 11 prisons in New Mexico, including the Guadalupe County facility, are privately run and hold 42% of the state's inmate population.

Recall Petition Begins Against Cowboys For Trump FounderAssociated Press

A political committee has begun circulating a petition to recall Cowboys For Trump founder Couy Griffin from public office as a commissioner in Otero County.

The Committee to Recall Couy Griffin said Thursday in a news release that it has begun collecting signatures in efforts to scheduled a recall election.

The petition alleges that Griffin neglected and misused his position as a county commissioner while skipping public meetings and promoting a support group for President Donald Trump that Griffin treated as a for-profit business.

Griffin, elected in 2018, says allegations in the petition are frivolous and without merit. Separately, Griffin is confronting federal charges in connection with the U.S. Capitol siege on Jan. 6, where he appeared on an outdoor terrace and attempted to lead a prayer.

The recall committee needs to collect about 1,540 signatures from registered voters in Griffin's district to trigger a vote on whether Griffin stays in office through 2022.

Otero County Clerk Robyn Holmes says a successful petition would put the question on the November general election ballot for local, nonpartisan races.

If Griffin is recalled from office, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham would name a replacement. A Democrat last sat on the Otero County Commission in 1994.

New Mexico Court Upholds Legislative's Access RestrictionsSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

The New Mexico Constitution doesn't clearly require that the public be allowed to attend legislative sessions so rule changes made during the pandemic to restrict in-person access were permissible, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The opinion issued Wednesday explains the court's decision last year on Republican lawmakers' argument that the restrictions deprived citizens of their constitutional right to participate in the legislative process, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

The public was allowed to watch floor debates online and testify at committee hearings via video chat.

"There is simply no clear or explicit constitutional mandate to be found in the public sessions provision that would justify" nullifying the attendance restrictions, then-Justice Judith K. Nakamura wrote in the majority opinion.

Justices C. Shannon Bacon and David K. Thomson dissented, saying the state constitution "limits the Legislature's authority to exclude the public from individually attending the sessions in person."

Yet they also wrote that "based on the facts of this case, online or virtual access exceeds the constitutional minimum required" for hearings to "be public."

New Mexico Lifts Pandemic Restrictions On BusinessesAssociated Press

New Mexico lifted all pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings and business operations on Thursday, marking the possible end to aggressive public health precautions more than 15 months after the local onslaught of COVID-19.

Business owners were hopeful as state health officials lifted occupancy limits and other restrictions on public and private venues that were imposed by the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in response to the coronavirus.

While the state also ended its color-coded risk system for counties, state health officials said the campaign to get more people vaccinated will continue.

Turning the page, state Health Secretary Tracie Collins announced her return to academic life at the University of New Mexico after eight months at the helm of a crucial agency in the struggle to blunt the pandemic. The Health Department will be overseen by David Scrase, another leading figure in the state's pandemic response as secretary of the New Mexico Human Services Department.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, had set a goal of getting 60% of residents fully vaccinated two weeks before the reopening. That mark was missed, but she still opted to lift the restrictions on commercial and day-to-day activities as scheduled. The state now reports about 62% of eligible resident are vaccinated.

"We did it New Mexico,"' the governor proclaimed Thursday on social media.

With the restrictions lifted, all businesses across the state may operate at 100% capacity, and all limitations on mass gatherings are gone. Businesses and local governments may still adopt and require additional precautions at their discretion, state officials said.

The governor has faced criticism from business owners, parents and Republican lawmakers for her handling of the pandemic. The critics have pointed to the effects of the shutdown on small businesses around the state and the lost year of learning that resulted from the education system going virtual.

The governor maintained in a statement that sacrifices over the past year helped to save lives and reduce the spread of the virus.

New Mexico Reopens Associated Press, KUNM News

New Mexico reopens today, marking a return to business following 16 months of disruption and more than 600,000 lives lost nationwide. 

The governor’s office said in a statement that reopening does away with the color-coded risk system and lifts all pandemic-related business capacity restrictions and mass gatherings limits. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is on the road this week, visiting businesses and talking with residents, but her office said no special events are planned for the state's long-awaited reopening. 

Republican lawmakers, business owners and parents have criticized the Democratic governor for waiting to ease the remaining public health restrictions. The dissent fueled a protest in early June in Albuquerque that derailed a rally at which Lujan Grisham announced her bid for reelection.

Republican state Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell said yesterday the governor's decision to pin the reopening to 60% of residents being fully vaccinated was arbitrary, and did irreparable harm to New Mexico's education system and economy. Sixty-two percent of eligible New Mexicans were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the governor’s office. 

Lujan Grisham's office has said her decisions have been based on what she believes to be in the best interest of New Mexicans, and on data and input from public health experts.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat, said Wednesday that while some mask restrictions will remain in place for public transportation systems and other spots, the state's largest city has the "gas pedal down."

New Mexico Opens Door To New Era Of Civil Rights Lawsuits - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Efforts among a handful of states to hold police accountable for brutality and misconduct are expanding Thursday as New Mexico opens the door to civil rights lawsuits against government agencies in state court.

The New Mexico Civil Rights Act removes immunity provisions that shield government agencies from financial liability related to misconduct, though individual officials won't pay for damages.

As the law takes effect, local police agencies are bracing for an onslaught of lawsuits that can carry liability awards of up to $2 million per event. At least one county sheriff's department has been declined private insurance coverage — highlighting concerns about potential payouts.

The legislation, drafted amid nationwide protests over police brutality and institutional racism, reaches beyond law enforcement practices and applies to potential misconduct at nearly every state and local government agency, including school districts.

Attorneys also hope to harness the law to address cruel conditions in prisons or abuses in foster homes for children. They note that New Mexico's Bill of Rights goes beyond federal guarantees to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.

"New Mexico has had a Bill of Rights in its Constitution. We've never had a effective way to enforce those rights, or protect those rights," said Maureen Sanders, a civil rights attorney who provides voluntary legal advice to the American Civil Liberties Union. "This will ... give you an appropriate way to bring claims when foster kids are injured by the Children, Youth and Families Department, or an individual's 1st Amendment rights are violated by a county commissioner."

The legislation, signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April, was backed by an unusual coalition of progressive civil rights advocates and politically conservative proponents of greater accountability in government. The conservative-backed nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity, supported by billionaire Charles Koch, was one prominent supporter.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to take up several challenges to the legal doctrine known as qualified immunity, which shields officials from lawsuits for money as a result of things they do in the course of their job.

Several states are no longer waiting to hold police or law enforcement agencies financially responsible for wrongdoing.

Colorado last year became the first state to place limits on the use of qualified immunity as a defense in law enforcement cases, and Connecticut has established an avenue for people to seek financial damages in wrongdoing by police.

In New Mexico, Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe oversees a force of 125 sworn officers and worries that the new civil rights law will highlight mistakes and not solutions.

He said his department already has two lieutenants assigned full-time to the review the use of force by officers, and that consultations with national experts are coming soon.

"We anticipate we're going to be sued more as policing agencies," Hebbe said. "The goal of it was to hold departments accountable, I get that. It's tough to plan, then. What does this all look like ( in the future)? I can't tell you that I know that yet."

Republican state legislators unanimously opposed the immunity reforms in a display of solidarity with police and amid concerns that civil rights lawsuits might undermine local government finances — including law enforcement budgets — and be counterproductive.

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf championed the abolition of immunity — and came under criticism as an attorney whose legal practice profits in part from civil rights litigation. He said the new state law goes beyond policing or political leanings and can be used to call out government infringement on the right to bear arms or freedom of religious worship.

Human rights advocates foresee advances for vulnerable populations — including prison inmates who don't easily garner sympathy.

Steven Robert Allen, an advocate for improving prison conditions as director of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project, said that the state's constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment has been "nice on paper, but meaningless" until now.

Allen expects complaints against lockups that faced insurmountable odds in federal court can now move forward.

The financial implications for taxpayers is unclear, as private insurance providers and mutual insurance pools for local governments recalibrate costs.

New Mexico's risk-management division that provides a legal defense to state personnel and agencies estimates a 35% increase in the number of annual civil rights lawsuits. It says settlements and jury awards are likely to nearly double to $6.6 million annually.

At the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office, an agency of 330 people headquartered in Albuquerque, lapel cameras were adopted less than a year ago — a mandatory provision of reforms in 2020 by state lawmakers.

Sheriff's Office Captain Nicholas Huffmyer said the state's new Civil Rights Act won't change his agency's field protocols for the use of force that hinge on the imminent threat of harm, the presence of a weapon and resistance to arrest.

"You cannot use financial liability as a fulcrum to adjust how you deal with use of force," said Huffmyer, who oversees internal affairs. "We have other constitutional requirements."

Branson Mum On When He'll Launch To Space On Virgin Galactic - By Marcia Dunn, AP Aerospace Writer

Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson won't say when he'll ride his rocket ship to space or whether he's looking to become the first billionaire to launch aboard his own rocket.

In an interview after Wednesday's satellite launch by his separate company Virgin Orbit, Branson told The Associated Press he has to be "so circumspect" in what he says about Virgin Galactic, a publicly traded company.

"All I can say is when the engineers tell me that I can go to space, I'm ready, fit and healthy to go," Branson said. "So we'll see."

Amazon's Jeff Bezos is targeting July 20 for his rocket company's first launch with people. The Blue Origin flight from West Texas will include Bezos, his brother, a charity auction winner who's shelling out $28 million and a fourth unidentified person.

Unlike Elon Musk's SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are looking to send space tourists on brief up-and-down hops — not into orbit around the world.

Branson visited Virgin Galactic's New Mexico base before flying to California's Mojave Desert for Wednesday's plane-launched, multi-satellite mission.

Virgin Galactic plans three more test flights to the edge of space this summer and early fall, before launching customers. The company originally put Branson on the second upcoming flight, but has refused to say whether it's moving him up to the next one.

Branson would not comment Wednesday on which flight he'll be on — he wouldn't even say when the next flight might be. He did acknowledge it's "very important" for potential customers to see him strap in for a ride, before opening the doors to the paying public.

The thrill-seeking adventurer, who turns 71 in a few weeks, said he's "not apprehensive at all" about launching into space.

"It's a dream of a lifetime," he told the AP.

Last week, Virgin Galactic got the Federal Aviation Administration's OK to start launching customers. More than 600 people already have reserved a ride to space. Tickets initially cost $250,000, but the price is expected to go up once the company starts accepting reservations again.

Virgin Galactic made its third flight to space in May, with two pilots in the cockpit of the winged spaceship. Like Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic uses an aircraft to get off the ground and waits until it reaches high altitude before releasing and firing the rocket.

Navajo Nation Reports 6 New COVID-19 Cases, 2 More DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported six new cases of COVID-19 and two additional deaths.

Tribal health officials had previously reported three cases with no deaths for three consecutive days.

The latest numbers pushed the totals on the sprawling reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to 31,004 cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began more than a year ago and 1,354 known deaths.

Tribal officials said last week that the first case of the Delta variant has been identified on the reservation.

The variant has become prevalent in the U.S. over the past few weeks and has been detected in many states, including the Four Corners states.

"Our best defense against COVID-19 and the Delta variant is to get vaccinated and wear a mask in public," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Wednesday. "We are in this together and we need more of our people to get fully vaccinated to reach our goal of community immunity and to save more lives."

1 Dead In New Mexico After Vehicle Driven Into Flooded RoadAssociated Press

One person was found dead in a vehicle driven into floodwaters that covered a closed road in Carlsbad after heavy rain drenched southeastern New Mexico, authorities said.

The State Police was investigating last night’s incident, news outlets reported.

The identity of the person found dead in the vehicle that overturned was not immediately released.

A shelter was opened Tuesday at a Carlsbad elementary school for residents of a neighborhood evacuated because of rising water but most people chose to stay with family and friends.

The National Weather Service extended a flood warning issued for the Carlsbad area through Thursday morning and said minor flooding was expected.

Flooding of numerous city streets and roads in outlying roads was expected, the weather service said.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Dies At 88 - By Robert Burns Ap National Security Writer

The family of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he has died. He was 88. 

Rumsfeld's family says he died late Tuesday "surrounded by family in his beloved Taos, New Mexico." 

The two-time defense secretary and one-time presidential candidate had a reputation as a skilled bureaucrat and visionary of a modern U.S. military, but it was unraveled by the long and costly Iraq war. 

Regarded by former colleagues as equally smart and combative, patriotic and politically cunning, Rumsfeld had a storied career under four presidents and nearly a quarter century in corporate America.