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FRI: New Mexico Accelerates Pace Of Rental Assistance Payments, + More

Vyacheslav Dumchev

New Mexico Accelerates Pace Of Rental Assistance Payments - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

State financial officials say about $38 million has been paid out in federal rental and utility assistance across New Mexico in efforts to stabilize the housing market and avoid future evictions, amid the economic turmoil of the pandemic.

Finance and Administration Secretary Deborah Romero told a legislative panel Thursday that the state has streamlined efforts to deliver rental assistance aid, allowing seven days for landlords to collect rental assistance before depositing money with tenants.

She said a small portion of landlords appear to be reluctant to accept payment directly that triggers a report of income to the IRS. More than 80% of payments have been channeled through landlords so far.

The aid program can be used for a variety of housing obligations such as overdue rent payments, bills for transitional housing in motels and even so-called rent-to-own contracts in which rent counts toward purchasing. The relief also is being used to pay off household gas, electric, sewer and trash services. Even firewood pellets for heating are eligible.

New Mexico has placed a moratorium on evictions for tenants who are unable to pay rent, with no expiration date. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed evictions to move forward in states that have no moratorium.

At the same time, states and local governments are racing against a Sept. 30 deadline to spend a large portion of initial rental assistance. Slow moving states could see their portion of the money redistributed to other areas of the country.

Romero said her agency is confident it will meet the deadline after paying down about 46% of an initial federal appropriation.

The state has dedicated an additional $5.3 million in federal aid toward marketing and advertising of the opportunity for assistance.

President Biden's administration has called on state and local officials to move aggressively in distributing rental assistance funds and urged state and local courts to issue their own moratoriums to discourage eviction filings until landlords and tenants have sought the funds.

New Mexico House Democrats Outline Criminal Justice Efforts - Associated Press

A group of New Mexico House Democrats outlined a package of criminal justice bills intended to combat crime that includes penalties for failing to safely store guns, enhanced pay for police and changes in the pretrial supervision and bail system.

A record-setting number of homicides in Albuquerque this year is spurring concerns about violent crime and shortcomings of the police and justice system.

In a statement Thursday, 17 House Democrats including majority floor leader Javier Martinez and Rep. Antonio Maestas of Albuquerque announced a lengthy list of goals for next regular legislative session in January.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she'll put criminal justice initiatives on the agenda for the 30-day session that is confined to budget negotiations and a few additional governor-picked topics. 

Republican lawmakers are asking the Legislature to reconsider a long list of their recent crime bills that were rejected.

House Democrats listed legislative goals in 16 bullet points. To address gun violence, the legislators want to place new restrictions on high-capacity magazines and establish an office of gun violence prevention.

Enhanced penalties are part of the plan. Democrats want a longer statute of limitations on second-degree murder charges and tougher sanctions. A crackdown is proposed on property damage in the theft of copper and catalytic converters in automobiles.

New spending is being proposed on street lighting and the workforce that provides service for mental health and addiction.

Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta Taking Steps To Combat COVID-19 - Associated Press

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta officials say they're canceling some parts of the event and will require guests to wear masks to enter the grounds and while in indoor areas and crowded outdoor settings to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said Wednesday he didn't believe that face mask requirements and other safety practices would affect attendance numbers for the Oct. 2-10 event.

"Masks have been a way of life that we've all been experiencing for the past year or more, so I think it's one of those things that people are used to," he said.

The music fiesta is being canceled this year due to close proximity of guests and the discovery center is being shelved because of its indoor nature featuring activities with multiple touchpoints, officials said.

Other steps being taken include providing cashless options to buy tickets, moving hospitality seating outdoors and increasing spacing between popular special-shape balloons inside the park, officials said.

The changes track federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and the current public health order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, officials said.

Air Force: Afghan Refugees Start Arriving At New Mexico Base - Associated Press

Holloman Air Force Base officials said Afghan refugees have started arriving at the base in southern New Mexico.

A C-130J transport flew t he first Afghans  to Holloman from Philadelphia on Tuesday, base officials said Wednesday in a statement that did not specify how many refugees had arrived at the base.

The Defense Department previously said multiple military installations across the country would temporarily provide housing plus medical and other support for up to 50,000 Afghans.

Officials said the refugees came to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program and would undergo medical screening, including testing for the coronavirus, before arriving at the military bases.

The U.S. and its allies conducted a massive evacuation from Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control of most of the country as the U.S. withdrew support to the Afghan military.

Brig. Gen. Daniel Gabrielli, Task Force-Holloman commander, said base personnel "were able to receive our guests with open arms and ensure that they are treated with the utmost dignity and respect."

The Alamogordo Daily News reported that Holloman officials were accepting donations of clothing, personal hygiene items and new tote and gym bags.

Advocates: More Will Come To New Mexico To Seek Abortions - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to uphold a Texas law that bans most abortions will likely result in more people coming to New Mexico for the procedure, advocates and legal experts said Thursday. 

The state already was among the ones that patients travel to because Albuquerque is home to one of only a few independent clinics in the country that perform abortions in the third trimester. 

An Associated Press analysis in 2019 found that New Mexico's share of abortions performed on women from out of state in recent years more than doubled to about 25%. Now, several providers in the state have seen a fourfold increase in patients calls from out of state, particularly from people in Texas.

Officials with New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which helps women with lodging, transportation and other needs, said they already are experiencing an influx of women from elsewhere and are preparing for more in the next couple of weeks.

Ellie Rushforth, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico who specializes in reproductive rights, said providers are trying to prepare by expanding hours of operation and bringing in more staff.

She called it a terrible day for Texans and for those who have been fighting for years for reproductive freedoms.

"It's undeniable when any state passes abortion restrictions that folks will still need the care and that those states are just making it more complicated," she said. 

New Mexico earlier this year adopted legislation to overturn a dormant 1969 ban on most abortion procedures. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the measure in February, saying women have the right to make decisions about their bodies. 

Had the old statute been left in place, New Mexico's ban on most abortion procedures would have gone into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

While there's no pressure so far for the Democrat-controlled Legislature to go further with abortion protections, Lujan Grisham's office said Thursday that the state supports reproductive health care decisions being made between women and their doctors, with no government interference.

"We do not and we will not stand for any attempts to criminalize or restrict health care access in New Mexico," said Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's spokeswoman. 

She added that "draconian laws in neighboring states" may increase the need for abortion services in New Mexico. 

The Texas law bans abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity, usually around six weeks — before some people know they're pregnant. In a highly unusual twist, enforcement will be done by private citizens who can sue anyone they believe is violating the law.

Rushforth said limited access to abortion services in Texas had already resulted in waiting lists that were pushing more patients to New Mexico and other states. She called New Mexico a "safe haven" for people who are afraid and are now having to navigate what she called an impossible legal landscape.

"These consequences will continue to be enormous as we move forward," she said. "The financial and logistical barriers for many abortion patients are often times insurmountable."

Democratic state Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero of Albuquerque said she wants New Mexico to continue to provide safe passage for those seeking abortion procedures. She voiced concerns about the potential of the Texas law leading to underground abortion procedures.

"I would hope that we would continue to be welcoming and that our priority would be to save lives," she said. "It's our decision and if it's going to be our decision, it should be a safe and healthy outcome."

Bureau Of Indian Education Issues Vaccine Mandate - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The federal agency that oversees schools that educate some Native Americans in nearly two dozen states issued an employee vaccine mandate Thursday. 

The mandate covers more than 2,800 faculty and staff at 53 schools and dormitories operated directly by the U.S. Bureau of Education in states including Arizona, New Mexico and the Dakotas. 

More than 180 schools operate under the agency's umbrella, but about two-thirds are run by tribes under contract with the federal government or through grants, including most on the Hopi reservation and neighboring Navajo Nation.

Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva said school officials can decide on their own whether to require vaccines. 

"It's a person's right," he said.

The Bureau of Indian Education, which is part of the Interior Department, joins a growing number of government agencies that are requiring vaccinations or regular COVID-19 testing. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez issued an executive order that requires all tribal employees under his watch to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 29 or regularly test negative for the coronavirus. Tribal spokesman Jared Touchin said that extends to employees of the Department of Diné Education. 

Nez hasn't acted on legislation recently passed by the Navajo Nation Council to mandate vaccines for all tribal employees. The tribe has maintained a mask mandate throughout the pandemic.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said bureau employees must be vaccinated no later than Oct. 15 and provide proof. Those who don't comply could be fired or lose their contract, the Interior Department said.

"The department recognizes that education plays a critical role in promoting equity in learning and health, particularly for Indigenous communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19," the department said.

The schools will consider individual requests for exemptions but could require those who aren't vaccinated to follow safety measures established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undergo regular COVID-19 testing and prove they've tested negative before they return in-person to schools or dormitories.

The Bureau of Indian Education schools are operating under a mix of virtual and in-person settings that factor in the circumstances in surrounding communities, and input from tribal and health officials, said Interior Department spokesman Tyler Cherry. He said some schools have had confirmed COVID-19 cases but didn't elaborate.

FAA Bans Virgin Galactic Launches While Probing Branson Trip - By Marcia Dunn Ap Aerospace Writer

The Federal Aviation Administration said Thursday that Virgin Galactic cannot launch anyone into space again until an investigation is complete into a mishap that occurred during July's flight with founder Richard Branson. 

The ban came as Virgin Galactic announced plans to launch three Italian researchers to the edge of space in a few weeks.

The FAA said the rocketship carrying Branson and five Virgin Galactic employees veered off course during its descent back to its runway in the New Mexico desert on July 11. The deviation put the ship outside the air traffic control clearance area.

The FAA is overseeing the probe; it's responsible for protecting the public during commercial launches and reentries. Crew safety, on the other hand, is outside its jurisdiction. Virgin Galactic insisted Thursday that Branson and everyone else on board were never in any added danger. 

"Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety," the FAA said in a statement.

Virgin Galactic acknowledged the space plane dropped below the protected airspace for one minute and 41 seconds. The spacecraft's free-flying portion of the up-and-down flight lasted about 15 minutes and reached an altitude of 53.5 miles.

Virgin Galactic said high-altitude wind caused the change in flight path and insisted the two pilots "responded appropriately." In a statement, the company said the flight was "a safe and successful test flight that adhered to our flight procedures and training protocols."

In another statement Thursday, Virgin Galactic added that "at no time did the ship travel above any population centers or cause a hazard to the public." Virgin Galactic operates out of Spaceport America in the southern New Mexico desert.

"We take this seriously and are currently addressing the causes of the issue and determining how to prevent this from occurring on future missions," the company said.

Branson ended up beating fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos — founder of Amazon as well as rocket company Blue Origin — into space by nine days. Bezos launched July 20 with three others from West Texas.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are vying to sell seats to tourists, scientists and anyone else looking to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Virgin Galactic's rocketship is launched from an airplane, while Blue Origin's capsule is hoisted by a reusable New Shepard rocket. 

Virgin Galactic is aiming for late September or early October for its next flight, with two Italian Air Force officers, an engineer for the National Research Council of Italy, Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor and the rocketship's two pilots. It will be the company's first launch where researchers accompany their own experiments. The company plans to start flying ticket holders next year.

Blue Origin has yet to announce a date for its next passenger flight, other than to say it will be soon.

Wilson Leads New Mexico Past Houston Baptist 27-17 In Opener - Associated Press

Terry Wilson Jr. completed 20 of 26 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns and New Mexico, playing its first home game in 642 days, made a winner of second-year head coach Danny Gonzales in his home debut with a 27-17 nonconference victory over Houston Baptist on Thursday night.

Wilson tossed a pair of first-quarter TDs — connecting with Kyle Jarvis from 11 yards out and Trace Buckler for a 4-yarder and a 14-0 Lobos' lead. Tyson Thompson put the Huskies on the scoreboard with a 44-yard punt return TD and Gino Garcia added a 45-yard field goal to pull HBU within 14-10 with 4:27 remaining in the half. Wilson answered with a 47-yard scoring strike to Keyonta Lanier to put the Lobos up 21-10 at halftime.

Andrew Shelley kicked a pair of field goals to account for New Mexico's second-half offense. 

Blaise Bentsen completed 27 of 47 passes for 196 yards and a score with two interceptions for Houston Baptist, an FCS school. Charles King had seven catches for 64 yards and a score. It was the first meeting between the schools.

Navajo Nation Reports 55 New COVID-19 Cases, 2 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 55 new COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the Navajo Nation's total to 32,707 cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago and 1,406 known deaths. 

Tribal President Jonathan Nez has said all Navajo Nation executive branch employees will need to be fully vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19 by the end of September or be required to submit to regular testing.

The new rules apply to full, part-time and temporary employees, including those working for tribal enterprises like utilities, shopping centers and casinos. 

Any worker who does not show proof of vaccination by Sept. 29 must be tested every two weeks or face discipline.

The tribe's reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.