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SAT: NM Governor defends pandemic spending, Advisory panel recommend redistricting maps, + more

Morgan Lee
Associated Press
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham at a news conference after signing an executive order making New Mexico being the latest to join a land and water conservation effort

  New Mexico Governor Defends Power To Spend Pandemic Relief – Associated Press

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is defending her authority to decide how the state will spend more than $1 billion federal pandemic aid — without the approval of the Legislature.

In a written court briefing Friday, Lujan Grisham said a state Supreme Court decision nearly 50 years ago upheld the governor's discretion over federal funding at universities and should hold true today more broadly regarding federal pandemic relief funds.

Republican Senate minority leader Gregory Baca of Belen and Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque have asked the Supreme Court to intervene and rein in the governor's authority to spend without legislative approval.

Lujan Grisham, who is running for reelection in 2022, has used the relief funds to replenish the state unemployment insurance trust, underwrite millions of dollars in sweepstakes prizes for people who got vaccinated, prop up agriculture wages amid a shortage of chile pickers and provide incentives for the unemployed to return to work. Decisions are pending on more than $1 billion in federal relief.

New Mexico's state treasurer says a close reading of the state Constitution shows that the Legislature should help determine how to spend a recent round of pandemic relief signed by President Joe Biden in March.

Advisory Panel Endorses Redistricting Maps For New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An advisory board on redistricting endorsed several plans for realigning the boundaries of political districts across New Mexico on Friday, backing proposed congressional districts that would consolidate Native American representation and strengthen a Hispanic majority.

The recommendations of the Citizens Redistricting Committee are a nonbinding reference point for the Legislature as it enters the once-a-decade process of drawing new political boundaries.

Several states, including New Mexico and Indiana, are using citizen advisory boards to temper political inclinations without taking redistricting powers away from state lawmakers. Judges might wind up using the advisory maps to resolve redistricting lawsuits.

New Mexico's Democratic-led Legislature plans to convene in December to redraw the boundaries for the state's three congressional districts, 112 legislative seats and a commission that oversees public charter schools.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham holds veto authority in the process. It has been 30 years since Democrats controlled both the governors office and Legislature during redistricting.

Proposed changes to a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico are under special scrutiny.

Last year, U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell ousted a first-term Democrat from the 2nd District seat. The district's boundaries are likely to shift and contract to offset population gains in a oil-producing region in the southeastern corner of the state.

The advisory committee endorsed three separate plans for redrawing the state's three congressional districts. 

One would largely hew to current district boundaries that provide a compact Albuquerque-based district pared with rural Torrance County, and two vast horizontal districts anchored in the north and south of the state.

The committee also endorsed a plan brokered by committee chairman and former state Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez that would boost Native American representation in the state's 3rd Congressional District to nearly 20% of the voting-age population. That plan also would boost the share of voting-age Hispanics resident to more than 54% in the southern 2nd Congressional District.

And a third congressional map from the left-leaning Center for Civic Policy also won endorsement. 

It would create an even greater Latino majority in the 2nd District by linking portions of Albuquerque with vast rural areas in southernmost New Mexico — fueling complaints of potential gerrymandering in favor of Democrats. The state Republican Party voiced several objections.

Advisory committee member Michael Sanchez, a former Democratic state Senate majority leader, said the map responds to residents of central and southern New Mexico who feel left out of the political process — "the Hispanics who have for many, many years not been heard, the African-American population down in the Hobbs area."

"Things will start being a little bit different economically, socially ... giving those individuals a possibility of electing someone that they choose," he said.

A consensus congressional map from Native American communities was still under negotiation Friday and may be submitted independently to the Legislature.

New Mexico presents unusual challenges in efforts to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act to preserve communities of interest and give minority voters a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice.

Nearly 48% of state residents claim Hispanic ancestry — the highest portion in the nation.

The share of New Mexico residents who identify themselves as Indigenous by race or by combined ancestry was 12.4%, a percentage surpassed only by Alaska and Oklahoma. 

The state is home to 23 federally recognized tribes, whose growing political clout is reflected in the election of Laguna Pueblo tribal member Deb Haaland to Congress in 2016 and her promotion this year to secretary of the Interior.

The seven-member redistricting committee has held more than a dozen public meetings across the state and vowed to endorse at least three proposed maps each for Congress as well as state Senate and Congress. Discussions stretched beyond five hours into Friday evening.

Democratic state Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque says he is inclined to ignore the recommendations of a redistricting panel dominated by who he called political "elites" with no Native American members.

"My concern is following the law, being responsible, drawing maps that are fair," said Candelaria, who does not plan to seek reelection in 2024. "I have a pretty good idea of communities of interest and where lines need to be drawn."

Grandmother Arrested In Connection With Death Of 2-Year-Old – Associated Press

An Albuquerque grandmother has been arrested in connection with the death of her 2-year-old granddaughter two weeks ago.

The girl's father, Michael Garcia, was arrested shortly after the toddler's death on Oct. 1. Albuquerque police said Friday that after investigating further detectives sought an arrest warrant for Diana Garcia, who faces charges of child abuse resulting in great bodily harm or death. 

The victim and her three older siblings lived with her father and grandmother. 

Police say 2-year-old Diana McGrory had bruises over much of her body, two burns and appeared malnourished when she died. They say her 5-year-old brother told investigators that his grandma gets mad when his siblings don't listen. 

Doctors told police that two of the girl's siblings had broken bones and one had bruising consistent with abuse. 

It was not clear if Diana Garcia had an attorney who could comment on her behalf.

New Mexico Judge Denies Lab Workers' Claim In Vaccine Fight - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A New Mexico judge on Friday denied a request by dozens of scientists and others at Los Alamos National Laboratory to block a vaccine mandate, meaning workers risk being fired if they don't comply with the lab's afternoon deadline.

The case comes as New Mexico extends a mask mandate for indoor spaces across the state, citing persistently high levels of community spread.

While the vaccination rate among adults in New Mexico continues to hover below 72%, the lab confirmed Friday that 96% of employees are fully vaccinated. It's not known how many workers have requested exemptions or how many could end up being fired for declining the shots.

The legal challenge was backed by 114 scientists, nuclear engineers, research technicians, designers, project managers and other workers at the lab. Some are specialists and have high security clearance for the work they do, which ranges from national defense to infrastructure improvements and COVID-19 research. 

The workers claim the mandate is a violation of their constitutional rights and that lab management has created a hostile work environment.

Attorneys for the lab argued in court Thursday that being vaccinated was a condition of working at Los Alamos. Lab management had announced the vaccine requirement in August.

State District Judge Jason Lidyard agreed, saying unvaccinated employees will have to find work elsewhere.

Lab spokeswoman Jennifer Talhelm said in a statement Friday that the decision to mandate the vaccine was made only after considerable thought. 

"The safety and health of our employees remains our top priority as we fulfill our national security mission, and as a result our vaccine mandate remains in effect," she said.

For those granted religious exemptions, they will be placed on leave without pay or have to use vacation time. Those who have yet to receive their second dose will be placed on unpaid leave or have to use up vacation time until fully vaccinated. 

With such a high percentage of vaccinated workers, critics have argued that forcing the remaining holdouts to get shots would make no epidemiological difference.

Jonathan Diener, an attorney representing the workers, said the plaintiffs are considering an appeal. Arbitration also is possible pending court proceeding on the merits of the case. The workers have requested a jury trial.

"The main thing is we wanted to stop people from being thrown out of work," said Diener, expressing disappointment with the judge's decision. 

The workers backing the lawsuit have argued that the high degree of scrutiny required of them when working with nuclear weapons or other high-level projects has not been applied on the vaccine front, despite the lab's extensive modeling work for the state on spread and other COVID-19 related trends. 

The lawsuit cited statements made over the last year by top officials in the U.S. and with the World Health Organization in which they noted that there is more to be learned about how the vaccines reduce infection and how effective they are when it comes to preventing infected people from passing it on.

Los Alamos lab on its website touts the breadth of its scientific capabilities, saying it has been helping to answer questions about the pandemic. That includes tracking the virus' evolution, predicting spread through modeling, developing reopening strategies for schools and future vaccine development.

In extending the mask mandate, state health officials said Friday that the goal was to reduce pressure on the health care system.

"It is not time to abandon basic precautions," said Dr. David Scrase, head of the state Health and Human Services departments. "Our hospital and health care partners remain incredibly, incredibly concerned about the serious illnesses they are dealing with."

A separate public health order requiring health care workers to be vaccinated remains in place. School workers also are required to be vaccinated or undergo regular testing.

New Mexico Awards $2m Contract For 'Academic Coaches' - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico education officials are on track to renew a $2 million contract for a Utah-based education company to call and text struggling students, usually when they've been chronically absent from school.

State and school district officials welcome the help but haven't evaluated the program to see if it actually decreased absenteeism last year, citing the pressures of the pandemic. State officials also have allowed the company to avoid a competitive bidding process.

Last year, the New Mexico Public Education Department awarded Graduation Alliance a $4.6 million contract on an emergency basis to quickly provide what it calls "academic coaching." Branded as the ENGAGE New Mexico program, it aims at increasing student participation in school.

Graduation Alliance said it operates similar engagement programs in Michigan, Arizona, and South Carolina.

In New Mexico, the company received around 39,000 referrals from students, parents or schools last year. Around 16,000 of those students opted in for academic coaches. All told, the state spent $290 for each student that agreed to have an academic coach.

The company employs Spanish-speaking coaches and at least one Navajo-speaking coach, as well as translation services to communicate with New Mexico's diverse population. The coaches work to earn students' trust, encourage them to attend school and advocate on their behalf if they face barriers to participating in class — something the company says will be important in an in-person learning environment.

"Some people are intimidated to ask for help from a teacher," said Graduation Alliance spokesman Greg Harp, adding that students often wonder "How do I ask for help, without feeling stupid?"

But it's unclear if the program increased engagement or academic achievement last year because grades and attendance for students weren't recorded.

A July 1 report by the Public Education Department hailed the program as a success, drawing on a survey the company conducted of participating students and partial graduation data drawn from a sample of high school seniors. The names of the districts providing the data were not listed in the report, which said that 70% of the seniors who were helped graduated.

"Is it making a difference? That's something we're going to be looking at," Harp said, adding that the company will be working with districts to gather data.

A notification period for the sole-source contract ends Friday. Unless a rival company challenges the designation, the contract will be awarded to Graduation Alliance, Harp said.

Students could be referred to the program starting as early as next week. Students referred in the past will have to sign up again.

While absenteeism rates are not yet documented, districts say that anecdotally they could be higher than before the pandemic because fewer feel confident in school and more are under pressure to work jobs to help their families pay rent and bills.

State law requires schools to check on families where a student is chronically absent, including excused absences like coronavirus quarantines. That means a lot of paperwork for districts like Santa Fe Public Schools, which has a three-person team reaching out to absentee students.

In the coming weeks, they expect to refer chronically absent students to support programs including the one operated by Graduation Alliance.

"It's an extra pair of boots on the ground for doing outreach," said Crystal Ybarra, a social worker who manages community outreach for the Santa Fe district.

Because ENGAGE New Mexico's outreach efforts can be documented and shared with districts, their texts and phone calls can reduce the workload for school administrators when reporting on absent students.

Ybarra said that the district gets reports from Graduation Alliance but couldn't immediately evaluate its effect on grades and attendance.

To help students catch up, the district has set up a four-day-a-week homework hotline staffed by mostly by volunteer academic tutors.

According to the National Association of State Procurement Officials, non-competitive contracts are acceptable when a company offers a unique service that no bidder can provide. But the group recommends that states require agencies to actually check if competitors exist. The Public Education Department left blank a question on an application asking what efforts were made to ensure there were no capable competitors.

Of the four states where ENGAGE programs currently operate, only Michigan contracted the company through a traditional bid process, Harp said.