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MON: Two school districts close due to COVID surge, State foresees robust income growth, + More

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2 New Mexico school districts close down, citing COVID surge - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

At least two schools in New Mexico are sending students home early this week for remote learning, citing concerns over a coronavirus infection surge.

Students at Santa Fe Public Schools will go remote starting Tuesday ahead of the Thanksgiving break, representing the largest voluntary closure of K-12 schools this semester. 

Los Lunas Schools, a smaller school district near Albuquerque, canceled in person classes in favor of remote learning Monday and Tuesday ahead of the break that starts Wednesday.

"This a strategic move to decrease our active COVID positive numbers," said Los Lunas Schools superintendent Arsenio Romero. "We are aware that this can cause undue hardship for working parents."

New Mexico's Public Education Department last spring ordered schools into remote learning based on their thresholds of positive COVID-19 infection tests. Schools with more than four positive tests had to switch to remote learning.

Now schools have the power to decide whether to shut their doors or stay open.

About 20 of the state's schools have reported sending children home due to virus outbreaks each month this year that included staffing shortages because of quarantines for teachers, according to voluntary notices submitted by schools to state education authorities.

There are schools elsewhere in New Mexico that have reported more COVID-19 infection cases than the school districts in Santa Fe and Los Lunas, according to data updated Friday from the New Mexico Environment Department.

But those other districts decided to maintain in-person learning. In Albuquerque, one school reported five positive tests and in Las Cruces there are schools that have had six positive tests. 

Neither district has canceled in-person learning or extended the Thanksgiving holiday.

When schools go online, parents including school staff have to scramble to find childcare.

That's already a struggle in Santa Fe, where teachers on average pay about $1,000 in child care costs per month, according to a teacher union survey cited by the school district's superintendent in a recent editorial.

Last year, many teachers struggled to teach online classes while trying to care for their own children at home simultaneously. Now in the fourth semester of the pandemic, some districts are starting to think about addressing the problem.

"We're in discussion with the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department on the possibility of the district providing child care for staff," Superintendent Hilario Chavez wrote.

New Mexico foresees robust growth in state government income - Associated Press

Forecasts for state government income have increased slightly as New Mexico legislators prepare to meet in January to craft a general fund budget.

The state's top taxation official and the lead economist for the Legislature told a panel of lawmakers Monday that state income is likely to exceed already robust expectations by at least $28 million for the fiscal year starting July 2022.

That adds slightly to a forecasted $1.4 billion surplus in state general fund income over current annual spending obligations. 

The estimate hold implications for public school finances, health care subsidies, public worker salaries, public safety and more.

"The good news is that we are tracking closer to the upside. ... Employment, wages and salaries, those things are recovering," said Ismael Torres, chief economist for the Legislature's budget and accountability office.

State income is expected to increase by 9% to $8.84 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2022, from $8.1 billion for the current fiscal year.

Taxation and Revenue Secretary Stephanie Schardin Clarke said the economic recovery has been limited for low-income and less-educated workers. She emphasized the continued importance of financial safety-net programs.

"Lower wage workers who probably had the least amount of saving going into the pandemic have still experienced about a 5% loss in wages," she said.

Progressive changes to the state tax code that favor low-income households are taking a bite out of the state general fund budget for the first time.

Early this year, lawmakers expanded the state's working families tax credit and the low-income comprehensive tax rebate. Initial estimates showed the state would forgo about $74 million in annual income as a result.

Interior head: Chaco protections 'millennia in the making' - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A few big rigs carried oilfield equipment on a winding road near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, cutting through desert badlands and sage. Mobile homes and traditional Navajo dwellings dotted the landscape, with a smattering of natural gas wells visible in the distance.

This swath of northwestern New Mexico has been at the center of a decades-long battle over oil and gas development.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined pueblo leaders Monday to reflect on her office's announcement last week that it would seek to withdraw federal land holdings within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the park's boundary, making the area off-limits to oil and gas leasing for 20 years.

"This celebration is decades in the making," Haaland said. "Some would even say millennia in the making."

Haaland's action halts new leases in the area for the next two years while federal officials consider the proposed withdrawal. 

While the Chaco area holds historical and cultural significance to many tribes, the Navajo Nation oversees much of the land that makes up the jurisdictional checkerboard surrounding the national park. Some belongs to individual Navajos who were allotted land by the federal government generations ago. 

Navajo leaders support preserving parts of the area but have said individual allottees stand to lose an important income source if the land is made off-limits to development. They're calling for a smaller buffer of federal land around the park as a compromise to protect Navajo financial interests. 

The rough road to the park was lined with brightly colored signs Monday in support of the allottees, many noting the importance of oil and gas development to their livelihoods.

"Our land, our minerals. We support oil and gas," read one sign.

Another said Haaland hasn't met with allottees.

Environmentalists, Democratic politicians and other tribes had been pressuring Haaland — the first Native American to lead a U.S. Cabinet agency — to protect a broad swath of land beyond the park that holds significance for many Indigenous people in the Southwest.

A former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, Haaland sponsored legislation during her U.S. House term to curb oil and gas drilling. She has called the area sacred, saying it has deep meaning for those whose ancestors once called the high desert home.

"This is a living landscape," Haaland said Monday. "You can feel it in the sun, the clouds and the wind. It's not difficult to imagine centuries ago children running around the open space, people moving in and out of doorways, singing in their harvest or preparing food to come — a busy, thriving community."

A World Heritage site, Chaco is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the bottom of the canyon, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert floor. 

More discoveries are waiting to be made outside the park, archaeologists have said.

The fight over drilling beyond the park has spanned multiple presidential administrations. The Trump and Obama administrations also put on hold leases adjacent to the park through agency actions, but activists want the area permanently protected.

The Biden administration and Haaland's agency have vowed to consult with tribes over the next two years as the withdrawal proposal is considered, but top Navajo leaders already have suggested they're being ignored. Noticeably absent Monday were the top elected leaders of the tribe's legislative and executive branches.

The tribe and allottees have concerns about the size of the buffer and have been calling for congressional field hearings to be held before any decisions are made.

"The Interior Department unilaterally made this withdrawal proposal without proper tribal consultation, now directly affecting our families on the Navajo Nation. The (Bureau of Land Management) now wants to initiate formal tribal consultation after the fact," Navajo Council Delegate Mark Freeland said last week after Haaland's announcement.

Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon also said the Biden administration needs to respect tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship it has with the tribe.

Federal officials said the ban on new petroleum leasing in the area will not affect existing leases or rights and would not apply to minerals owned by private, state or tribal entities. The Navajo allottees have argued it wouldn't be economical for companies to continue development just on their land.

Navajo officials also noted that Congress commissioned a cultural resource investigation of the area to be performed by experts. That work is ongoing, and they suggested the Biden administration wait until those results are compiled before initiating the 20-year withdrawal.

Navajo officials urge COVID-19 safety as holiday nears - Associated Press

As the Thanksgiving holiday nears, the Navajo Nation is urging residents on the vast reservation to limit in-person gatherings to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The tribe reported 35 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday and five more coronavirus-related deaths. The figures bring the total number of cases to 38,898, including 11 cases that belatedly were reported. The death toll is 1,527.

Navajo Vice President Myron Lizer said far too many people have contracted COVID-19 because they gather in-person and do not adhere to social distance guidelines or wear a mask. 

"As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, it's crucial that our Navajo people continue to support one another and help to inform their loved ones about the importance of taking precautions and limiting in-person gatherings," he said in a statement.

The tribe has maintained a mask mandate through most of the pandemic. Tribal officials are urging those who aren't vaccinated to do so. 

The reservation covers 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) and extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Pilot in fatal New Mexico plane crash was Texas man - Carlsbad Current-Argus, Associated Press

Authorities say the pilot who died in a small plane crash last week outside Carlsbad, New Mexico was a 27-year-old Texas man.

New Mexico State Police were quoted Monday by the Carlsbad Current-Argus saying that Michael Kozlovsky of Burnet, Texas was the pilot of the Cessna that crashed before noon Friday into a communications tower that caught on fire east of Carlsbad.

First responders found Kozlovsky's body at the scene. 

The Federal Aviation Administration says on its website Kozlovsky was on a personal flight and had filed a flight plan with the Lubbock Flight Standards District Office in Texas. The circumstances of the crash were unknown. 

The plane was registered to Coast Helicopters of Pearland, Texas.

Risk of quakes caused by oil, gas in New Mexico rising -Carlsbad Current-Argus, Associated Press

Multiple earthquakes were felt earlier this fall in West Texas, leading regulators in that state to designate a seismic response area and call for less wastewater from oil and gas development to be injected in disposal wells. <--break->

As more seismic activity was reported closer to the state line, officials in New Mexico have been watching closely and gathering data. Some officials are concerned that as Texas limits the injection of produced water as a means to curb the seismic activity, that could affect producers in New Mexico. 

In October, Texas regulators created a second seismic response area just along the border with southeastern New Mexico. Officials pointed to more than a dozen quakes along the state line since Jan. 1, 2020, with six of those reported this fall.

That meant almost half of the heightened seismic activity in the area since last year occurred in the last month, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported. Texas officials referred to the activity as "unprecedented."

Michael Hightower, director of the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium at New Mexico State University, said it was clear Texas' earthquake problem was spreading toward New Mexico.

"We know there's a lot of water coming over from Texas," he said. "If you inject all that, you're going to have seismicity problems."

He said most of the seismicity being observed is due to saltwater disposal wells and possible over-pressurization.

The consortium worked with Texas regulators, Hightower said, aiming to devise technology that could treat produced water and recycle it for uses like agriculture or even drinking water.

Many oil and gas companies already recycle produced water for subsequent fracking operations, but Hightower said expanding the potential for its reuse presents an economic opportunity and a way to address environmental and water scarcity concerns tied to fossil fuels.

"The big issue is how do you reduce the volume of produced water you're disposing of. That is the exact mission of the consortium," he said.

New Mexico was targeting a goal of a 30-60% reduction in produced water disposal, Hightower said.

Jason Jennaro is CEO at Breakwater Midstream, a company that transports produced water and treats it. He said the recent seismic activity made finding alternatives to disposal injection more urgent.

With a second commercial-scale water recycling facility, the company estimates it could treat and distribute more than half a million barrels of produced water a day for the Midland Basin.

"Operators are looking for environmentally sustainable alternatives to disposal within these SRAs and seismic clusters, which is why system interconnectivity and commercial recycling is central to sensible stewardship of the water," Jennaro said.

Regulatory action from the Texas commission, he said, will severely impact operations and force the industry to seek alternatives.

Jennaro said the occurrence of smaller earthquakes began to increase in 2017, when oil and gas boomed in the region, up to about three per day recently.

In 2021, records show the region was on track for more than 1,200 earthquakes with magnitudes of 1 to 4.

With more seismicity in Texas, Jennaro said that could mean sending more water to New Mexico to avoid Texas' increased regulatory action.

Adrienne Sandoval, director of New Mexico's Oil Conservation Division, said her agency is encouraging operators to recycle and reuse water instead of injecting it.

To avoid over-pressurization, Sandoval said the division implemented well-spacing requirements as a condition of permitted disposal wells.

Sandoval said the state has seen some induced seismicity on the New Mexico side of the border. 

"It's sort of along the Texas line and along the Lea and Eddy County line. We're working with operators to gather data," she said, noting that officials want to be proactive and protective "so we can minimize seismic activity as much as we can."

New Mexico exports on track to set record in 2021 - By Kevin Robinson-Avila Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico exports are barreling toward an annual record this year, marking a sharp turnaround from last year's pandemic-induced slowdown.

Total state sales worldwide climbed 55% in the first nine months of 2021, from $2.77 billion in the January-September period last year to $4.28 billion this year, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. If those trends continue, the state could well surpass its previous annual export record, reached in 2019, when global sales hit $4.68 billion.

In fact, at $4.28 billion as of September, the value of state exports is already more than $1 billion higher than the January-September period in 2019, when sales abroad totaled $3.16 billion.

"It's looking really good," said Jerry Pacheco, trade consultant and executive director of the International Business Accelerator at Santa Teresa in southern New Mexico.

"I expect this to be our biggest year yet," Pacheco told the Albuquerque Journal. "New Mexico exports are already well exceeding 2019, which was our flagship year before the pandemic."

The coronavirus pandemic markedly slashed exports nationwide in 2020 as consumers hunkered down at home, businesses temporarily shut down across the globe, and supply-chain disruptions slowed commerce worldwide.

Total U.S. exports fell to $1.4 trillion last year — the lowest level since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, based on data from the Commerce Department.

In New Mexico, the global downturn cut state exports by 21% across the board. Sales to Mexico — the state's No. 1 export market — fell by 8% last year. And sales to China, New Mexico's second-largest trade partner, plummeted by 40%.

This year, the trends have reversed. Sales to Mexico grew 17% from January-September, putting New Mexico's southbound exports on track for an annual record. And sales to China ballooned nearly threefold, from $435 million in the first nine months of 2020 to $1.2 billion this year.

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The Intel factor

New Mexico has worked to expand its exports to Asia in recent years, with state and federal assistance programs helping local companies to diversify their markets in that region.

But while sales there of everything from high-tech products to consumer goods have increased, the boom in trade with China likely reflects the ebb and flow of shipments from Intel Corp. in Rio Rancho to its sister facilities overseas, Pacheco said.

Historically, Intel has dominated New Mexico's exports with shipments of computer-related components and electronics, accounting for up to 80% of sales abroad in years past. And with the Rio Rancho plant now back on a growth cycle with new product development and production happening there, the dramatic, rapid upswing in exports to China points once again to the Intel factor, Pacheco said.

"I believe a lot of what we're seeing in China now is directly tied to Intel," he said.

Until recently, Intel's dominance generally led to erratic ups and downs in New Mexico's export performance as Intel shipments abroad rose and fell from one year to the next. But the state's export structure has fundamentally changed over the past 10 to 15 years, significantly reducing Intel's influence on annual export totals.

That's largely due to the massive build-out of trade-related industrial parks at Santa Teresa in southern New Mexico, where about 70 companies now operate near the Santa Teresa Port of Entry.

The boom in activity there is the central factor driving the growth in New Mexico's exports overall in recent years, and in particular, sales to Mexico, according to state officials.

"Nearly all of New Mexico's export growth can be attributed to the cross-border industrial hub around Santa Teresa," Economic Development Department Secretary Alicia J. Keyes said in an email to the Journal.

As a result, while Intel's ups and downs still noticeably affect New Mexico's export totals, they no longer disrupt the state's overall annual export performance, Pacheco said.

"We've neutralized that dependence now with the industrial base built out at the border," he said. "Now, if Intel exports go down, exports at the border and overall remain robust."

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'Strategic plan'

State officials now see significant opportunities to build on Santa Teresa's success, not just to expand the export base in southern New Mexico, but to advance trade-related business along the mid-Rio Grande Corridor and beyond.

The state's new "strategic plan" — a 20-year road map for economic development that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration released last month — includes a section on the significance of global trade for New Mexico's economy and strategies to expand it.

Manufacturing exports alone support about 15,000 jobs around New Mexico, according to the report. Apart from Santa Teresa, that includes numerous businesses scattered throughout the state, the vast majority of them small- and medium-sized companies that export a range of goods, particularly high-tech products such as industrial machinery, electric machinery and precision instruments.

But until recently, New Mexico hadn't proactively promoted its businesses and industry in international markets, according to the report.

The new plan calls for aggressive promotional efforts to expand and diversify trade relations with more countries, both to build new markets for New Mexico's goods, and to attract more foreign investment to the state.

It also advocates more emphasis on building up the industrial hub at Santa Teresa, along with efforts to spread the border hub's benefits to more parts of the state by directly linking business activity elsewhere with operations at Santa Teresa.

"There is an opportunity for Albuquerque companies to perform value-added processing or handling of goods as they are shipped from the Santa Teresa Port of Entry to other regions of the U.S.," the report says. "Going forward, the state should determine how to better leverage Santa Teresa's position in cross-border trade to benefit other areas of New Mexico."

In particular, plans calls for more official trade missions to other countries to expand high-value markets for New Mexico goods and to recruit foreign businesses to the state.

The Economic Development Department has already made some progress in that regard in Taiwan through a state trade mission there in 2019 and the recent opening of a liaison office in the capital of Taipei.

The department also signed a new agreement in October with the Taiwanese Ministry of Economic Affairs to develop closer trade relations, foreshadowing more interaction between public and private sector representatives from both sides.

Those efforts have already encouraged three Taiwanese companies to establish new manufacturing operations at Santa Teresa. And more promotional efforts are in the works.

"We know this requires a coordinated effort — and that's a key finding in the strategic plan," Keyes said. "We want to strategically plan more trade missions to tell our story and aggressively pitch the state's border zone to foreign companies looking to diversify their supply chains by using the logistical advantage of Santa Teresa for their manufacturing."

New Mexico court stays push for grand juries on COVID steps -Albuquerque Journal, Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has put on hold several citizen requests that used petition drives to call for convening grand juries to investigate Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's handling of COVID-19.

The state high court on Tuesday granted Lujan Grisham's motion for a stay of requests filed in Eddy, Lea and Chaves counties in southeastern New Mexico pending further court filings, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

Republican legislators and others have criticized Lujan Grisham's imposition of masking mandates and other public-health requirements during the pandemic as overly burdensome and infringing on personal freedoms. She has defended them as necessary to curb the spread of the coronavirus

State Sen. David Gallegos, one of the individuals seeking grand juries, expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court's order.

"You would think at some point in time the people could be heard," Gallegos told the Journal.

A Eunice Republican, Gallegos said he was seeking grand juries as a citizen and not as a legislator.

New Mexico is one of just a few states that allows for citizen-initiated grand jury proceedings, which under the New Mexico Constitution require a certain number of voter signatures be submitted for a judge to convene such a grand jury.

Grand juries are typically used by prosecutors in order to indict individuals for alleged criminal wrongdoing.

The state Supreme Court has generally upheld the legality of Lujan Grisham's actions to combat the pandemic. However, the justices on Wednesday sided with legislators who challenged her authority to unilaterally spend roughly $1.7 billion in federal relief funds.

Lujan Grisham's general counsel, Holly Agajanian, said in a court filing that the petitions for grand juries were a "creative scheme" that lacked solid legal ground.

"While the citizens filing the petitions may disagree with the governor's approach to the pandemic, none of these allegations even remotely demonstrate that she has committed any crime," Agajanian wrote. 

In another pandemic development, the school district for New Mexico's second most populous city has introduced new protocols for schools with higher rates of spread of the coronavirus.

Amid a continued rise in case numbers, Las Cruces Public Schools will require those schools to require students face one way in classroom and cafeteria settings, allow only essential visitors, have students go directly to classrooms upon arrival and to stagger transition, recess and dismissal times, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.

Man arrested in Albuquerque crash that killed 1, injured 4 -Associated Press

A 19-year-old Roswell man has been arrested in connection with a multi-vehicle crash in northeast Albuquerque that left one person dead and four others injured, police said Sunday.

Albuquerque police said Casino Salazar is jailed on suspicion of homicide by vehicle and other charges.

Police said the crash occurred around 7 p.m. Saturday and involved three cars and a motorcycle.

One person was pronounced dead at the scene.

The name, age and hometown of the victim hasn't been released yet.

Police said Casino Salazar's SUV allegedly was speeding down a street before crashing into a car with five people inside.

They said the driver was killed and all four passengers were taken to a hospital. 

Police said they believe Salazar was driving impaired and officers reported funding several containers of alcohol in his vehicle along with guns and marijuana.

It was unclear Sunday if Salazar has a lawyer yet for his case.

Navajo Nation reports 87 more COVID-19 cases, 4 more deaths -Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported 87 more confirmed cases of COVID-19 and four additional coronavirus-related deaths.

The latest numbers released Saturday pushed the tribe's total to 38,852 cases since the pandemic started and 1,522 known deaths.

On Saturday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez visited the Pinon Health Center vaccination site to show his support for health care workers and families receiving the vaccines. 

Nez and his wife Phefelia received their booster doses and their 6-year-old son Alexander also received his first vaccine dose at the event. 

"We encourage families to get their vaccination before the holidays," Nez said. "The numbers of new cases are high, but areas off the Navajo Nation are even higher and the risks are greater because many cities do not COVID-19 protocols in effect.

"Our public health experts have given us the guidance and resources to help keep ourselves and others safe, but it is up to us as individuals to practice those measures," Nez added. "The safest place to be is at home here on the Navajo Nation."

The tribe has maintained a mask mandate through most of the pandemic.

The reservation covers 27,000 square miles and extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Defendant collapses in court; drug, alcohol testing ordered -Gallup Independent, Associated Press 

A Gallup man convicted of DWI homicide was taken to a hospital after collapsing in court minutes before he was to be sentenced, prompting a judge to delay the proceeding but also to order that the man be tested for drugs and alcohol.

Matthew Vargas, 24 faces up to 15 years in prison when he is eventually sentenced on his April conviction for homicide by vehicle involving DWI in a 2017 head-on wreck that killed Ernest Baker, 59, the Gallup Independent reported.

After Vargas collapsed Friday and complained of pain while being taken to an ambulance, state District Judge Robert Aragon postponed the sentencing but said it will be rescheduled as soon as possible.

The judge also granted a prosecutor's request for drug and alcohol testing to find out if they were involved in Vargas' collapse. That's appropriate given the nature of Vargas' offense, said prosecutor Brett Barnes, a state assistant attorney general.

Defense attorney Val Whitley said Vargas might be on "too many medications" due to his medical condition and would likely test positive for prescribed pain killers.

"Everything is documented that he's taking," Whitley said.

Vargas' sentencing previously had been delayed three times.