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KUNM News Update

WED: New Mexico will send COVID tests to low-income neighborhoods, + More

HORIZONTAL ALTERNATE: Grace Swanson compares the results of her home COVID test to the guide provided with the testing kit.
Jennifer Swanson/NPR
Grace Swanson compares the results of her home COVID test to the guide provided with the testing kit.

New Mexico will send COVID tests to low-income neighborhoods - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico is sending free COVID-19 home tests to low-income and underserved neighborhoods, but some school officials say a nationwide shortage of tests is putting them in a bind as they work to meet state requirements aimed at keeping students and staff in the classroom.

The state Health Department announced this week that more than 400,000 tests have been secured so far.

"I have directed the Department of Health to procure 1 million rapid tests every two weeks to ensure that every New Mexican has access to this critical tool in our fight against COVID-19," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

The governor and state health officials have said that more widespread testing can help with management of the pandemic as the more-contagious omicron variant makes it way through the population. Testing also is key to the state's "Test to Stay" program, which allows unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 to stay at school as long as they test negative in the days that follow.

New Mexico Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during a virtual briefing Wednesday that the state is talking about testing requirements for schools and whether changes are in order.

"It is very resource intensive. That is something that we're trying to figure out right now and see what we can do," he said.

Many districts around the U.S. already have changed their protocols and in some cases are doing away with contact tracing and shifting the focus to symptomatic students.

In Massachusetts, officials announced Tuesday that millions of rapid test kits would be made available to schools so staff and students could test themselves weekly at home.

Data from that state's test-and-stay program found that transmission to close contacts was rare, prompting the recommendation to stop test-and-stay and instead do weekly at-home rapid tests, along with regular pooled testing or symptomatic testing.

The Santa Fe Public School District was forced to go remote this week, citing a spike in cases, a staffing shortage and a lack of tests.

"Our state provider cannot currently meet the demand for surveillance testing for staff and Test to Stay for students," the district said. "Many parents have opted for their children to participate in Test to Stay, but the state's provider has been unable to consistently provide testing."

The district also noted that schools faced a Jan. 17 deadline to ensure that all staff were vaccinated or were participating in testing.

"'We cannot meet this testing mandate if the state cannot provide the tests, which places us in further jeopardy in our schools and school sites," the district said.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest district, officials did not respond to questions about the availability of tests but they did announce extra precautions due to the rising number of cases. That included mandating masks indoors and outside, prohibiting spectators at school events and not holding assemblies or other large gatherings.

New Mexico health officials said Wednesday they are working with county emergency managers around the state to formulate plans for distributing tests and masks over the coming weeks. They said people without symptoms will be encouraged to test at home, while those who are sick can expect to take PRC tests.

Scrase said the state will release more information about testing in the coming weeks but he noted that home testing "is going to be a game changer."

Overall, spread of the omicron variant remains high in New Mexico. Scrase said the latest modeling shows the peak is expected in another week or two.

Also Wednesday, the governor asked National Guard troops and state bureaucrats to volunteer to serve as substitute teachers as preschools and K-12 public schools struggle to keep classrooms open amid surging COVID-19 infections.

New Mexico asks Guard to sub for sick teachers amid omicron - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico is the first state in the nation to ask National Guard troops to serve as substitute teachers as preschools and K-12 public schools struggle to keep classrooms open amid surging COVID-19 infections.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Wednesday the unprecedented effort to reopen classrooms in the capital city of Santa Fe and shore up staffing across the state.

New Mexico has been struggling for years to recruit and retain educators, leaving teaching routinely to long-term substitutes who do not have teaching credentials.

Her administration says school districts and preschools are seeking at least 800 substitute teachers and day care workers for shifts ranging from one classroom period to the entire day. They're also asking state bureaucrats to volunteer to serve.

Other states have worked to mobilize state workers and National Guard soldiers to support schools. Last year Massachusetts mobilized its National Guard, first to support COVID-19 testing on school campuses, then to drive school buses. On Tuesday, Oklahoma allowed state workers to volunteer as school substitutes while continuing to receive their salaries.

But New Mexico is the first state in the nation to report recruiting troops into the classroom in response to COVID-19 staffing shortages.

Members of the Guard will serve on active duty, drawing their usual pay. State workers who teach in classrooms will get marked as paid leave that doesn't subtract from individual vacation allotments.

The governor said public workers are encouraged to participate in a spirit of public service and that no one is being drafted. The state hopes to quickly deploy 500 new substitute teachers and day care workers.

"We've determined that we have enough state employees, with the volunteer support with the Guard, to get to that 500 fairly readily, and that's just looking at key departments like the education department and veterans department," Lujan Grisham said at a news conference on the steps of a vacant high school in Santa Fe.

A surge in infections linked to the omicron variant among school staff and teachers prompted a weeklong switch to remote classes at Santa Fe Public Schools that could end as soon as Monday.

State public education officials say volunteers from the National Guard and state agencies can qualify for substitute teaching with as little as two hours of training and a two-step background check. School districts will decide whether military personnel appear in uniform or casual dress.

The recruiting program seeks volunteers from a pool of 16,000 state workers and 4,000 troops.

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Cedar Attanasio contributed reporting from Santa Fe. Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

Vacation rentals and Texans’ second homes would be taxed more under proposed bill - Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

A bipartisan bill introduced this legislative session aims to collect more in taxes from owners of properties used for AirBnB, and as second or third homes here.

New Mexico caps the increase on assessed property value at 3% each year. It’s a policy meant to prevent owners from being driven out of their homes by high property taxes, which are based on the value of their houses.

The 20-year-old cap has meant that longtime homeowners have not seen sudden, huge increases in their property taxes if they live in a neighborhood that is suddenly popular, like in parts of Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

But critics say it is also a giveaway to property owners who can afford the property taxes and are often driving that neighborhood change. And it burdens low-income property owners with an unfair share of the tax levy, said Rep. Matthew McQueen (D-Santa Fe), the bill’s sponsor.

Residences that are used for short-term rentals like AirBnB — which can drive up property values and displace residents — shouldn’t get the benefit of the tax, McQueen said. Neither should wealthy out-of-staters, like those from Texas or California, who buy their second or third home here, he said.

“To me, it’s a fairness issue,” he said, and if people can afford that second home out in a gated Santa Fe community, they don’t need the benefit of this 3% cap.

“I mean, that’s not what it was intended for,” McQueen said. “It was intended to protect people who were struggling to stay in their homes — not buying up investment properties.”

The bill would increase the cap on assessments from 3% to 10% on “a residential property that is not occupied as a principal place of residence,” beginning in 2024.

McQueen has introduced versions of this bill over the last several years, though 2022’s is slightly different. Last year, it passed the House of Representatives as part of a suite of tax changes, though it did not pass the Senate.

Past versions would have increased the cap on properties not lived in by the owner, which would include rental properties. But McQueen said housing advocates and others fought against that provision, saying that owners would simply pass any property tax increase onto tenants, many of whom are already struggling to pay rent in a hot rental market here.

About one-third of all residences in the state are not occupied by the owner, according to a Legislative Finance Committee evaluation of McQueen’s 2020 bill. There were 943,208 residential properties in the state in 2018, according to the analysis, and 637,609 of them were owner-occupied.

The analysis also concluded that the bill’s effect on local tax revenues would vary widely across the state, which has many towns and counties where market values are increasing less than 3%, anyway. The bill’s effects would overall be “very moderate” on local governments’ revenues, according to the report.

A 2021 report on a similar version of the bill found that the changes could generate $8 million for local governments when it goes into effect.

This year, McQueen took out the language that would have made his bill applicable to rental properties, and he found a Republican co-sponsor — Jason Harper (R-Rio Rancho.) Harper did not respond to a request for comment.

McQueen said he hopes the bill will have a better shot this year, though he acknowledged that the 2022 session is packed. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has included one housing reform bill on her call but has not listed housing as one of her major priorities.

This year’s bill has not yet been evaluated for how much tax revenue it would generate.

The housing bill touted by advocates this year gives tenants more time to come up with rent once they are served with an eviction notice, among other changes, and has the support of tenant advocates and the Apartment Association of New Mexico, which advocates for landlords and property owners.

Airman gets life in prison for death of Mennonite woman - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

An Air Force airman has been sentenced to life in prison in the death of a Mennonite woman whom he kidnapped from northwestern New Mexico, fatally shot and left in the freezing cold outside Flagstaff, Arizona.

Mark Gooch, 22, was convicted of first-degree murder and kidnapping in October. The body of Sasha Krause, 27, was found face-down in a forest clearing with her hands bound with duct tape. She had been shot in the head.

Gooch expressed no emotion when he was sentenced Wednesday in Coconino County Superior Court.

Prosecutors argued Gooch was driven by a disdain for the Mennonite faith that he grew up with in Wisconsin, exhibited by text message exchanges with his brothers. Gooch's attorney tried to raise doubt with jurors that Gooch was responsible.

Gooch and Krause didn't know each other but both grew up in big families and in the Mennonite church. Krause joined, but Gooch rejected the faith and enlisted in the Air Force where he worked as a mechanic.

Authorities used cellphone and financial records and surveillance video to tie Gooch to the crimes.

Indigenous woman to lead Smithsonian American Indian museum - Associated Press

An Indigenous New Mexico woman has been named to lead the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

Cynthia Chavez Lamar will be the first Native American woman to serve as the museum's director when she takes over on Feb. 14. She's currently the acting associate director for collections and operations.

An enrolled member at San Felipe Pueblo, Chavez Lamar is an accomplished curator, author and scholar whose research has focused on Southwest Native art. Early in her career, she was a museum intern and later an associate curator from 2000 to 2005.

"Dr. Chavez Lamar is at the forefront of a growing wave of Native American career museum professionals," said Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian. "They have played an important role in changing how museums think about their obligations to Native communities and to all communities."

Chavez Lamar, whose ancestry also includes Hopi, Tewa and Navajo, will oversee the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the museum's George Gustav Heye Center in New York and the Cultural Resources Center in Maryland, which houses the museum's collections and its curatorial and repatriation offices.

The museum has one of the largest and most extensive collections of Native and Indigenous items in the world. It includes more than 1 million objects and photographs and more than 500,000 digitized images, films and other media documenting Native American communities, events and organizations.

Chavez Lamar said in a statement that she looks forward to leveraging the museum's reputation to amplify Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in the interest of further informing the American public and international audiences of "the beauty, tenacity and richness of Indigenous cultures, arts and histories."

During her tenure as assistant director for collections, Chavez Lamar established partnerships with tribes and developed a loan program for tribal museum and cultural centers that provides training and technical assistance to enhance stewardship and reconnect tribal descendant communities with the museum's collections.

Albuquerque schools confirm ransomware attack, resume class - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Albuquerque Public Schools officials said Tuesday a cyber threat that forced the district to cancel classes for two days last week was a ransomware extortion attack.

Ransomware attacks hold institutional data hostage, such as by locking it away through encryption and offering the key to access it in exchange for money. In Albuquerque, that included the student information system, which records attendance, emergency contacts, and lists of which adults are authorized to pick up which children from school.

Personal data can be repurposed by cybercriminals to commit other crimes, such as identity fraud, but school officials say they don't think that happened.

"At this time, there is no evidence that information about staff, students and families was compromised," said Albuquerque school district superintendent Scott Elder.

Two days of closures last week affecting some 75,000 students will have to be made up later in the year, like snow days.

Many details of the attack are being withheld citing an ongoing investigation into the hackers. Elder declined to say if a ransom has been paid, and said that such a measure would be a "public process."

Classes resumed Tuesday thanks to a workaround that allowed teachers to access the student information systems, Elder said.

Governor wants tax cuts, crackdown on crime in election year - By Morgan Lee And Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers are pushing to tap an unprecedented windfall of state income to shore up resources for public education, policing, health care and climate regulation at a 30-day legislative session that began on Tuesday.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, called on the Legislature to support new investments in teacher salaries, tuition-free college, the expansion of police forces and care for aging military veterans — while slashing taxes on sales and Social Security benefits.

"We have right now unimaginable financial resources," Lujan Grisham said in her annual State of the State address. "When we have the money to do it all, let's not limit ourselves."

She also called for tougher penalties for some violent crimes and legislation aimed at keeping more people accused of violent crime behind bars while awaiting trial. Public defenders have cautioned pretrial release is not linked to increases in violent crime rates.

"We are going to pass a law this session that will keep violent criminals behind bars until justice can be done. We will put a wedge in the revolving door of violent crime in New Mexico," said Lujan Grisham, who is seeking a second term in the fall election. The state House, where Democrats have a 45-24 advantage over Republicans, also is up for election in November.

Republican leaders noted that cracking down on crime has been among their top priorities for years and their legislative efforts have been rebuffed by the governor and the Democratic majority. They suggested Tuesday that the governor is rallying behind the issue only now because frustrated residents will be going to the polls this fall.

"For years past, when Republicans brought forth proposals that would have answered many of these problems, they were cast aside," Senate Minority Floor Leader Greg Baca of Belen said.

The governor delivered her speech by webcast from her office, rather than the House floor, as a precaution against the coronavirus, while legislators of all political affiliations wore masks.

A blend of online and in-person deliberations are anticipated at the state Capitol, where proof of vaccination — and booster shots — are required for members of the public seeking entry. Legislators are exempt from some requirements.

"I'm proud of how we have responded to the crisis," Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe said as the session convened. "We have found ways to come together safely."

Outside the Capitol building, a handful of sign-carrying protesters denounced vaccination requirements as infringements on individual freedoms. Republican Sen. Craig Brandt bristled at a restriction preventing senators from inviting children and other relatives onto the Senate floor for opening-day ceremonies, calling it "ridiculous." House members were accompanied by family.

Many legislative proposals take aim at violence and urban crime and were stoked by outrage over a record-breaking year for homicides in Albuquerque in 2021.

"There is a massive amount of crime, a crisis in Albuquerque," Egolf said in an interview. "It is caused by many different factors. That means we have to have multiple solutions. There's no one answer."

Lujan Grisham's budget recommendations would set aside $100 million to help recruit, hire and retain law enforcement officers and staff across the state. A variety of enhanced sentences for gun-related crimes are under consideration.

Democratic legislators are drafting legislation that would expand access to voting, in coordination with Lujan Grisham and New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat who oversees elections.

Legislators could decide to make Election Day a state holiday in New Mexico to encourage voting, with automated distribution of absentee ballots for residents who want to vote by mail or with drop-off ballots. The initiative counters a wave of new voting restrictions from Republican-led states.

New Mexico Republicans raised concerns Tuesday about several voting proposals, including a provision to allow voting at age 16 in local elections. They also said some counties have more people on their voter rolls than they do residents and suggested voters should be required to present identification at the polls.

Several Lujan Grisham initiatives take aim at transforming energy production and climate-related regulations in the nation's No. 2 state for oil production. Her administration's top environmental regulators are seeking $2.5 million for a new "climate change bureau" to oversee efforts to reduce emissions.

The bureau also may oversee forays by businesses into hydrogen production in New Mexico, using natural gas to make hydrogen, as the federal government jump-starts the industry with $8 billion in dedicated infrastructure spending. Legislators are pushing to approve local financial incentives to increase support for the efforts.

State economists foresee a $1.6 billion general fund surplus for the year that runs from July 2022 to June 2023, in excess of current spending obligations. Budget proposals from the governor and legislative leaders would increase annual state general fund spending by about $1 billion to nearly $8.5 billion.

The roughly 14% spending boost would shore up public school budgets and access to health care as the federal government winds down pandemic-related subsidies to Medicaid, the program that gives free health care to the needy.

Pay raises of at least 7% are proposed for public education workers and for most state government workers. The pay raises include higher minimum salaries for teachers and hefty pay and retention increases for state police officers.

Without federal funding, Baca suggested New Mexico won't be able to sustain such high levels of spending over time.

Plant count increases ahead of New Mexico marijuana sales -Associated Press

New Mexico regulators have doubled the number of marijuana plants that licensed growers can cultivate as the state prepares for recreational sales to start this spring, officials announced Tuesday.

Increasing the plant count makes sense "to ensure that everyone can maximize the benefits of a thriving cannabis industry," said state Cannabis Control Division Director Kristen Thomson.

The division also needs to ensure that supplies remain consistent for the tens of thousands of New Mexicans who participate in the state's medical marijuana program.

But some marijuana industry players are concerned that the change is too little and too late to meet demand because of the time it takes time to put in place the needed infrastructure and for plants to grow.

Officials with Ultra Health, the state's largest cannabis producer, told the Albuquerque Journal that the rule change likely wouldn't significantly change the amount of cannabis that will be available by April. It typically takes around 5½ months to get a plant in the ground and ready for harvest.

"We're probably not going to receive any relief in the remaining 74 days to April 1," said Ultra Health President and CEO Duke Rodriguez.

Ultra Health has filed multiple court challenges against state agencies and requested emergency rule changes in the past to increase the plant count. Rodriguez said he would like to see the state abolish plant counts altogether and take a market-based approach.

Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said increasing plant counts now undermines previous work by advocates and lawmakers to keep the industry from being dominated by a handful of large-scale producers.

The rule change does not allow micro producers authorized for fewer than 200 plants to grow more of them. Their plant counts are set by statute and state officials say legislative action would be needed for the micro producers to be allowed to grow more plans.

"Equity and fairness are foundational principles of New Mexico's vision for the state's cannabis industry," Thomson said. "We will work with legislators and the governor to ensure those values are upheld and that micro producers see increased plant count limits as soon as possible."

New Mexico's cannabis law was signed last year by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat. It set a deadline of April 1 for recreational sales to begin. The state has estimated that annual recreational sales could reach $300 million in the first year.

Unlike other states, New Mexico has no limit on the number of producer licenses that can be issued.

About 290 applications have been submitted so far and 30 have been approved. The state has also renewed licenses for 34 existing medical cannabis producers.

US announces $83M in latest round of tribal housing grants - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Emergency management officials on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota have a new building, but they have been operating out of an old jail that's set to be torn down.

That's because the new building near a small airport doesn't have water and sewer connected, said Lislie Mesteth, who runs the Oglala Sioux Tribe's solid waste program. A new round of grant funding that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Tuesday will make those connections and help emergency responders into their new digs.

"They never had enough money to get it built entirely, so we've been doing little grants here and there," Mesteth said.

The $3.4 million grant to the Oglala Sioux Tribe is part of a third round of "imminent threat funding" from HUD, using money from the American Rescue Plan Act. The latest infusion — $83 million — will benefit 74 tribes across the country and boost the total amount awarded so far to $209 million spread among 191 tribes.

"This is thankfully, historic levels of funding in this particular program, and I know we're grateful for it, and I know the tribal communities are as well," said Adrianne Todman, deputy secretary of HUD. "This is a fair amount of money."

At least one more round of funding is coming with the remaining $71 million, she said.

Tribes have been eagerly awaiting the money to cover cost overruns for existing projects and to start new ones. Tribal officials had expected more grant funding to be released last year and have been texting, emailing and calling each other routinely for updates.

The Native Village of St. Michael in Alaska faces a housing shortage and wanted to ensure it could start building 26 tiny homes when the weather is good. The tribe got word Tuesday it will get more than $1 million for the project.

"This is once-in-a-lifetime funding for tribes," said Hattie Keller, a housing consultant for the tribe.

The tribe already built gravel pads for the homes using $1 million in federal virus relief funding. The village still needs to secure additional grant funding for water, sewer and electric poles, Keller said. About 430 people live in the village that has fewer than 100 houses, she said. Tribal leaders plan to offer the new homes as rent to own.

Tribes in Arizona and New Mexico have been awarded grants in all three rounds for housing, sanitation services, internet access and health care facilities, and to help families struggling to pay housing and utility bills during the pandemic.

Elsewhere, the Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing Authority in Wyoming will use its $1 million grant to buy a couple of mobile medical units to aid its COVID-19 response. The Round Valley Indian Housing Authority in California will use $1.7 million to renovate homes and develop a food bank. And the Nansemond Indian Nation in Virginia will expand and renovate a community center with its nearly $1 million grant.

Todman acknowledges the grants won't be enough to fulfill all the needs in Indian Country. She said budget proposals have included increased funding.

HUD typically awards about $70 million annually through its Indian Community Development Block Grant program for competitive grants and $4 million for imminent threat grants. About 200 tribes apply each year, but only about 80 are funded, HUD spokesman Michael Burns said.

All of the American Rescue Plan Act money for the grants was designated as imminent threat, making it available on a first-come, first-served basis. HUD switched up its approach from awarding grants under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act from releasing it in one batch to doling it out in rounds to give some tribes more time to apply.

HUD also raised the maximum amount that could be awarded through American Rescue Plan Act funding by 15% because it was a bigger pot of money and construction costs have soared, Burns said. The agency first considered requests that weren't funded under the CARES Act before taking new applications.

Tribes are required to report back to HUD on how the money is being spent.

Emergency management officials on the Pine Ridge reservation were using the grounds outside their new building Tuesday to make COVID kits. Much of their supplies are stored in shipping containers at the old jail that the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to tear down once they move out, tribal officials said.

The Oglala Sioux's emergency manager, Steve Wilson, said tribal officials have been working out of the concrete jail for several years, even though it's been condemned. He said the electrical system is outdated and the building is inefficient.

The tribe applied for a HUD grant for the water and sewer in the new building in 2020 but didn't get it and was placed on a priority list for funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, he said. Construction of the new building started in 2019 but was delayed by a flood and the response to COVID, Wilson said.

Some finishing work still needs to be done, along with work on the computer network.

"I'm hoping summertime, we can get everything moved over to that place," Wilson said.

Mesteth also turned to HUD to request funding to restore a pump for a well in the village of Pine Ridge, connect 30 homes to the water system, repair broken water pipes in residents' homes and remove dilapidated mobile homes that are a health risk, she said. HUD fully funded the requests.

"This is really significant," she said. "This imminent threat one will be good, really good."

New Mexico sees greatest number of pedestrian deaths in decade -KRQE TV, Associated Press

Albuquerque officials are renewing their pledge to prevent pedestrian deaths as New Mexico sees the highest number of them in a decade.

KRQE-TV reports a new director will oversee Albuquerque's Vision Zero initiative Tuesday, working with a $4 million budget to design more secure roads and pedestrian crossings.

Mayor Tim Keller announced the Vision Zero program in 2019 with an aim to eliminate pedestrian fatalities by 2040.

But for the past two years, there have still been dozens of pedestrian deaths in Albuquerque each year. They include the tragic hit-and-run death of a 7-year-old boy just before Christmas.

According to the New Mexico Department of Transportation, 99 pedestrians were killed on New Mexico roadways last year. That is a significant bump from 81 in 2020 and 83 in 2019.

Patrick Montoya, director for the Department of Municipal Development, said the city continues to review intersections that seem to be hotspots for traffic incidents. Officials are also looking at how to bolster crosswalks.

At the same time, he says, pedestrians and drivers have to behave responsibly too.