FRI: Governor Says State Will Fully Re-Open July 1, Utility Stops Rio Grande Diversions, + More

Jun 18, 2021

  New Mexico Governor Says Opening Day Will Be July 1 - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday that all remaining pandemic-related public health restrictions on commercial and day-to-day activity in the state will be lifted July 1, clearing the way for restaurants and other venues to operate without any capacity limits and for cities to plan in-person Fourth of July celebrations and other summer festivals.

The Democratic governor made the declaration as state health officials continued to crunch the vaccination numbers following a push that included a multimillion-dollar sweepstakes, other cash incentives and offers that included free child care for those who needed it in order to get their shot.

Lujan Grisham wanted at least 60% of residents 16 and older to be vaccinated two weeks ahead of the reopening. Her office said vaccinations stood at 59.4% on Thursday but that health officials were waiting for more federal data to come in that would push the state closer to its goal.

Still, the governor said in a statement that she had hoped the vaccination numbers would be higher by now.

"The variants across the globe and in the U.S. present very serious risks to unvaccinated people, even young people," she said. "We all, each of us, have the power to stop the serious illnesses and deaths: Get your shot. It's safe. It works. It's that simple."

She vowed that the state would continue its vaccination campaign, saying that inoculations were the way out of the pandemic.

The July 1 reopening will mean that all businesses across the state can once again operate at 100% of maximum capacity levels.

However, state officials said businesses will still be authorized to require masks, distancing or other health precautions against the spread of COVID-19.

"I firmly believe limitless possibility awaits us on the other side of this crisis," Lujan Grisham said, "and I am confident that continuing to work together for the betterment of all New Mexico workers and families, we will be a national model for recovery, growth and new opportunity."

Republican lawmakers have been critical of the governor's handling of the pandemic, as have parents who were concerned about their children losing a year of learning because of the challenges of virtual schooling and the inability to participate in extracurricular activities.

Only this week did the state ease mask restrictions for student athletes during competition. Those students who are unvaccinated are still required to wear masks.

Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell accused the governor of setting what he described as "arbitrary goal posts." Pointing to other states that already have opened, Pirtle said the handling of the pandemic by state officials has been exhausting and infuriating for residents.

"There's no science or reason behind the continued shutdown," he said. "If 60% of our population with immunity was the goal, we should have been open weeks ago given the amount of positive recovered cases in our state."

State health officials have reported more than 204,600 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began last year. More than 4,300 deaths in the state have been linked to the virus.

The Health Department also announced Friday that the names of four people have been drawn as part of the state's vaccine sweepstakes. Each will win $250,000.

Their names have yet to be released as state officials were working to verify their vaccine status. They are from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Ruidoso.

Former US Congresswoman Eyed For Rural Development PostAssociated Press

Former U.S. Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small has been nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the under secretary for rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation announced Torres Small's nomination on Friday.

Supporters said her experience as a water rights attorney and her time on the U.S. House agriculture committee would serve her well if she's confirmed. Torres Small also was a member of the Blue Dog Coalition and Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus during her tenure in Congress.

"Xochitl has a deep understanding of the issues facing rural residents and businesses, and she brings unmatched energy and empathy to solving our nation's policy challenges," said U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico.

Torres Small, a Las Cruces Democrat, served one term before losing her re-election bid last year to Republican Yvette Herrell.

New Mexico State Workers Who Skipped Vacation Get Payout - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico will provide extra pay worth up to two weeks of salary for longtime state employees who skipped using their paid vacation time in 2020 amid the pandemic, under an initiative from the governor approved Friday.

The State Personnel Board unanimously approved the payout plan for rank-and-file executive-branch employees and political appointees at agencies under the control of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. It applies to state workers who have accrued large balances of vacation time that might otherwise expire.

Under ordinary circumstances, state employees lose without payment any unused vacation leave in excess of 240 hours at the end of the year.

State Personnel Secretary Ricky Serna said that the unused vacation time expiration deadline for 2020 was delayed under extraordinary circumstances. The governor's initiative offers up to 80 hours of salary to people who still have not used their excess vacation allotments, Serna said.

"Their call to duty made it very difficult for those employees to take that leave that they have earned," Serna said.

The initiative will cost an estimated $850,000 and affect 810 employees, he said. State workers still can decline the June payments and use their accumulated vacation time for 2020 until July 9.

The plan was approved as Lujan Grisham ramps up her campaign for reelection, amid a state general-fund budget surplus and pressure from public labor unions to restore proposed pay raises that were reined in by Legislators in June 2020.

Lujan Grisham has not yet released detailed plans for how $1.7 billion to New Mexico in new federal relief will be used from a package approved in March by President Joe Biden.

She has pledged a commitment to replenish New Mexico's depleted unemployment insurance trust, at a cost of up to $600 million, to stave off tax increases for businesses.

Serna said the vacation payouts that will be doled out next week recognize extraordinary efforts by many state workers during the pandemic.

"There were just a number of state employees at all levels that were just dedicated to being here day-in and day-out. This is a measure that recognizes that level of service," he said.

Serna said that state financial officials believe agency budgets have enough funding to cover the unused vacation time payments without new appropriations by lawmakers.

Serna noted that vacation options were limited during the pandemic.

Under aggressive public health orders, New Mexico previously shut down its state parks, museums and historical sites and intermittently ordered self-quarantines for travelers entering the state or returning to it.

Serna also oversees the state unemployment insurance system following the May departure of Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley.

New Mexico Official Delays Vote Over Stream Access Issue - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The debate over whether the public has a right to fish or float streams and other waterways that flow through private property has percolated for decades in many western U.S. states — and it has reaching a boiling point in New Mexico.

The state Game Commission, which oversees New Mexico's wildlife management agency and sets hunting and fishing rules for the state, was scheduled Friday to take up the applications of landowners who want to keep the public from accessing their stretches of streams without permission by certifying the waterways as non-navigable.

Chairwoman Sharon Salazar Hickey started the meeting by saying she planned to defer a vote on the applications after critics raised questions about a potential conflict of interest and suggested that she recuse herself from voting because of her daughter being offered a job at the same law firm representing the landowners.

Salazar Hickey's decision elicited both surprise and frustration from fellow commissioners and people who had traveled to Santa Fe for the public hearing.

While Salazar Hickey was adamant that she and the other commissioners had no conflicts, she said she believed it is important for the attorney general's office to conduct a review before the commission takes up the stream access issue again at an August meeting.

Marco Gonzales, an attorney for the landowners, said he did not know Salazar Hickey's daughter and also did not know she got the job offer at his firm, which is the largest in New Mexico and has attorneys licensed across the Southwest. He labeled Friday's delay of the hearing as a tactic that prejudiced his clients.

Salazar Hickey dismissed that characterization, saying she takes integrity and transparency seriously.

"This is the right thing to do," she said during the meeting. "We cannot take these issues lightly."

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, is among the people who have argued that public access to the waterways should not be limited, regardless of whether streams are classified as non-navigable. Many waterways in New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest flow intermittently and depend on snow or storm runoff.

Advocates of private property rights have argued that if access to the waterways is opened up in New Mexico, property values will decline and there would be less interest by private owners to invest in conserving tracts of land along streams. Some fishing outfitters and guides have said their business would be adversely affected.

Public access laws vary widely across the West. In Montana, courts over the years have expanded the public's right to use steams that cross private land.

A legal fight over access by anglers to riverbeds on private property is ongoing in Colorado, while a 2019 ruling by the Utah Supreme Court reinforced legislation that allows people to raft, boat or otherwise float on waterways but prohibits them from walking on the land beneath the water without getting permission from landowners.

The New Mexico Supreme Court has been asked by a coalition of anglers, rafters and conservationists to weigh in on the dispute. Their petition still is pending, and some who addressed the commission on Friday said they hoped the court would settle the matter before the Game Commission takes up the issue again in August.

Hickey also noted that the commission has been waiting for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, to appoint a seventh commissioner to fill a vacancy on the panel. It was not immediately clear if the governor plans to do that before the August meeting.

New Mexico Water Provider Stops Diverting From Rio GrandeAssociated Press

One of New Mexico's largest drinking water providers has stopped pulling from the Rio Grande to help prevent the stretch of the river that runs through Albuquerque from going dry this summer.

The curtailment that went into effect Friday came about two weeks earlier than last year when New Mexico also was mired in drought. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority said the curtailment likely will last until November.

In the meantime, the utility will rely exclusively on groundwater it referred to as a "savings account" for the region's drinking water supply.

Customers are being asked to adhere to restrictions on outdoor watering during certain times and days during the summer, and to conserve what they can to limit the strain on the aquifer.

"This week's heat wave is a reminder that Bernalillo County and most of New Mexico remains in severe to exceptional drought," said Steven Michael Quezada, chair of the utility's governing board.

Biden Picks Career Water Policy Adviser To Lead Water AgencyAssociated Press

Camille Touton, a veteran congressional water policy adviser, has been nominated to lead the agency that oversees water and power in the U.S. West.

President Joe Biden on Friday nominated Touton to be the next commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. If confirmed, the Nevada native will be a central figure in negotiations among several states over the future of the Colorado River.

Drought, climate change and demand have diminished the river that supplies 40 million people, and the agency is expected to mandate water cuts for the first time in 2022. Already, some states voluntarily have given up shares of their water under a drought plan.

Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico all rely on the river that flows from the Rocky Mountains into the Gulf of California.

Touton was named deputy commissioner in January after working on water issues for various congressional committees and as a deputy assistant secretary in the Interior Department under the Obama administration. She would be the first Filipino American to lead the Bureau of Reclamation.

The agency is responsible for water in 17 states and power in 13. It's the second-largest producer of hydropower in the United States, overseeing both Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. The agency manages 491 dams and 338 reservoirs, including Lake Mead and Lake Powell — the two manmade lakes where Colorado River water is stored.

Touton has undergraduate degrees from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a master's degree in public policy from George Mason University in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and daughters.

If confirmed, Touton would succeed Brenda Burman, who now works for an Arizona entity managing a canal system that delivers Colorado River water to the state's most populous areas.