FRI: Governor Signs $7.4B Budget, Health Secretary Says NM Nearing Herd Immunity, + More

Apr 9, 2021

  

New Mexico Governor Signs $7.4B State Budget, Vetoes Relief - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed Friday a $7.4 billion general fund spending plan for the coming fiscal year that boosts state funding for public education, early childhood services and more — while using her veto pen to assert sole authority over $1.6 billion in new federal pandemic relief funding.

General fund spending will increase by 5% during the fiscal year that starts July 1, with more than one-third of the increase directed toward education.

The governor vetoed the Legislature's recommendations for spending more than $1 billion in federal relief on initiatives that avoid future payroll tax increases on businesses, underwrite college tuition for in-state students, backfill lost income at state museums and more.

New Mexico's $1.6 billion share of financial relief approved by President Joe Biden and Congress dwarfs that state's incremental annual increases in spending on state agencies and education.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the state is waiting on instructions from the U.S. Treasury Department on how relief funds may be used — and that the executive branch of state government has full authority to assign the money. That clashes with legal interpretations from leading legislators.

"It falls to the executive to appropriate federal funds — once that guidance is received, the state will allocate those funds to effective and appropriate use, hopefully with some aspects being analogous to what the Legislature had in mind," Sackett said in an email.

She signaled that the governor supports the Legislature's proposal to funnel $600 million in relief funding to the state's depleted unemployment insurance trust fund to stave off future payroll tax increases on businesses.

Lujan Grisham wrote a letter Wednesday to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen that seeks explicit approval to channel new federal relief dollars toward the state's unemployment trust, citing a current $234 million fund deficit covered by federal loans.

It was unclear whether the governor shares other priorities with the legislature, such as a $100 million vetoed appropriation to the state lottery scholarship fund. Lottery tickets sales support the scholarships that have dwindled from 100% tuition coverage for qualified students in the past to about 65% on average.

Senate finance committee Chairman George Muñoz of Gallup defended the Legislature's authority to assign federal relief through its vetting process — and said that shoring up the unemployment insurance trust is crucial for local businesses.

"The way I interpret the law, if the federal money is not accounted for, then we have the authority," Muñoz said. "At the end of the day, we left her $500 million to spend where she wanted."

Lujan Grisham indicated that she signed all major financial provisions of the Legislature's general fund spending plan, including a 1.5% raise for public employees across state government, public schools and universities.

Lujan Grisham highlighted increased spending on services for mental health and addiction treatment, a closing fund that offsets infrastructure costs for private business expansions and relocations, and $300 million in roadway improvements. She highlighted $12 million in new spending toward her "opportunity scholarship" initiative that augments financial assistance for in-state college students.

In a statement, Lujan Grisham called the budget "responsible and responsive to the needs of New Mexicans."

"This legislative season has been a remarkable success for New Mexicans in every corner of our state – with almost a billion dollars in new targeted pandemic relief for businesses and workers," she said.

The budget bill leaves behind estimated financial reserves of $1.7 billion. Lawmakers are wary of depleting reserves because of the state's reliance on income from the oil and natural gas that can suddenly surge or plummet.

Lujan Grisham signed a companion infrastructure bill that provides $511 million for public works projects. That includes $48 million for projects in Native American communities, $34 million toward public school construction and $53 million for roadways.

Official Says New Mexico Moving Faster Toward Herd ImmunityAssociated Press

Health officials said Friday that New Mexico is moving faster than any state in the U.S. toward herd immunity, with one-third of adult residents now fully vaccinated.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said milestones such as this show that the state's vaccination campaign is working.

Overall, state data shows more than half of residents 16 and older have received at least a first shot. That puts the state in the lead when it comes to vaccine distribution nationwide.

New Mexico received more than 131,000 doses this week, marking a 35% increase. Collins said during a recent briefing that next week's allocation won't be as high, with just under 110,000 doses expected.

New Mexico has seen a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases in recent days that has pushed the seven-day rolling average up, but health officials said vaccinations by far are outpacing the number of new confirmed cases and that has helped the state to meet nearly all of its benchmarks. Still, officials said they have concerns about emerging variants and will be monitoring developments in neighboring states.

New Mexico Governor Vetoes Include Police Oversight ReformsAssociated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has vetoed a bill to overhaul oversight of police training and misconduct reviews

The governor said in a veto message Friday that the bill would have changed the composition of the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy Board and eliminated two citizen members unaffiliated with law enforcement.

"Eliminating these members would insulate the board from any civilian oversight, a necessary accountability measure," Lujan Grisham wrote.

The veto strikes down a bill that also included an increase in financial payouts to relatives of officers killed in the line of duty. The governor voiced no objection to that provision.

The vetoed policing reform bill was sponsored by Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup and Republican Sen. Stuart Ingle of Portales.

The Legislature abandoned a policing reform proposal from Democratic Rep. Antonio Maestas that sought to restructure police recertification and misconduct reviews.

Lujan Grisham vetoed at least seven bills on Friday, the deadline for enacting legislation from a 60-day annual legislative session that ended March 20.

New Mexico Governor Gets Request To Send Troops To US Border - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell on Friday asked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to deploy New Mexico National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border as more migrant families and unaccompanied children arrive, but the Democratic governor's office suggested that she redirect her concerns to the federal government.

Herrell, the state's sole Republican member of Congress, wrote in a letter to the governor that the state is on the front lines and the influx amounts to a public health threat that could compromise the progress New Mexico has made in curbing the coronavirus pandemic. She said that since President Joe Biden's election, the situation at the border has worsened due to both perception and the policies of his administration.

"The U.S. Border Patrol is overworked, undermanned and under-supplied," Herrell wrote. "It is your duty as the governor of our great state to protect our citizens from both COVID-19 and the cartels that cross our border."

The governor's office said the National Guard has been busy with efforts to keep New Mexicans safe during the pandemic by staffing COVID-19 testing sites, delivering food, water and other supplies to communities and helping with the vaccination campaign.

"We encourage the congresswoman to most effectively address her own concerns by directing them to the federal agencies working on the issue," Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told The Associated Press in an email.

The governor's office had no comment about the recent cases of children being abandoned along the border in southern New Mexico.

The U.S. Border Patrol on Thursday reported nearly 170,000 encounters with migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border in March, marking a 20-year high. That includes nearly 19,000 children traveling alone across the border, which was the largest monthly number ever recorded. March's count was roughly double the number of unaccompanied children encountered by the Border Patrol in February and more than five times the number in March 2020.

Border Patrol agents earlier this week located a group of migrants near Lordsburg after getting a call for assistance from a resident. A woman in the group who had an 8-year-old boy with her said she had found the child walking alone in the desert and took him in as they made their way to the border.

The unaccompanied boy was transferred to a processing center pending placement with the Health and Human Services Department, which has been struggling to find temporary housing for tens of thousands of migrant children.

"The number of people attempting to cross our southern border is unprecedented and something must change in order to deter migrants from making that life-threatening journey," Herrell wrote the governor. "I believe that change is deploying National Guard troops to the border, and I again call on you to do so."

In neighboring Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has accused the Biden administration of ignoring the situation along the southern border.

Ducey has been pushing for the administration to fund a border deployment. When asked Thursday whether he would be willing to use state funds to send National Guard troops to the border, Ducey said the state would "use every tool, authority and resource that we have to be successful on the southern border" but noted that Arizona would need to work together with the federal government.

Navajo-Gallup Water Project Advances After Agency AgreementFarmington Daily Times, Associated Press

Federal, tribal and state officials in New Mexico have signed an agreement clarifying the regulatory roles and responsibilities, including drinking water regulations, for a proposed project on the Navajo Nation.

The Farmington Daily Times reported Thursday the Navajo Nation, New Mexico Environment Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed the 15-page memorandum of understanding on multiple dates in March and April.

"Drinking water jurisdiction across northwest New Mexico is incredibly complex, involving a mix of federal, state, tribal and private entities. The MOU clarifies government oversight and regulatory roles and responsibilities of the parties involved," a joint statement said.

The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, which consists of about 280 miles (450 kilometers) of pipeline, pumping plants and two water treatment plants, is expected to be completed by the Bureau of Reclamation in 2027. The project will deliver water from the San Juan River Basin in Gallup to 43 chapters on the Navajo Nation.

"With the signing of this MOU, we as current leaders, are moving forward together on the path to providing clean drinking water to thousands of Navajo people. Many families will soon have access to running water in their homes thanks to the work being done with our state and federal partners," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

The project is a major component of the settlement agreement between the tribe and the state for water usage in the San Juan River Basin. The memorandum announced Wednesday "respects the jurisdiction" of each agency, said James Kenney, the cabinet secretary for the state Environment Department.

The collaboration advances the project and assures the delivery of a safe and sustainable water supply, said Deborah Jordan, acting regional administrator for the EPA. Construction was authorized in a federal measure passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in 2009.

New Mexico Governor Signs Bill To Require Paid Sick Leave - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation Thursday requiring that employers throughout the state provide paid sick leave to workers.

Signed Thursday, the Democrat-sponsored legislation ensures that employees accrue an hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, up to 64 hours of leave annually.

The law takes effect on July 1, 2022 — a delay in concession to employers who argued that businesses already are under intense financial pressure from the pandemic.

Democratic legislators argue the requirement is essential to ensuring public health and a stable workforce. They advanced the bill over unified Republican opposition in the state House and Senate.

Lujan Grisham said the coronavirus has driven home the need for paid sick leave.

"No one should ever be compelled to come to work when they are sick," she said in a statement.

The governor also signed a bill that increases the surtax on insurance premiums from 1% to 3.75% to shore up subsidies to health insurance policies for low- and moderate-income patients provided through New Mexico's health insurance exchange.

The changes proposed by state Democratic Sens. Martin Hickey of Albuquerque and Jeff Steinborn of Las Cruces are offset by the recent elimination of a federal fee on insurance. The governor's office says the law will eliminate copayments and cost sharing by patients to access mental health services.

Lujan Grisham, a first-term Democrat, also signed a bill that allows air-quality regulators in the Albuquerque area to adopt more stringent rules than current federal requirements and give the state a stronger hand in limiting air pollution.

The governor has until Friday to sign or veto bills approved during a 60-day legislative session that ended March 20, including a $7.5 billion state spending plan for the coming year. The governor also can veto a bill from the closing days of the session by ignoring it.

Effort Advances To Recall Cowboys For Trump Founder - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A state district court judge says an effort can move ahead to try and recall Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin from his seat as an Otero County commissioner on accusations of using the office for personal gain.

District Court Judge Manuel Arrieta on Thursday ruled in favor of a group of recall petitioners who say Griffin had repeatedly abused his authority as a county official and should be subject to a recall election this year.

Retired military veteran Paul Sanchez and other members of the Committee to Recall Couy Griffin say he used a county office building to raise money for Cowboys for Trump and then pay off personal expenses. They also allege Griffin failed to attend commission meetings, filed for reimbursement of improper travel expenses and later accepted an envelope of cash from the leader of a business association to offset those travel expenses.

If the ruling stands or is upheld by a higher court, the recall effort next must gather an estimated 1,600 signatures in Griffin's commission district — a figure that represents one-third of recent voters. A successful petition would trigger a special election within 90 days.

Otherwise, Griffin is up for possible re-election in 2022 for a second, four-year term.

Griffin called the allegations frivolous, baseless and politically motivated. He left the court proceedings abruptly to rejoin a county commission meeting and didn't return.

Afterward, Griffin said he is likely to appeal the ruling — arguing that the proceedings were tilted against him by a judge initially appointed by former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, and that an all-Democratic state Supreme Court was unlikely to overrule the decision. 

"I feel like I was just really railroaded," said Griffin, an outspoken advocate for gun rights and strict border and immigration enforcement.

The recall petition ruling is among mounting legal challenges for Griffin, who was arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol. Griffin, who was videotaped on the steps of the Capitol but not inside, denies allegations that he knowingly entered barricaded areas of the U.S. Capitol grounds with the intent to disrupt government as Congress considered Electoral College results.

Griffin, a former restaurant owner and rodeo-style entertainer for Disney, also is appealing to a federal district court to shield from disclosure the identity of financial contributors to Cowboys for Trump. State election regulators say the group is a political committee subject to disclosure requirements.

Sanchez and other members of the Committee to Recall Couy Griffin say Griffin filed the improper travel voucher to pay for a trip to Washington for a convention of county commissioners. He says Griffin took along a horse and trailer and made detours for activities related to Cowboys for Trump, a group that has held horseback-riding parades across the country in support of President Donald Trump.

Griffin says he got approval to reimburse his drive to Washington from other county officials — and stopped in New York with his horse on Sept. 11 to honor first responders in the 2001 terrorist attacks and was ultimately invited into the White House for a conversation with Trump about New Mexico.

Sanchez said Griffin later solicited gifts from the executive director of the Alamogordo chamber of commerce to cover the travel expenses in defiance of state statutes about government conduct and political gifts. Griffin says the money was used to reimburse the county to repair the mistakes of other county officials.

Sanchez also told the judge that Griffin used the Otero County office building to produce promotional videos for Cowboys for Trump and to solicit contributions to the group that covered his personal expenses. Sanchez presented the image of a child support check for $350 signed by Griffin to his ex-wife from a Cowboys for Trump account.

Griffin said that was appropriate because Cowboys for Trump is a for-profit limited liability corporation and not a political expenditure group.

"I didn't feel like I did anything wrong," Griffin said. "They're trying to say that it's a political action committee, but that's still on appeal."

State prosecutors are in the midst of a criminal investigation involving Griffin, said Matt Baca, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. The agency in February carried out a search warrant for financial records related to Griffin and Cowboys for Trump.

New Mexico Makes Vaccine Appointments Easier For Seniors - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report For America

New Mexico is making it easier for senior citizens to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Department of Health announced Thursday that people 60 and up can schedule a vaccine appointment without first being offered one by health officials.

Since the vaccine rollout, seniors have had priority for the shots. But the system to set appointments was frustrating for them and at some times impossible for rural residents.

The appointments are offered by text or email on a first-come, first-served basis. They can close within hours of being sent. The locations where shots are offered also could be far from where people live, requiring as much as a four-hour roundtrip drive.

Under the new policy, New Mexicans 60 and up can register for an appointment online whenever they want. Vaccination sites in their area may be booked, but they don't have to wait for an invite and can check availability at their convenience.

The move effectively gives them first pick at appointments, ending the need for them to have 24/7 access to text messages and emails.

It follows a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found New Mexico lagged behind other states in distributing vaccines to highly vulnerable populations as well as a state health department announcement in February for a " vaccine equity plan."

All New Mexico residents 16 and up are now eligible for the vaccine, but appointments are limited.

The health department encourages people to sign up for the vaccine online but offers tech help by calling 1-855-600-3453, pressing "0" for vaccine questions and then "4" for tech support. That phone line is answered from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

New Mexico Latest State To Adopt Medically Assisted Suicide - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico has become the latest state to provide a legal pathway for terminally ill patients to choose when and how they die.

On Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, named for a New Mexico judge who advocated for medically assisted suicide laws in 2017, and died from cancer the following year.

"Dignity in dying — making the clear-eyed choice to prevent suffering at the end of a terminal illness — is a self-evidently humane policy," said Lujan Grisham, in a long statement crediting Whitefield and other advocates for fighting to secure the "peace of mind and humanity this legislation provides."

When the law takes effect on June 18, terminally ill patients with six months or less to live would be able to request lethal medication. 

The diagnosis must be agreed upon by two medical experts, and the patient must pass a mental competency screening. After a 48-hour waiting period, they could take their own lives. They'd have to take the lethal prescription themselves.

Some in the Senate initially opposed to the measure voted for it after amendments were made to disallow life insurance collection and strike a provision that would have given broad civil liability protection to medical workers who participate in the process.

The amendments "weakened this bill; but legalized assisted suicide in any form will only make it even harder for people with disabilities, people of color, and the economically disadvantaged to obtain quality medical care," said Matt Vallière, executive director of Patients Rights Action Fund, which opposes all such legislation. 

The group argues that insurance companies could cover medically assisted suicide instead of more expensive cures to an illness.

With Lujan Grisham's signature, there are now nine states — plus the District of Columbia — that have passed laws legalizing medically assisted suicide, according to the advocacy group Death with Dignity. 

The first passed in Oregon in 1997, and the number of terminally ill people dying in accordance with the law has steadily grown from fewer than 50 each year to 245 people in 2020, according to the Oregon Health Authority. A total of 67 people requested lethal medication in 2020 but didn't take it, and died naturally.

New Mexico is the second state after New Jersey with a third or more of its population identifying as Catholic to legalize medically assisted suicide.

Church leaders were "disappointed in the passage of HB 47 and the governor signing it into law," said Allen Sanchez, Executive Director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

"The Bishops had shared concerns about vulnerable persons possibly being affected negatively in this by either coercion or human error—In the same way that the bishops opposed the death penalty," Sanchez said.

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This story has been corrected to reflect the name of the group representing bishops. It is the state's Conference of Catholic Bishops, not the Counsel of Catholic Bishops.

Farmington Man Faces Charges In Capitol RiotAssociated Press

A Farmington man has been arrested for what authorities said was his acknowledged presence inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot.

Authorities say Shawn Bradley Witzemann acknowledged during an FBI interview that he was inside the Capitol and provided investigators with three videos he took while in the building.

The FBI said Witzemann, who travels to protests to provide live-streaming video coverage and takes part in a podcast called "The Armenian Council for Truth in Journalism," walked into the Capitol, made his way to the building's rotunda and shot video with his phone until an officer told him to leave.

Before entering the building, authorities say Witzemann tried to climb scaffolding to get a better view of the crowd but an officer told him to come down.

The FBI said it received a tip nine days after the riot that led them to Witzemann.

"My client has done nothing wrong," said Witzemann's attorney, Todd Bullion. "He is looking forward to vindicating himself in front of a jury of his peers."

Witzemann is charged with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, and other charges.

Solar Entrepreneur Becomes New Mexico's 1st Billionaire Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A longtime Albuquerque resident has been listed as a billionaire on Forbes' annual list of the richest people in the world.

The magazine published its latest rundown of global billionaires this week. The Albuquerque Journal reported that Ron Corio is the state's first billionaire.

He came to New Mexico in 1979 from New Jersey and launched Array Technologies, Inc. in 1989. The company makes tracking systems for solar arrays that move to follow the sun.

Forbes reported Corio is one of 2,755 global billionaires included on the list and one of 724 in the U.S. Forbes says he had a net worth of $1.1 billion as of Tuesday.

The Journal reported Array Technologies now controls 30% of the U.S. solar-tracker market.

Corio's company went public last October on Nasdaq Stock Market, raising more than $1.2 billion and pushing the firm's valuation at that time to about $3 billion.

Man Linked To 5 Killings In 2 States Makes Court Appearance - Associated Press

A New Jersey man facing murder charges in two states has made a court appearance as he awaits a possible indictment. 

Sean Lannon appeared by videoconference in Gloucester County, New Jersey, where he was charged last month with murder in the beating death of Michael Dabkowski. 

Lannon also is charged with murder in New Mexico in the slaying of his ex-wife and two of her friends whose decomposed bodies were found in a pickup truck parked at an airport. 

He is also suspected in the death of a fourth person found dead in the truck. 

Authorities arrested Lannon in St. Louis a few days after Dabkowski was killed. 

Lannon's attorney didn't comment after Thursday's proceeding.

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