FRI: Inmate Infections Boost State Virus Rate, Governor Signs Pandemic Relief Bill, + More

Feb 26, 2021

Infections Among Inmates Boost New Mexico's COVID Case TotalAssociated Press

New Mexico health officials confirmed an additional 659 COVID-19 infections Friday — marking the highest daily case total in more than three weeks.

The New Mexico Department of Health noted that 191 of the new cases involved inmates at a state lockup in Lea County.

State officials earlier this week expressed optimism about downward trends in the overall spread of the virus among the general population, with all 33 counties reporting positivity rates below 10%. However, they acknowledged that the seven-day rolling average of daily cases remained above the state's target.

In all, New Mexico has reported nearly 185,000 cases since the pandemic began over a year ago.

The death toll stands at 3,685, with more than a dozen deaths reported Friday.

The number of people registering to receive vaccinations continued to climb, with nearly 660,000 signed up.

State data shows more than 557,000 shots have been administered. That includes nearly 198,000 New Mexicans who have received their second shots.

New Mexico Governor Signs Bill To Preserve Abortion RightsAssociated Press

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed a bill to shore up abortion rights in New Mexico.

The legislation was signed Friday after previously winning final approval from the Democratic-led Legislature. It overturns a dormant 1969 ban on most abortion procedures and marks a defiant counterpoint to efforts in some conservative states.

Had the old statute been left in place, New Mexico's ban on most abortion procedures would have gone into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.

In signing the bill, the governor said a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body.

The legislation has implications for women who cross state lines for abortions in New Mexico, with out-of-state visitors accounting for 25% of statewide abortions in 2017.

A clinic in Albuquerque is one of only a few independent facilities in the country that perform abortions close to the third trimester without conditions.

Republican Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte argued that the measure weakens standards of care for women and strips conscience protections for medical professionals.

Las Cruces School Official Struck, Killed While Walking DogsAssociated Press

Police say the school superintendent for New Mexico's second largest city of Las Cruces was hit and killed by a minivan while walking her dogs.

Karen Trujillo was 50 and formerly headed the state Public Education Department. Word of Trujillo's death spread quickly through Las Cruces and prompted tributes on social media from the city's mayor and others.

District officials described her death as "an unimaginable loss," and state lawmakers paused during legislative meetings Friday to remember her.

Trujillo was married and had three children. She was also a former classroom teacher, school principal and administrator at New Mexico State University.

The district said efforts were underway to establish a memorial scholarship in Trujillo's name.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported Trujillo led Las Cruces Public Schools during the pandemic and a during a cyber attack that crippled the school system's computer systems.

Trujillo "made a significant impact on the young women and men she taught, counseled and led for decades across different roles," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "She leaves behind an unfinished legacy of credible service in New Mexico public education."

Trujillo started working as the Las Cruces superintendent in late 2019 after being abruptly removed as state public education secretary by Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, after only six months in that position.

Lujan Grisham at the time cited a lack of progress on sweeping education changes. Trujillo told the Sun-News she "felt like I did everything I could to turn the table about changing the conversation of what education and educators are in our state and how much they deserve to be valued."

Trujillo started her teaching career in Las Cruces in 1993 after receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics education from New Mexico State University.

She taught at Las Cruces High School for two years before pursuing her Ph.D. She also taught in Silver City and Truth or Consequences and served as an administrator at New Mexico State University.

Trujillo had been a newly elected Dona Ana County commissioner for just 27 days before the governor named her to the state post in January 2019. She ended up moving back to Las Cruces where the school board selected her to replace the superintendent who had resigned.

Tribes In Legal Limbo Over Federal Virus Relief Funding - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Nearly a year after Congress passed a coronavirus relief bill, some Native American tribes are still in legal limbo over what's been distributed.

The issue didn't become any more clear this week for three tribes who argued in a federal court hearing that they should get quick relief because they were shortchanged by the use of federal population data.

The Treasury Department has doled out all but about $530 million from the $8 billion set aside for tribes in the CARES Act.

Where it goes depends on the outcome of two cases in a federal district court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Shawnee Tribe in Oklahoma and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians in Florida were among those given the minimum $100,000 because U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data showed they had a population of zero. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas received an initial payment of $4.8 billion, but the tribe argues it should have received more based on its own enrollment data.

The tribes filed separate lawsuits that have been consolidated into one case, with the Shawnee Tribe as the lead plaintiff.

Virgin Galactic Delays Spaceflight Test To MayAssociated Press

Spaceflight company Virgin Galactic has postponed its next mission to space from New Mexico until at least May after a December test flight was aborted due to computer malfunction.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Thursday an investigation by the company found that electromagnetic interference caused the spaceship's onboard computer to reboot during the December flight.

That triggered a safety mechanism that shut down the engine and forced the VSS Unity's two pilots to abort the mission and glide back to Earth.

CEO Michael Colglazier said during a Thursday earnings call with investors that Virgin Galactic is now testing and installing new components to prevent electromagnetic interference before they attempt another test flight,

The company was created by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Its chairman is venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya.

New Mexico Governor Signs $200M Pandemic Relief MeasureAssociated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday signed legislation that will provide some relief to businesses that lost money in 2020 amid the pandemic and emergency health restrictions.

The measure will make available $200 million in grants and will be underwritten by a state job creation fund.

Businesses may qualify for grants of up to $100,000 that will be distributed in four quarterly payments. The money can be used to help pay for rent and mortgage obligations in exchange for the businesses rehiring workers or hiring new employees.

The governor and other lawmakers said the extra assistance will help get businesses back on their feet as many begin to reopen. Public health restrictions are being eased in more counties where positivity rates and daily case totals are declining. Just this week, more counties joined the ranks of those where indoor dining can be expanded along with other activities.

"We convened the 2021 session knowing that getting economic relief into local economies was the most critical action that we would take as lawmakers. Now we are continuing our work on subsequent bills. Help is on the way," House Speaker Brian Egolf said in a statement.

The applications and payments for the grants will be managed by the New Mexico Finance Authority, which is expected to make a formal announcement when the application portal opens.

Businesses will have to show that they lost revenue during at least one quarter between 2019 and 2020.

As part of the hiring requirements attached to the funding, state officials said benchmarks will be agreed to in advance and monitored by the Economic Development Department.

Legislature Approves Pandemic-Relief Loans To Business - Associated Press

A bill is headed to the governor's desk that would provide minimal-interest loans to businesses in New Mexico that lost income in 2020 amid the pandemic and emergency health restrictions.

The state House on Thursday voted 51-17 to approve a bill that expands eligibility for loans that will be underwritten by a multibillion state trust for infrastructure projects.

It would authorize loans of up to $150,000 to small businesses at sub-prime rates of less than 2% annual interest with a payback term of up to 10 years. 

Those terms are more generous to borrowers than the original relief program that provided about $40 million in loans last year. Previous borrowers can apply to refinance under the new terms, and new loans of up to $75,000 can be issued without collateral in case of default.

Lead sponsor Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque says the law is crucial to making relief funds more accessible to businesses for an extended recovery period. 

Loan disbursements of up to $460 million would be staggered through May 31, 2022.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has expressed support for the proposal.

New Mexico To Boost Vaccines For Seniors, Vulnerable Groups - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico health officials said Thursday they have a plan to boost COVID-19 vaccinations among older people and other vulnerable populations.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said during an online briefing that the plan calls for increasing shots among seniors by 10% over the next two weeks. The effort will include more outreach by providers, walk-in and locally scheduled clinics and the use of mobile vaccination teams.

Collins said more doses also will be allocated over the next three weeks to areas of the state that are considered particularly vulnerable based on the rate of infection and a series of factors that range from household income and minority status to the availability of housing and transportation.

She pointed to McKinley County as an example of one of the more at-risk spots in New Mexico.

"Really we're looking at taking a portion of our doses and ensuring that they go to those vulnerable populations," she said. "But keep in mind we're getting more doses each week so it's not like we're taking away doses from any one group. It's just that we're being very strategic about allocating to the most vulnerable."

According to the state's latest data, about 1 in 10 New Mexicans have been fully vaccinated and about 20% of the population has received the first shot.

Collins said the state is among the top three in the U.S. when it comes to distribution rates and is No. 1 in terms of using those vaccines most efficiently. That means the shots are going to places where they can do the most to stop spread and prevent death, she said.

New Mexico's positivity rate and daily case totals have been declining in recent weeks, but health officials acknowledged during the briefing that public health restrictions such as mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing continue to play a larger role in the downward trends than vaccinations.

Dr. David Scrase, head of the New Mexico Human Services Department, said it's still a "winning combination" to have vaccinations outpace new daily cases by more than 30 times.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also outlined the changes to the state's color-coded risk system, saying great progress has been made and each of the state's 33 counties now have a positivity rate below 10%.

That metric — along with the per-capita case rate — is used to determine whether counties are classified as red, yellow, green or turquoise and can relax more public health restrictions.

Under the newest low-risk category, indoor dining and occupancy rates at retail businesses, large entertainment venues, churches, gyms, bars and clubs is expanded. Gatherings of up to 150 people also are allowed. Four counties are in that turquoise category.

"It doesn't mean the virus is gone and it doesn't mean all the risk is gone," the governor said. "... We really do have to continue to be incredibly dedicated to all of the public health measures."

House Leader Seeks Anti-Discrimination Rules For Legislature - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf says he wants to add new provisions to legislative ethics rules that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender and sexual identity. 

Egolf told the news media on Thursday that he will ask a panel of leading lawmakers to incorporate elements of New Mexico's Human Rights Act into rules that apply to the Legislature and its staff. 

He said the request to the Legislative Council committee can't be made until late spring after the conclusion on March 20 of the current legislative session because of procedural constraints.

New Mexico established an independent State Ethics Commission by popular vote that last year began vetting concerns about compliance with state regulations on campaign finances, government contracting, gifts from lobbyists and more. 

At the same time, the Legislature maintains its own authority to investigate misconduct and reprimand, censure or expel members. 

Complaints are not publicly disclosed by the State Ethics Commission or Legislature without a finding of probable cause.

Egolf is confronting a complaint before the State Ethics Commission about charges he failed to inform the public about his work on civil rights reforms that might benefit his law practice. 

Egolf said the complaint from retired former district attorney and retired judge Sandra Price is a deliberate distraction. There has been no finding of probable cause.

Egolf is a co-sponsor of a bill to allow civil rights lawsuits in state court and rein in police immunity from prosecution.

New Mexico AG Opens Inquiry Into Utility Costs During Freeze - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's top prosecutor has opened an inquiry into utility costs during a winter blast that plunged New Mexico and other states into a deep freeze.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas says the weather emergency caused tremendous damage and he wants to ensure New Mexicans won't be further harmed by skyrocketing bills.

His office set a deadline of Friday for utilities to provide analyses of customer impacts and options for addressing the potential price shock. The utilities also are being asked to explain to their customers the circumstances and the steps being taken to mitigate the situation.

Utility executives testified Thursday before a panel of state lawmakers that they were able to cushion some of the blow by shifting from natural gas to fuel sources.

El Paso Electric tapped nuclear power from Arizona and fuel oil units, while Public Service Co. of New Mexico relied on the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station to meet demands.

Still, the executives acknowledged that higher natural gas prices ultimately will trickle down to customers through increases in their monthly bills.

The utilities plan to seek regulatory approval to spread the costs over 12 to 24 months to keep bills as low as possible.

Sen. Liz Stefanics, chair of the Senate Conservation Committee, said Thursday that some of her constituents have seen their monthly bills this winter increase by as much as 800%. She said a federally funded program to help low-income people with their energy bills won't go far enough because the assistance amounts to only a couple hundred dollars for the season.

“If we start talking about low-income and moderate-income individuals being saddled with a bill they cannot pay, we don't have any protections here,” she said. “This is a shortcoming in our statutes.”

Executives with El Paso Electric, Xcel Energy and PNM told New Mexico lawmakers that they tried to prepare but were still forced to buy some natural gas on the spot market.

Nationally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. already have announced that they would be looking into utility and transmission operations during the cold weather. Some members of Congress separately called for federal investigations into possible price gouging as natural gas spot prices spiked and millions of homes and businesses dealt with power outages.

With Xcel buying roughly half of its natural gas off the spot market, the company said preliminary estimates put the total cost for New Mexico and Texas customers at about $2 million. Profits from sales to other providers in the Southwest Power Pool will help offset that, but customers could still see their monthly bills increase by about $7 over a two-year period.

New Mexico Gas Co. officials said it's too early to know the impact on its customers' bills. They did say they would work with state regulators to minimize the effects to the greatest extent possible.

Under PNM's cost adjustment clause, there's a 5% cap on changes in customer bills.

Tom Fallgren, PNM's vice president for generation, said the utility had learned lessons from a record freeze in 2011 so equipment was winterized and protocols were in place for a situation like the one in mid-February. By having contracts already in place and making other preparations, he said PNM saved about $15 million for customers.

The utility executives talked about the benefits of being able to source natural gas from other areas and the ability to switch to other fuels to continue meeting demands. They said that kind of diversification will be key to avoiding problems in the future.

Fallgren said they're all on a path to get to 100% carbon-free generation but the manner in which that electricity is provided and its reliability will be critical. For example, he said, current battery storage technology is good for several hours but noted that some weather events can last days.

"I go back to that obligation to serve," he said. "As we look at the different generation providing opportunities, is it just a low-cost option that's available when it's available or does it also have the obligation to serve when these critical time periods come? I think if you look over the history of the electrical grid, we've always been making that trade-off of that cost versus that obligation to serve."

New Mexico Goes To Court Over Slow Cleanup At US Nuclear Lab - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico is going after the federal government for failing to make progress on cleaning up contamination left behind by decades of bomb-making and nuclear research at one of the nation's premier labs.

In a civil complaint Wednesday, the state says a plan by the U.S. Energy Department lacks substantive targets for dealing with waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The state is seeking to end a 2016 agreement that was meant to guide cleanup at the lab. The state's top environmental official says court supervision is needed to renegotiate the terms to protect the community and environment.

Federal officials didn't immediately respond to questions about the complaint.

The legal action comes as Los Alamos prepares to ramp up production of the plutonium cores that trigger nuclear weapons as part of a congressional mandate.

The work will be split between the lab in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The facilities face a deadline of making 80 cores per year by 2030, with the first 30 due in five years.

Watchdogs and environmentalists have voiced concerns that the plutonium work will create a new stream of waste that will have to be managed and disposed of when the Energy Department has had trouble cleaning up the legacy waste that remains from the Cold War era.

Aside from pushing for a more robust cleanup schedule, New Mexico is asking the court to issue a $333,000 civil penalty for the Energy Department's lack of compliance related to the existing consent order.

State officials said they have tried to resolve the issues with the agency through a dispute resolution process that began in October. The parties couldn't agree on a plan, and negotiations ended in January.

According to the complaint, hazardous and radioactive substances on lab property exceed standards and pose health risks to nearby communities and contaminated groundwater poses a long-term threat to state drinking water sources.

The filing also says Indigenous communities aren't able to engage in cultural uses of their lands near lab property and that recreational and economic activities in the area are at risk.

House Speaker Fencing Still Needed At New Mexico Capitol Associated Press

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf says security fencing that encircles the state Capitol building will remain in place through the end of the current legislative session on March 20 on the advice of state security officials including New Mexico State Police.

Egolf told news media in a video conference on Thursday that the fencing has had a "deterrent effect" and that he sees no reason to deviate from the advice of state security officials.

The fencing and road barricades were put in place in response to security concerns in the wake of the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump in an effort overturn the results of the presidential election.

Pro-Trump protests that day outside the Statehouse in Santa Fe were peaceful as lawmakers and staff evacuated the building.

The state Capitol is closed to the public as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, with hearings conducted largely online.

Republican legislators this week requested removal of the chain-link fences with concrete barriers, arguing that no threat was evident and that there shouldn't be a perception that government leaders are afraid of the state's citizens.

New Mexico Bill Would Mandate Anti-Racism School Training - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The New Mexico Legislature is considering a bill that would support African-American education.

The Black Education Act would allocate $200,000 to create an advisory council and educational liaison position within the Public Education Department. That would complement existing advisory bodies for Native American and Hispanic education.

The Black Education Act would also mandate basic anti-racism training for public school staff and increase the production of educational materials about Black culture for high school and college classes.

The proposal comes as Black New Mexico residents are increasingly represented in the legislative and executive branches.

The bill is sponsored by Harold Pope Jr.,  New Mexico's first Black state Senator and fellow Democrat and Majority Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton. Both are from Albuquerque.

It's the latest effort by Black leaders in the Legislature to combat systemic racism. Another bill aims to protect African Americans in schools by prohibiting discrimination based on traditional hairstyles.

New Mexico Court Rules Rape Protections Endure After Death Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that legal protections against rape extend to victims who are unable to express consent — including the dead.

The high court on Thursday upheld a rape conviction against a Clovis man accused of stabbing a woman and then raping her dead body. Lorenzo Martinez was convicted of murder and rape in the 2017 stabbing death of a 57-year-old woman.

Attorneys for Martinez argued that New Mexico law requires that a rape victim be alive at the time of the crime for rape statutes to apply. New Mexico has no law against defiling a corpse.

The Supreme Court also reaffirmed the murder conviction against Martinez despite a medical diagnosis of schizophrenia. He may be eligible for parole in 30 years.

If released, he would have to register as a sex offender for life and serve a term of parole from five years to life.

High Court Rejects 'Warrior Gene' Defense As Unreliable - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The state Supreme Court has upheld a murder conviction against a man who claimed a "warrior gene" made him predisposed to impulsive acts of violence.

In a unanimous decision, justices ruled that a lower court was justified in excluding evidence about a theory that lacks scientific reliability in the conviction of Anthony Blas Yepez for killing an elderly Santa Fe man in 2012.

The Supreme Court says evidence of mere genetic susceptibility to a given mental condition is not relevant on the issue of deliberate intent to kill.

Defense attorneys say Yepez was incapable of forming the intent.

Native American Nominee's Grilling Raises Questions On Bias - By Felicia Fonseca And Matthew Brown Associated Press

The confirmation hearing for Deb Haaland has raised questions about whether she's being treated differently because she is a Native American woman. 

Some Republican, white senators have labeled Haaland as "radical" over her calls to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and address climate change. 

Those who support the Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico say Haaland is being attacked for her ethnicity and beliefs that are widespread among Native Americans. 

She would become the first Native American to lead the Interior Department. 

Republicans expressed frustration at her lack of specifics during the hearing and say it's not about race.

Navajo Nation Reports 45 New COVID-19 Cases, 9 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Thursday reported 45 new confirmed COVID-19 cases with nine additional deaths. 

The latest numbers bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 29,655 since the pandemic began. 

There have been 1,161 reported deaths that were related to COVID-19. 

The Navajo Department of Health on Monday identified 21 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Feb. 5-18. 

That's an increase from last week's 15 communities, but down from 75 communities with uncontrolled coronavirus spread last month.

Jet Pilot Reports Unidentified Object In New Mexico SkiesAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

American Airlines has said a pilot flying a passenger jet sent a radio transmission reporting an unidentified object flying at high speeds in the skies above northern New Mexico during a flight from Cincinnati to Phoenix last Sunday.

A recording of the pilot's transmission was made by Steve Douglass, who calls himself a stealth chaser. The Federal Aviation Administration did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment but American Airlines confirmed the recording's authenticity.

The FBI told the Albuquerque Journal that it is aware of the pilot's transmission. White Sands Missile Range spokesperson Scott Stearns says the southern New Mexico facility did not conduct tests on Sunday.

Kirtland Air Force Base spokeswoman Lally Laksbergs said "We have no knowledge of this. We're not aware of anything.”

Douglass said that when the military conducts flight tests, it notifies the FAA, which makes sure there are no commercial airline flights in the area.

He added: "If the military can't explain what it is, what's flying out there that we don't know about?"

Navajo Police Say Officers Fatally Shoot Suspect Pointing GunAssociated Press

Navajo Nation police department says officers fatally shot an armed suspect who allegedly pointed a gun at them.

The department said the incident occurred Wednesday in St. Michaels, Arizona, after officers responded to a report of an armed suspect.

According to a department statement, the suspect drove off, prompting a pursuit that ended when police used a tire-deflation device to disable the suspect's vehicle.

The statement said the suspect got out of the vehicle and then was shot after pointing a gun at the officers. No identities were released.

The incident was being investigated by the tribal Department of Criminal Investigation and the FBI.