FRI: Officials Seek Student Testing Waivers, House Moves To Boost Early Education Funding, + More

Feb 12, 2021


New Mexico Asks To Skip Student Testing Again This Year - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

State officials confirmed Friday they are seeking permission from federal officials to waive standardized reading, math and science testing for another year, citing difficulties stemming from the pandemic.

The request comes as most class and study time is taking place remotely, and public health restrictions make it difficult to conduct thorough testing of math and reading, particularly at younger grade levels.

Teacher advocates have long opposed requirements for standardized testing and say they are even worse in light of the pandemic.

Without robust testing, however, policymakers are uncertain if and how much students are falling behind.

The federal waiver request goes against the recommendation of legislative researchers, who in January called for even earlier assessment of students.

Without a baseline, they said fall testing won't provide useful measures of progress. The Legislative Finance Committee estimated that students lost between three and 12 months of academic progress last summer.

If the federal waiver is granted and state tests are not implemented, New Mexico could go up to two years without rigorous statewide testing.

In asking for the waiver, the state Public Education Department argued that state assessments are still practically impossible because of COVID-19.

Supreme Court Upholds Pandemic Procedures At LegislatureAssociated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has rejected a Republican challenge to emergency procedures in the state House of Representatives that have moved hearings and deliberations almost entirely online as a precaution against COVID-19.

The high court declined to hear the lawsuit from leading Republican House legislators on Friday in a shortly worded order.

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf says that emergency legislative procedures that rely heavily on videoconferencing are necessary in light of the pandemic. He says more people are participating in online legislative hearings than could possibly fit physically into committee rooms under normal circumstances.

An unnamed Republican lawmaker tested positive in January for the coronavirus at the Capitol, along with several staff.

The Statehouse is closed to the public and lobbyists, while the House limits participation in floor sessions to the speaker and one additional legislator from each party.

The state Senate has its own pandemic rules that allow legislators to attend floor sessions in-person or remotely from an office in the state Capitol building. House members can participate from home.

The Democratic-led Legislature convened on Jan. 19 for a 60-day session.

New Mexico Reports 407 New Virus Cases, 23 Deaths FridayAssociated Press

New Mexico reported 407 new cases of coronavirus on Friday and 23 additional deaths.

The New Mexico Department of Health reported that the state has seen 179,724 cases and 3,502 deaths related to COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Bernalillo County had more new cases Friday than any other county with 127 positive COVID-19 results, followed by Doña Ana County with 80 cases. Sandoval County reported 38 cases and San Juan County reported 19 cases.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Navajo Nation Reports 66 New Virus Cases Friday, 6 DeathsAssociated Press

Navajo Nation officials on Friday reported 66 new COVID-19 cases and six more deaths.

The most recent numbers on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah bring the total number of cases to 29,167 an deaths to 1,103 since the pandemic began.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez issued a statement reminding people that a mask mandate is in place on the reservation and he encouraged the wearing of two masks after a U.S. government study this week found that wearing two masks can be better than one in protecting against coronavirus spread.

The tribe has a nightly curfew in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to limit the spread of the virus.

Tribal officials said more than 15,700 people have recovered from COVID-19 on the reservation and more than 230,000 tests have been administered.

New Mexico Weighs New Investments In Early EducationAssociated Press

The state House of Representatives on Friday endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment that could funnel more than a billion dollars toward early childhood education over the next six years in New Mexico.

The Democratic-dominated House vote Friday in favor of the initiative that would tap an additional 1% share each year from the state's $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund and expand beneficiaries to include prekindergarten.

A competing proposal sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth would increase trust distributions to K-12 education. Approval of the House plan sets the stage for compromise negotiations that might allocate new money to both early childhood education and K-12 schools.

Increasing withdrawals from the permanent fund from 5% to 6% would limit future earnings on investments and could limit spending on education in the long run.

Approval by the Legislature would trigger a statewide vote on the amendment during a future election, and Congress must also authorize changes to the state's land grant trust.

New Mexico's land grant fund distributed nearly $640 million to public schools during the fiscal year ending in June 2019.

New Mexico House Passes Proposal To List Capital ProjectsAssociated Press

The New Mexico House of Representatives has backed a bill that would require the Legislature to publish a list of capital projects approved each year, including details about project costs and sponsorship.

Currently, final projects are published, but not how much each legislator has allocated. The Albuquerque Journal reported that the state House voted 65-1 on Thursday.

The measure, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Matthew McQueen and Republican state Rep. Kelly Fajardo, has repeatedly failed to make it through the Senate.

But there are now 11 new members this year following the election. If approved, the bill would take effect immediately.

Fajardo said it is their job to be "transparent and accountable."

Democratic state Rep. Miguel P. Garcia was the lone dissenting vote, arguing legislators should be permitted to decide whether to release their list of projects, not media outlets.

If approved, the bill would take effect immediately.

Winter Storm Watch Issued For Much Of New Mexico For WeekendAssociated Press

Forecasters are warning of potentially hazardous driving conditions as storms bring rain and snow along with frigid temperatures to New Mexico.

The National Weather Service said a quick-moving system would bring rain and mountain showers to northwestern and west-central New Mexico into Friday evening and possibly drop a few inches of new snow.

A winter storm watch issued by the weather service says an arctic airmass and strong storm system then will bring significant snowfall, strong winds and "bitter cold temperatures" accumulations to northern and central parts of the state Saturday night through Monday morning.

Forecasters say they expected Albuquerque to get 3 inches of snow Saturday night through Sunday night.

According to forecasters, "travel could become difficult and visibilities reduced due to blowing snow."

Timing Of Next Virgin Galactic Flight Still Up In The Air - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Virgin Galactic has put off plans to make another attempt at a rocket-powered flight from New Mexico to the fringe of space.

The company said Friday it decided more time was needed for technical checks. While the flight window would have opened Saturday, the space tourism venture plans to look for another opportunity.

A storm system is expected to move across New Mexico this weekend, bringing with it frigid temperatures and snow in many locations.

The delay comes as the promise of commercial flights looms. The company has yet to announce a firm date for its first commercial flight. More than 600 customers from around the world have purchased tickets.

The last test flight attempt in December was cut short when computer trouble prevented the spaceship's rocket from firing properly.

Virgin Galactic has reached space twice before — the first time from California in December 2018. In June, Virgin Galactic marked its second successful glide flight over Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies looking to cash in on customers with an interest in space. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin company in January launched a new capsule as part of test as it aims to get its program for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts off the ground.

Abortion-Rights Bill Wins Decisive Vote In New Mexico Senate - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A bill to shore up abortion rights in New Mexico by repealing a dormant ban on most abortion procedures has won Senate approval on a 25-17 vote. 

Women senators took the lead Thursday in presenting the Democratic-sponsored bill that would repeal a 1969 statute. 

Republican senators were joined in opposition to the bill by two Democratic senators — Pete Campos of Las Vegas and George Muñoz of Gallup.

Efforts to overturn the abortion ban are supported by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The Senate-approved bill moves to the Democrat-dominated state House, where it has support from a broad majority.

Left in place, the abortion ban might go into effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. 

New Mexico's move to ensure future abortion access provides a counterpoint to 10 states where outright abortion bans have been proposed this year.

Republicans harshly criticized the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque, for declining to answer questions and engage in open debate about the bill.

Lopez was unapologetic in a brief concluding statement.

"I appreciate some of the mansplaining on the Senate floor today regarding reproductive choice," Lopez said. "We can hold our own moral values on abortion and still trust a woman, a pregnant person and her family, to make that decision for themselves. Reproductive rights are human rights."

New Mexico Governor Heads To DC To Talk Virus Relief - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham headed to Washington D.C. Thursday to meet with President Joe Biden and other governors about COVID-19 relief efforts. 

It marks her first trip out of the state since the pandemic began and comes just days after the state ended its quarantine requirements for visitors and residents returning to New Mexico. 

The governor's office says Lujan Grisham will be advocating for more federal funds and for continued increases in vaccine shipments. 

Lujan Grisham said earlier that week that the state is pushing for federal approval for mobile clinics that would be capable of administering the vaccine in more remote and underserved parts of the state.

The governor and health officials hope the novel effort can serve as a model for other states to expand distribution beyond population centers and large clinics.

The governor is scheduled to return to New Mexico late Friday.

New Mexico is among the top states in the U.S. when it comes to distribution rates, but many residents have become frustrated with the pace of vaccinations due to limited supplies. Nearly 610,000 New Mexicans — roughly 30% of the total population — have registered online for shots.

The latest data from the state Health Department shows more than 111,300 New Mexicans have been fully vaccinated, while nearly one-quarter of a million residents have received their first shot. 

New infections in New Mexico have been trending downward, and health officials said this week that vaccinations have helped bring the numbers down. However, they stressed that public health practices such as mask-wearing and hand-washing are still important as different variants continue to emerge.

New Mexico has reported nearly 180,000 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, including more than 540 additional cases on Thursday.

Navajo Nation Reports 53 New COVID-19 Cases, 11 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Thursday reported 53 new COVID-19 cases and 11 more deaths. 

The latest figures raised the totals to 29,098 cases and 1,097 known deaths since the pandemic began. 

Tribal officials said additional federal personnel are beginning to arrive to support vaccination efforts on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. 

The Navajo Department of Health has identified 44 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Jan. 22 to Feb. 4, down from 75 communities in recent weeks. 

The tribe has extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the virus' spread on the reservation. 

The Navajo Nation also is lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events.

New Mexico GOP Calls On Lawmaker Who Disaffiliated To Resign - Associated Press

The Republican Party of New Mexico has called on a state representative who disaffiliated with the party to resign. 

State Rep. Phelps Anderson earlier this month left the Republican Party after voting in favor of a Democratic-backed abortion bill. 

Anderson, who represents portions of the Chaves, Lea and Roosevelt counties, sided with seven Democrats in repealing a 1969 abortion law that bans and criminalizes the procedure. He then changed his party voter registration to "decline to state." 

The executive board of the state GOP voted unanimously on Tuesday to request Anderson's resignation. 

Anderson declined to comment to the Roswell Daily Record on Wednesday.

The decision to change his party means Democrats now hold an advantage over Republicans in the House.


With Wildfire Risk Up, New Mexico Supports Controlled Burns - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The New Mexico state House has passed unanimously a bill that would reduce liability for landowners who use controlled burns to reduce the risk of wildfires. 

The bill, passed unanimously Thursday, removes severe liability provisions written into territorial law 20 years before New Mexico became a state and about 100 years before residents became aware of climate change.

The state is on track to face severe fire risk in 2021. 

This time last year, no part of the state faced "exceptional drought," the highest level on the USDA drought intensity scale. Now over half the state does.

Under rules in the bill passed by the House, residents could still be liable for negligent burning. But when landowners burn on their property in proper conditions, they wouldn't be as easy to sue. 

The bill also creates a prescribed burning certificate training program that would further limit liability.

It passed the House 63-0, and will next be heard in the Senate.