FRI: State Expands Vaccine Distribution, Suit Seeks More Connections For Students, + More

Jan 8, 2021


New Mexico Opens Vaccine Distribution To More People - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials have confirmed they're moving ahead with vaccination distribution.

On Friday, the latest group to become eligible included people 75 and older as well as residents with underlying medical conditions that place them at greater risk from COVID-19. The list also includes essential employees who can't work remotely.

State officials said earlier this week that New Mexico is among the leading states when it comes to vaccination rates. They estimated that between 62,000 to 68,500 vaccines had been administered in New Mexico, from a supply of more than 106,000 doses.

New Mexico on Friday reported an additional 1,645 confirmed COVID-19 infections, pushing the statewide total since the pandemic began to more than 153,450. Another 30 deaths were also reported Friday, bringing that tally to 2,710.

Under the updated vaccination plan released Friday, state officials acknowledged that the number of people now eligible to be inoculated is much larger than the available supply so the groups are being prioritized.

For example, front-line essential workers will be vaccinated in order ranging from family home caregivers and child care workers, followed by teachers involved in in-person learning to grocery store workers, agriculture workers, public transit workers and others.

The next phase will cover people 60 and older as well as other essential workers who cannot work remotely.

The final phase will include everyone over the age of 16.

How fast the state moves through the phases will depend on vaccine availability, officials said.

Officials on Friday reiterated their call for people to register on the state's vaccination webpage so the rollout can be managed and appointments can be scheduled.

New Mexico Supreme Court Overturns Child Abuse Convictions - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has overturned the child abuse convictions of an Albuquerque man in the 2015 death of an infant who had multiple bruises on his head and body.

A divided court ruled there wasn't enough evidence to support Christopher Garcia's convictions, saying prosecutors failed to prove that the 14-month-old boy would not have died absent the defendant's failure to seek medical care.

The court ordered dismissal of the charges against Garcia, who had been sentenced to life in prison plus an additional four years, to avoid a double jeopardy violation.

The ruling raised immediate concerns for New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. He said New Mexico is already one of the most dangerous states in the U.S. for children, and the ruling will make it more difficult to hold child abusers accountable.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice David Thomson concluded there was sufficient evidence to support Garcia's child abuse conviction but there should be a new trial on the charge. The justice also took issue with the majority's test for determining whether a person charged with child abuse is legally responsible for the victim's death because of medical neglect.

New Mexico's Top State Senate Democrat Outlines Priorities - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's top-ranked state senator says Democrats will push for direct financial relief to low-income, frontline workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic during the upcoming legislative session.

The idea already is popular among minority Republican legislators. Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth said Friday that pandemic relief efforts are likely to take center stage at the outset of the 60-day session that begins Jan. 19.

Wirth also is outlining new details of a push to channel more money each year toward public education. A political shift among Senate Democrats also may lead to more progressive tax rates.

He said efforts are underway to channel some of the state's robust financial reserves toward workers and small businesses. Reserves have swelled to about $2.5 billion, or 34% of annual general fund spending obligations.

Wirth noted that new direct federal aid to state government is more likely now that the U.S. Senate is controlled by Democrats after Tuesday's runoff elections in Georgia.

A push also is underway among Democrats including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to channel more money each year toward early childhood education from the state's multibillion dollar permanent funds.

In a new twist, Wirth said proposals are being prepared that would also channel that trust money toward K-12 education to address the state's struggling school system and the threat of court intervention.

He said New Mexico school districts already are likely to receive $400 million in direct federal relief under the package approved in December by Congress and President Donald Trump.

Lawyers Say New Mexico Trying To Comply With Education NeedsAssociated Press

Lawyers for the state say the New Mexico Public Education Department is working with school districts and internet providers to expand broadband access in rural areas struggling with remote learning.

In a response filed in court this week, they also said school funding has not been cut since the pandemic started. The filing comes after plaintiffs in a landmark education lawsuit argued that the state's attempts to provide internet access and learning devices were "woefully insufficient."

They are seeking to force the state to connect more children to online learning by identifying students who lack laptops or tablets and providing internet vouchers for at-risk households.

With in-person learning currently off limits, the inability to access remote classes has been a challenge for many rural and low-income students, particularly Native American children living on tribal lands.

In 2018, a state district court ruled in favor of Navajo and Hispanic plaintiffs, finding that New Mexico failed to provide adequate educational opportunities to poor and minority students and those with disabilities.

The long-running case has been a driving force in educational policy in a state where per-student spending and educational achievement hover near the bottom of national rankings.

State GOP Says Election Tarnished Democracy, Faces Criticism - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce says democracy has been tarnished by unanswered questions about the 2020 vote count, which state officials called a false narrative.

His statement Thursday stops just short of repeating President Donald Trump's baseless claims of election fraud. Pearce says the state Republican Party recognizes Congress' certification of the victory by President-elect Joe Biden.

But he says he has unanswered questions about the vote count, voting machines and drop boxes for absentee ballots.

A spokesman for the secretary of state's office says New Mexico's election was independently audited and that Pearce and the Republican Party "should be ashamed of themselves for continuing false narratives."

All the states have certified their election results as fair and accurate, by Republican and Democratic officials alike. Biden won the New Mexico vote by nearly 11 percentage points.

New Mexico's sole Republican delegate to Congress, U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, used her first speech to the House to challenge the certification. She objected to the electoral vote in several states, including Pennsylvania, citing changes there to vote-by-mail deadlines and identification rules.

In New Mexico, the state GOP successfully sued last year to ensure absentee ballots are distributed by request only and resolved a lawsuit before Election Day about absentee ballot drop boxes. The party sued in December to impound and later inspect absentee ballots for Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque.

Congress finished certifying Biden's Electoral College victory early Thursday, hours after pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. It came after Trump repeated his baseless claims of election fraud to thousands of demonstrators he invited to Washington.

Otero County Commissioner and Cowboys for Trump co-founder Couy Griffin was among those assembled on the steps to the U.S. Capitol. He posted a video on Facebook that shows him reveling in the crowd.

"Anything to get our country back, amen, brother," Griffin said.

New Mexico Launches Vaccination Registration HotlineAssociated Press

New Mexico on Thursday launched a new hotline to answer questions related to vaccine registration, as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state neared 152,000.

The state Health Department in recent weeks created a website where people can register to get the vaccine once it becomes more widely available. So far, nearly 300,000 people have signed up.

State officials said callers to the new hotline — 1-855-600-3453 — can ask questions about the registration process or get help signing up.

The state reserved the initial shipments of vaccine for health care workers, staff and residents at long-term care facilities and some other at-risk people. Plans are being made for how to prioritize other groups.

Health officials on Thursday reported an additional 1,841 infections, pushing the statewide total of confirmed cases to 151,819 since the pandemic began. Another 39 deaths also were reported Thursday.

Navajo Nation Reports 257 New COVID-19 Cases, 6 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Thursday reported 257 new coronavirus cases and six more deaths.  

The latest figures increased the tribe's totals since the pandemic began to 24,521 cases and 844 known deaths. Health officials said more than 212,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 on the reservation and more than 12,600 have recovered. 

On Monday, the Navajo Department of Health identified 73 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 on the tribe's vast reservation. 

The tribe has extended the stay-at-home order and weekend lockdowns through Jan. 25.

The mandated lockdown requires all residents to stay home except for emergencies, shopping for essentials like food and medicine or traveling to an essential job. 

High Court Weighs Whether State Should Compensate Businesses - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is urging the state Supreme Court to reject demands that businesses be compensated for losses linked to pandemic-related public health orders.

Final written arguments were published Thursday as the high court weighs whether financial compensation is due to businesses in response to the state's public health orders that ban mass gatherings and prohibit business activities such as indoor dining.

Businesses have scaled back or closed their doors as state health officials struggle to contain the coronavirus amid widespread testing for infection and the rollout in December and January of the first vaccine doses.

Attorneys representing the governor's office and state Health Department say that enforcement of public health orders derives from a long-standing principle that property rights contain an inherent limitation not to use property in a manner that endangers others.

A coalition of businesses says pandemic restrictions have effectively seized private property from businesses that might otherwise have taken their own precautions against the spread of COVID-19.

Their lawsuit characterizes the state's public health emergency orders as a regulatory taking the merits compensation to businesses.

The case will likely decide the fate of more than a dozen lawsuits by businesses running the gamut from an oxygen healing bar in downtown Santa Fe to a florist in Farmington and an auction house in rural Portales claiming they were adversely affected by the state's pandemic response.

New Mexico Company Announces Completion Of Rural Fiber Line Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Rural telecommunications company Sacred Wind Communications has announced it has completed the first-ever redundant fiber line connecting Albuquerque and Gallup in New Mexico.

Sacred Wind CEO John Badal said in the announcement Wednesday that the new line will connect hospitals, point of sale devices and emergency services. Badal added that the project will allow rural and tribal communities between the two cities to have faster and more reliable internet access.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that funding for the fiber line came from a nearly $14 million low-interest loan from the federal Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service.

New Mexico Utilities Look Ahead To Renewable Energy Mandates - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A solar project meant to provide 10% of Gallup's electricity for the next two decades is falling short of expectations.

The issues with the solar farm come as utilities attempted to meet a statewide requirement in 2020 for having 20% of retail electricity sales come from renewable energy sources. Not all of them met the goal.

Utilities will be under more pressure going forward as the Energy Transition Act sets a higher bar in 2025 and subsequent years.

Executives with Public Service Co. of New Mexico are confident about meeting the mandates and said reliability and affordability will be among the considerations.

The utility's portfolio will get a boost with the addition of roughly 650 megawatts of solar and another 300 megawatts of battery storage capacity that will replace the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station when it closes in 2022.

Aside from the solar and battery resources being built now, PNM last summer unveiled its latest solar array — a 50-megawatt facility in the desert northwest of Albuquerque that was built to power Facebook's Los Lunas Data Center. With the Encino Solar Field, the utility said its ownership and power purchase agreements total nearly 290 megawatts of solar and more than 350 megawatts of wind.

Xcel Energy, another utility operating in New Mexico, recently marked the completion of the state's largest wind project to date. Meanwhile, Pattern Energy has started work on a transmission line that will funnel electricity from wind farms in central New Mexico to other western markets.

But some critics question whether future renewable energy benchmarks can be reached, given the challenges of hitting 20% in 2020.

Storm Could Bring Much Needed Moisture To New Mexico Associated Press

Forecasters with the National Weather Service say a potent storm headed toward New Mexico could bring some much needed moisture to the drought-stricken state.

They issued an advisory Thursday, saying the storm is expected to move across the state beginning Saturday and will reach the eastern plains Sunday.

Significant snow accumulations are expected to affect travel and could cause delays through the northern mountains late Saturday. That region could see a few inches to a foot of snow.

The plains could see several inches of snow. More than 80% of the state is dealing with the two worst categories of drought.