FRI: State Health Official Warns Against Relaxing Amid Virus Threat, + More

Jun 19, 2020

New Mexico Official Says No Room For Relaxing Amid Virus Threat - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

One of New Mexico's top health officials said about one-quarter of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state involve people who had no symptoms.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said that percentage represents a huge number when talking about a pandemic.

Scrase said Friday that New Mexico has been able to keep its cases from skyrocketing like Arizona, Texas and other states because it has kept in place the stay-at-home order and established other counter measures aimed at limiting spread.

The number of infections in New Mexico topped 10,260 this week, and the death toll stands at 464.

McKinley and San Juan counties still account for about half of the state's cases.

Dozens of positive tests among state and federal inmates being held in lockups in Otero County were to blame for a recent spike.

It could be another two weeks before state officials announce the next phase of reopening, and state public education officials are still weighing options for how classes will resume in the fall.

The easing of some restrictions on June 1 did not appear to overwhelm the state's health care system or "take us beyond where we wanted to go,' Scrase said.

But he still urged caution, saying the curve is more a reflection of social behaviors rather than any changes in the virus itself.

More than 170,000 cloth face masks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are being distributed to workers at small businesses around the state and customers who don't have their own.

State emergency management officials are working with the Association of Commerce and Industry and local chambers of commerce to deliver the masks.

Navajo Nation police force loses first officer to COVID-19Associated Press

A 50-year-old Navajo Nation police officer has died at a Phoenix hospital, becoming the first officer on the tribal police force to die from COVID-19 in the line of duty.

Police Department officials said Officer Michael Lee died Friday at Banner-University Medical Center Phoenix.

Police Chief Phillip Francisco said the department was "devastated and heartbroken" by the death of Lee, whom Francisco called "a husband, a father, a son and a protector of his community."

Lee served 29 years with the tribal department, beginning his law enforcement career as a police recruit with the Navajo Police Academy in 1990.

The department said survivors include Lee's wife and children. 

The Navajo Nation, which includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. Tribal officials Thursday night reported 85 additional COVID-19 cases and two additional deaths, increasing the total number of cases to 6,832 with a death toll of 324.

New Mexico State Senate Approves Emergency Election ReformsAssociated Press

State legislators pushed forward with election reforms and an overhaul of state spending in response to the coronavirus and economic upheaval.

The Democratic-led New Mexico state Senate on Friday approved election reforms aimed at making absentee balloting more reliable as residents of New Mexico flock to mail-in voting.

The bill, sponsored by Democrats, now moves to the House for consideration. It would provide more time for the distribution of absentee ballots by request, add new verification requirements and expand local voting opportunities for Native American communities and their immediate neighbors.

Voters would have to provide the last four digits of their social security numbers on absentee ballots, under new anti-fraud procedures.

The election bill was approved 40-2 by the Senate. Sen. Democratic Sen. Bill Tallman voted against the bill because it was stripped of provisions to distribute absentee ballots directly to voters — even those who don't request them.

Absentee ballots are available only by request in New Mexico for any reason.

Lawmakers are confronting a $2.4 billion decline in estimates for state government income for the current budget year and the fiscal year that begins July 1, as the state's crucial tourism industry has crashed and its oil sector falters.

Lawmakers plan to tap $750 million in federal recovery funds and state financial reserves to sustain some increased spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1, including downsized pay raises for state and public school staff.

The Senate took up debate Friday of a bill that would cancel $13 million in infrastructure projects.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and leading legislators want the state to borrow money from bond markets to sustain other infrastructure spending that is viewed as crucial to an economic recovery.

Legislature Reins In Election Reform Proposal - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A proposal to distribute absentee ballots directly to registered New Mexico voters without a request or application was rejected via amendment by a state Senate panel at the outset of a special legislative session yesterday. 

The committee's Thursday vote means absentee ballots will continue to be available only by request in New Mexico. 

The Albuquerque Journal reports two senate Democrats who lost their recent primary bids for reelection - Clemente Sanchez of Grants and Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces - joined the committee’s Republican members to remove that key provision from the legislation. 

An amended election reform proposal advanced to the Senate floor that would allow more time before an election to request an absentee ballot, more explicit instructions on mail-in deadlines and bar code tracking to trace ballots through the mail.

Bill sponsor Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto expressed disappointment that ballots won't be distributed automatically at the discretion of county clerks.

Lawmakers Pass Juneteenth Day Proclamation - By Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico representatives have unanimously passed a proclamation celebrating Juneteenth without making it an official state holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, were informed of their freedom. Democratic Rep. Sheryl Stapleton of Albuquerque said the slaves of Galveston knew emancipation was only the first step toward true freedom that is still elusive.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham created a council on racial justice earlier this month to prepare an anti-racism agenda for consideration by legislators in 2021.

State legislators are pushing forward in a special session with temporary election reforms and an overhaul of state spending in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tennessee Firefighters Sent To Battle Wildfires In WestAssociated Press

Officials say firefighters from Tennessee have been deployed to the western U.S. to help battle wildfires.

Tennessee's Division of Forestry said in a news release Thursday that 20 incident commanders, tree removers and firefighters have been sent to central New Mexico to help local fire departments fight wildfires in that region.

An additional forestry staff member has been sent to Arizona to manage equipment for a team assigned to the Bush Fire, currently the largest fire in the country.

Officials say the state forestry division's Fire Management Unit spent the past year building capacity to send employees to out-of-state wildfires and other emergency incidents.

N.M. Legislature Convenes Amid Pandemic - Associated Press

The New Mexico Legislature met Thursday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck. House lawmakers began their session with a moment of silence for people who have died from COVID-19.

The Statehouse was closed to the general public, with interactions limited to interactive video and teleconferencing services.

Senate and House lawmakers hammered out new rules to allow remote voting by lawmakers, in a concession to the risks of mass gatherings. Democratic Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez went into self-isolation after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Lopez said she was notified of the contact the night before the special session.

Legislators took note of intermittent interruptions in video access to the proceedings throughout the day. A least one committee vote was postponed while video was restored, and emails from the public about legislation were read aloud.

Many lawmakers have objected to the decision to shut off public access to the Capitol building. The state Supreme Court overruled legal objections to the arrangements on Monday.

The number of positive tests in New Mexico rose to 10,153 Thursday with four additional deaths bringing that total to 456.

New Mexico High Court Rules On Privacy For Banking Records - Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors can obtain a person's banking records using a warrantless grand jury subpoena without violating the individual's right to privacy under the state's Constitution. 

In a unanimous decision Thursday, the justices concluded that a district court properly allowed the use of five years of personal financial records as evidence in a pending criminal case against a Taos couple facing charges of tax evasion and other finance-related offenses. 

The high court rejected the married couple's argument that the state's Constitution provided greater privacy protections for their financial records than offered under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.  

Statue Of Spanish Governor Removed From New Mexico Park - Associated Press

Crews in Santa Fe have removed a statue of a Spanish territorial governor from a city park amid a national debate over the appropriateness of monuments and other markers.

The statue of Don Diego de Vargas was taken down Thursday ahead of a planned protest. 

In addition to the de Vargas statue, Mayor Alan Webber is calling for the removal of two other monuments that many find offensive. 

A few hundred people gathered at Santa Fe's historic downtown plaza Thursday evening for the rally at which they applauded Webber's decision. Two men from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo started the celebration with a drum song. 

The mayor also promised to revive a commission that will evaluate every statue and monument in the centuries-old city.

New Mexico Water Managers End Work On Gila River Proposal Associated Press

A panel of New Mexico water managers has voted to end work on an environmental review related to a proposal to divert and store water from the Gila River.

The Interstate Stream Commission's 7-2 vote Thursday comes in a years-long battle over the future of the river.

Supporters of the diversion project had argued it was vital to supplying drought-stricken communities and irrigation districts in southwestern New Mexico with a new source of water.

But environmentalists have maintained that the effort would result in a $1 billion boondoggle. Officials cited the cost, missed deadlines and management concerns for their decision to pull the plug.

There already are irrigation and small diversion structures along the Gila. But U.S. Sen. Tom Udall said developing a larger diversion as proposed would have come at a high environmental price for the river. He called the Gila a jewel that needed to be protected.

Udall and fellow Democrat Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced legislation in May to designate portions of the Gila River as "wild and scenic" as a way to provide more protections for the waterway and its tributaries.

Education Funding At Risk As New Mexico Legislature Meets - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

New Mexico's latest oil bust and the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have gutted the state's coffers.

While education has always been a priority for lawmakers, the Legislature now faces an impossible challenge of boosting teacher pay and preserving the funding pipeline for landmark efforts to expand learning opportunities for more students.

The legislative special session begins Thursday. The stakes are enormous for New Mexico children, who are grappling with coronavirus shutdown and endemic poverty in a state that ranks near-last in most academic achievement measures.

Nearly half the state's $7.6 billion annual spending plan is devoted to public schools, with a large amount of that coming from oil and gas revenues.

The state also is under a court order to ensure adequate resources for all students.

Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed trimming teacher raises to 2%. Leading legislators are considering an average pay bump of less than 1%.

Landmark education reforms aimed at extending the school calendar by up to five weeks have been canceled or scaled back for the summer, saving the state $40 million on a program called K-5 Plus. That may deprive some teachers of additional work and pay equal to 19% of standard salaries.

New Mexico State University Releases Plan For Fall ReturnAssociated Press

New Mexico State University is rolling out plans for students, faculty and staff as they prepare to return to campus in the fall.

The document released this week outlines the steps the university will take to ensure what officials said would be a welcoming and functioning campus environment when classes begin Aug. 19.

University officials say the plan is a living document and can be updated as more is learned about the novel coronavirus and as best practices evolve. The university planned a town hall for Thursday afternoon.

The number of positive tests in New Mexico rose to 10,153 Thursday with four additional deaths bringing that total to 456.

Trump Says He's Heard 'Interesting' Things About Roswell - By Aamer Madhani Associated Press

President Donald Trump says he's heard some interesting things about Roswell, but he's not sharing even with his eldest child. 

Trump made the comments Thursday in a Father's Day-themed interview with his son Don Trump Jr., hosted by the president's reelection campaign. 

Don Jr. wound down his interview by jokingly asking the president if he would ever divulge more information about Roswell, the New Mexico city known for its proximity to arguably the most famous UFO event. 

The president responded he "won't talk" but says what he's heard is "very interesting."

In 1947, a rancher discovered unidentifiable debris in his sheep pasture outside Roswell. Air Force officials said it was a crashed weather balloon, but skeptics questioned whether it was in fact at extraterrestrial flying saucer. Decades later the U.S. military said the debris was related to a top-secret atomic project. Still, the UFO theory has flourished.