FRI: State Opens Vaccines To More Workers, Sick Leave Mandate Heads To Governor, + More

Mar 19, 2021

Grocery Store Workers, Others Now On New Mexico Vaccine List - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Grocery store employees, home caregivers, farm workers, other essential workers and people over 60 are now eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine in New Mexico.

The state Health Department announced Friday it was moving to new phases of its distribution plan. The move comes as New Mexico and other states aim to meet a federal mandate of getting more people vaccinated by May.

New Mexico has administered more than 1 million shots and remains ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for vaccine distribution based on population and efficiency.

"We've made extraordinary progress in a very short time — and we intend to keep going," Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said in a statement. "We look forward to offering vaccine to every New Mexican who wants it."

State officials said they were able to open up eligibility now that New Mexico has reached a key milestone: more than 60% of those already eligible — health care workers, nursing home staff and residents, teachers, older residents and those with chronic conditions — have received at least their first shot.

Another factor was that vaccine providers in many parts of the state were no longer able to find eligible New Mexicans to fill appointments. State officials said those in the earlier groups will still be prioritized, but providers now have the option of inviting more New Mexicans when they can't fill appointments.

Collins said the state will continue its efforts to vaccinate seniors and others who were eligible as part of the early phases but have yet to get their shots.

More than 1.6 million New Mexicans are eligible, according to state data. More than 22% have been fully vaccinated so far. More than one-third have received their first shot, including a majority of resident 75 and older who have registered.

State officials said nearly all of the rest of the seniors have been notified to schedule an appointment.

The general public is expected to be added to the list in mid to late April, officials said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday visited a vaccination clinic at Kewa Pueblo, formerly known as Santo Domingo Pueblo. She praised the work of the pueblo and state health officials, celebrating that one in three New Mexicans have had at least their first shot.

The Santo Domingo Health Center has expanded vaccination operations beyond the local tribal community and was planning to give about 130 shots Saturday, said Dave Panana, chief operations officer for Kewa Pueblo Health Corp. He said more than 4,300 shots have been administered so far.

At the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, officials planned a vaccination and food distribution drive-thru event Saturday for urban Native Americans who had appointments.

To reach underserved areas, the Health Department is sending out mobile vaccination units.

Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Laura Parajón said during a briefing this week that the team visited Luna and Dona Ana counties, which were identified as areas with higher populations of minorities and those who are more vulnerable due to socio-economic conditions. Parts of northern and northwestern New Mexico also are high on the vulnerability list.

"We're really working hard to make sure the people who need it the most are getting the vaccines that they need," Parajón said. "But of course it's slow. We need to be patient because we are getting only a certain allocation a week."

New Mexico Legislature Races To Approve Bills In Final HoursAssociated Press

New Mexico legislators raced against the clock Friday to provide final approval to major initiatives, from increased tax breaks for working families to the final touches on a $7.45 billion budget.

The Legislature has until noon on Saturday to send bills to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for consideration.

The state House of Representative signed off on Senate amendments to a spending plan for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1.

The bill increases general fund spending by nearly 5% to bolster public school education, environmental oversight and public salaries at state agencies and schools. Lujan Grisham can veto any provisions, though the legislation addresses most of her spending priorities.

The state Senate endorsed up to $73 million in annual tax breaks through an expansion of the state working families tax credit and earned income tax credit. Final House endorsement was pending.

Income tax rate increases on high earners were stripped from the bill during the committee vetting process.

"It wasn't the right time during COVID to raise taxes," said Sen. George Muñoz, chairman of the Senate budget committee.

New Mexico Legislature Passes Delayed Sick Leave Mandate - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico legislators early Friday passed a sweeping and contentious sick leave mandate for private company employees that would go into effect next year.

The Senate voted 25-16 to send the Healthy Workplaces Act to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham, whose administration has signaled support for the bill.

If she signs it into law, all private-sector workers in the state would earn at least one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, starting on their first day on the job and usable after their first month of work.

It also requires an additional 80 hours of sick leave if the governor declares a health emergency in the future. Part-time employees would get emergency leave proportional to their weekly hours.

The law would not take effect until next year, and wouldn't apply to the governor's current coronavirus pandemic emergency declaration.

It's aimed at reducing the frequency that employees must choose between going to work sick or not getting paid, a dilemma for workers that has become more common amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Department of Health, people in impoverished areas of the state were up to seven times as likely to catch the virus than those living in higher-income regions. Low-wage workers are less likely to have paid sick leave.

The bill hit resistance in committee and again on the Senate floor over a section that excludes public-sector employees. Public workers were ultimately excluded from the bill by a narrow vote after 2 a.m.

The bill also expands enforcement of employee recordkeeping laws, with fines for misclassification of full-time employees as part-time. It also mandates that certain labor complaints be taken to court by the state's Labor Relations Division.

Employers opposed to the sick leave mandate characterized it as the latest anti-business blow from the Democratic-controlled Legislature, following an ongoing tiered minimum wage increase recently expanded to include teenage workers.

New Mexico Legislative Session Reshapes Education Spending - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico lawmakers have advanced sweeping educational funding reforms during the legislative session.

Some measures could change schools and early childhood education for decades to come, including a constitutional amendment that calls for increasing withdrawals from the $20 billion Land Grand Permanent fund.

Others are short-term fixes aimed at remote learning and the coronavirus, like pegging school bus budgets to pre-pandemic mileage.

Some legislation does not have "education" in the title, but will affect how students learn in the future, including a law against hair discrimination and an overhaul of New Mexico's broadband expansion efforts.

Both chambers passed a constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters, would increase disbursements from the state's $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund from around 5% to 6.25%. The extra money would fund early childhood programs like universal pre-K, and increase spending in K-12 schools.

The governor is urging voters to support the amendment.

In the short term, the Democratic-controlled Legislature is increasing overall education spending.

New Mexico schools are expecting a temporary boon from the latest federal pandemic relief, which will send close to $1 billion to districts starting as soon as next month. The government mandates 20% for narrowly-defined, pandemic-specific costs, like upgrading to ventilation systems that filter virus particles.

Democrats Rally Behind Recreational Pot Bill In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in New Mexico confronted its last major hurdle in Senate deliberations, as legislators pushed to send the bill to a supportive governor.

The state Senate scheduled a vote Friday on a House-approved bill that legalizes cannabis for anyone 21 and older, levies a new 12% tax on cannabis and emphasizes support for communities where the criminalization of pot led to aggressive policing.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham supports the legalization of marijuana in efforts to spur employment and economic recovery from the pandemic. She is expected to sign the legislation if given the chance.

That would make New Mexico the 16th U.S. state to authorize recreational marijuana sales.

The bill includes close government oversight of cannabis production levels and pricing. It emerged from months of infighting among advocates, as legislators discarded a Republican-sponsored bill that that emphasized low taxes in an effort to stamp out illicit weed.

New Mexico's Constitution doesn't allow direct voter approval of statutes, leaving lawmakers to follow in the footsteps of Illinois and Vermont by legalizing through the legislative process.

The bill opens opportunities for small craft-marijuana producers to maintain 200 plants under a micro-license system that combines cultivation, manufacturing of pot products, sales and lounges for social consumption of cannabis.

Medical marijuana would become tax-free, with provisions for subsidized cannabis for poor patients. And past drug convictions of any kind would not preclude people from securing an industry license.

Senate amendments to the bill would initiate a study of cannabis production levels in other states and monitor the New Mexico market to ensure "market equilibrium." State regulators could put a freeze on cannabis production levels and new licenses.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes fears the proposed regulatory framework will create a powerful, government-protected monopoly with unforeseeable consequences. He warned against the creation of a new breed of business cartel like liquor license holders that have closely guarded their access to the marketplace.

Republicans including state party chairman and former Congressman Steve Pearce say legalization only complicates the state's struggle with high rates of poverty and opioid addiction.

But several Republican state legislators have openly advocated for legalization with safeguards for roadway and workplace safety.

New Mexico Pot Legalization Bill Advances As Time Runs Short - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Legislation to legalize cannabis in New Mexico is scheduled for a decisive Senate floor vote under a framework that emphasizes government oversight of pricing and supplies along with social services for communities where the criminalization of pot has led to aggressive policing. 

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth scheduled a vote on a bill Friday to legalize cannabis consumption and sales to people 21 and over. 

Critics say the proposed regulatory framework may foster a powerful, government-protected monopoly. 

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says the pot industry can help the state economy emerge from the pandemic slump. 

Legislators have discarded a Republican-sponsored proposal that stressed low taxes.

Senate approval would send the bill to the House to endorse a long list of recent amendments, with little chance of obstruction.

New Mexico Lawmakers Send Childhood Funding Bump To Voters - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The New Mexico Legislature has advanced a constitutional amendment that could increase funding for early childhood and K-12 education by hundreds of millions of dollars if it is approved by voters in a statewide election.

"The question has been debated for years, and now it is the people of New Mexico who have the power to decide how they will invest their own money," said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, a Democrat from Albuquerque.

House Joint Resolution 1 passed the Senate Thursday in a 26-16 vote.

The passage marked a victory for proponents who have tried for a decade to increase the withdrawal of funding from the Land Grant Permanent Fund, the state's $20 billion endowment based on natural resource extraction royalties and market investments.

The measure would increase withdrawals from the fund by 1.25%, with most of the money going to early childhood education and some going to K-12 schools.

Children in New Mexico face some of the highest rates of poverty in the country and achieve some of the lowest educational outcomes.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment argue that while the Land Grant Permanent Fund has doubled in the past 11 years, investments in child programs have grown by only half. They want to expand pre-K, childcare assistance and voluntary home-visits to new parents.

"Studies show that pre-kindergarten and other programs for kids 5 and under later pay off with higher high school graduation rates and fewer incarcerations," said Sen. Leo Jaramillo, a Democrat from Española.

Opponents warn the fund won't grow if oil and gas revenues drop because of efforts to curb emissions, and they argue that previous investments in K-12 education haven't paid off.

Republican Senators treated the measure as a referendum on Democratic executive power over education.

Many soured on the idea of increasing withdrawals from the fund following a hike in withdrawals approved by voters in 2003 during the administration of Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson. The measure allocated additional funds to K-12 education and gave him unprecedented control over public schools.

The funds withdrawn from the endowment then would have been generating profits today, some argued.

"The more we withdraw," said Republican Sen. William Sharer, "the less the power of compound interest helps."

Sharer, of San Juan County in New Mexico's northwest, put forward several amendments to blunt the bill that did not pass, from sunset clauses to a reduction of the increase to 1%, which is what the original bill called for.

It was increased to 1.25% in a compromise between House and Senate Democrats, who wanted to include K-12 schools, which according to court rulings are underfunded.

If approved by voters, early childhood education would become a new beneficiary of the fund and receive 0.75%. Public schools are already the largest recipient and would receive an additional 0.5%.

Democrats supporting the new increase said the additional money will be allocated by the Legislature, not the executive branch, and that it is needed to fund programs in the newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which prepares infants and toddlers for kindergarten by increasing childcare opportunities and supporting new parents.

Amendments also created safeguards against major drains to the fund, including a brake on the 1.25% withdrawal if the fund ever shrinks to $17 billion.

Sen. Gay Kernan, a Republican from Hobbs, said she appreciated that safeguard but voted against the bill. "I wish we had a sunset," she said.

Currently valued at around $20 billion, the Land Grant Permanent Fund is one of the largest educational endowments of any institution or government in the world. The largest endowment belongs to Harvard University, which has an endowment of around $40 billion.

The measure will now be decided by a statewide vote that would likely take place this fall or next year.

Special Election Set For June 1 To Fill Vacated House SeatAssociated Press

New Mexico's secretary of state has announced that a special general election will be held June 1 to fill the U.S. House seat vacated by Deb Haaland.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver made the announcement Wednesday after Haaland officially resigned the post Tuesday after being confirmed as secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, which manages public and tribal lands.

Haaland, a tribal member of Laguna Pueblo, said she is now able to act as a role model to "little girls everywhere" in her new position. Haaland's initial election to Congress in 2018 and Cabinet confirmation set new milestones for Native American women in U.S. government.

"Deb Haaland's historic confirmation as the nation's first Native American cabinet secretary is a proud moment for all New Mexicans, but it also kicks off another important election cycle of which every eligible voter in Congressional District 1 should be aware," Toulouse Oliver said in a statement.

Congressional District 1 includes most of Albuquerque and parts of Sandoval, Santa Fe and Valencia counties.

Central committee members from the state's major political parties will now nominate a candidate to run in the special election. Independent candidates may also circulate nominating petitions.

Residents are encouraged to register to vote or update their voter registration ahead of the election.

New Mexico Legislature Approves Trapping Ban On Public Land - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A bill that prohibits the use of wildlife traps, snares and poison on public lands across New Mexico has won the approval of the state Legislature. 

A 35-34 vote of the state House on Thursday sent the measure to the governor for consideration. 

The vote reflects a shift in attitudes toward animal suffering and new unease with use of steel foot traps and wire snares that many ranchers still swear by. 

Separately, the Legislature hit a stalemate over an initiative to rein in interest rates on small, short-term loans. 

The state Senate rejected amendments by the House to a bill that initially capped interest rates at 36% annually.

The House has the opportunity to relent and restore the initial terms of the bill. If not, a conference committee would meet to negotiate a possible compromise, with three legislators from each chamber.

FBI: Cybercrime Cost New Mexico Victims Nearly $24M In 2020 - Associated Press

The FBI says suspected cybercrime cost New Mexico victims almost $24 million last year. 

The agency's Internet Crime Complaint Center has released its annual report, which showed compromised business emails had the biggest share of losses at almost $10 million. 

FBI officials say romance and confidence schemes caused significantly higher losses last year than in 2019, likely because more people were online. 

The Internet Crime Report includes nationwide information from nearly 792,000 complaints of suspected internet crime — an increase of more than 300,000 complaints from 2019 — and reported losses exceeding $4.2 billion.

FBI officials said 2020 saw the emergence of scams exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The crime complaint center received over 28,500 complaints nationwide related to the coronavirus, with both businesses and individuals targeted for scams. 

New Mexico Governor Signs Prescribed Fire Measure - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed legislation that will clear the way for more prescribed fires as New Mexico deals with worsening drought and climate change.

The measure clarifies liability for private landowners who conduct prescribed burns. Officials with the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department say that will make it easier and more affordable for landowners to get insurance. They say similar legislation in other states has resulted in increased prescribed burning.

Supporters of the measure says the intensity of recent fire seasons underscores the need for action.

A working group was established in 2019 to study how best to expand the use of prescribed burns. Meetings with landowners, tribal members, environmentalists, farmers and others followed.

More than half of New Mexico is dealing with exceptional drought, which is the worst category, according to the latest drought map.

The governor also signed other bills related to the minimum wage and education.

That included a bill aligning the state's minimum wage for employees under 18 with the adult wage of $10.50 an hour.

She also signed a bill establishing a 15-member advisory council that will advise the state Public Education Department on implementation of bilingual multicultural education programs. Some of the money could also be invested by the state to cover longer-term costs.

The governor also signed a bill to ensure that any financial assurance forfeited by mine operators that default on their reclamation obligations is deposited into a fund to be used for specific reclamation projects. The state could also invest some of the money to cover longer-term costs.

Forecast For Spring: Nasty Drought Worsens For Much Of US - By Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer

Government forecasters say the spring in the United States looks like it will be dry and warm with little flooding.

Thursday's spring outlook is bad news for the West, which has been under a megadrought for more than 20 years. About two-thirds of the country is now abnormally dry or under drought conditions. Forecasters say that's only going to get worse.

They expect water use cutbacks, dangerous wildfires, low reservoir levels and damage to wheat crops. Forecasters expect nearly the entire country to be warmer than normal for the next three months, and that worsens drought.

Several factors go into worsening drought, the agency said. A La Niña cooling of parts of the central Pacific continues to bring dry weather for much of the country, while in the Southwest heavy summer monsoon rains failed to materialize.

Meteorologists also say the California megadrought is associated with long-term climate change.

New Mexico Updates Horse Racing Rules, Preps For Live Racing - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Horse racing regulators in New Mexico have adopted several changes to the state's doping rules to align with the latest guidelines and recommendations issued by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

The amendments come as tracks here and elsewhere brace for implementation next year of a new federal law that aims to set national medication and safety standards for the industry.

The executive director of the New Mexico Racing Commission said Thursday the constitutionality of the new law is being challenged by a national horsemen's group.

He also said the commission's staff is getting ready for live racing to resume in the state now that public health restrictions prompted by the coronavirus pandemic have been eased. The industry has been hit hard, as the casinos that help bankroll the races and purse winnings were forced to close last year.

Navajo Nation Nears 30K COVID-19 Cases Since Pandemic Began - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported six more deaths and 18 new cases of COVID-19 as the total number of cases approaches the 30,000 mark since the pandemic began.

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's pandemic total to 29,987 confirmed cases and 1,228 known deaths. The Navajo Nation had a soft reopening Monday with 25% capacity for some businesses under certain restrictions.  

Still, mask mandates and daily curfews remain. Tribal President Jonathan Nez is strongly urging all residents to limit their travel to only essential activities.

He says now is not the time to go on vacation or to hold large in-person gatherings on the reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.