MON: Governor Supports Tapping Land Grant Fund For Early Education, + More

Jan 11, 2021


New Mexico Governor Supports Tapping Endowment For Education - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico Democrats say they're closer than ever to increasing withdrawals from one of the country's largest endowments to fund education initiatives.

Increasing annual payouts from the $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says a 1% increase in distributions should be set aside to fund early childhood education.

While the withdrawals will decrease future growth of the fund, Democratic legislators argue that the state needs to invest more in education. They say public sentiment is shifting in their favor, and a new crop of progressive legislators can get the needed resolution passed.

Democrats said Monday that public opinion polling commissioned by supporters of the measure shows increased favorability among voters, with 63% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats indicating support. The poll of 500 likely voters was conducted last week by Latino Decisions and had a 4% margin of error.

The Land Grant Permanent Fund has grown to around $20 billion in part because it pays out much less than it collects from land uses like oil and natural gas drilling and mineral mining. It's also fueled by returns on stock market investments.

It is one of the largest endowments in the U.S. of any type of institution, topped only by large universities such as Harvard.

If approved during the upcoming legislative session, the measure could be voted on as early as November and as late as 2022.

New Mexico Governor Seeks New Spending On Health, Education - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is recommending a 3.3% increase in state general fund spending in the coming fiscal year to devote more to public education and health and workplace safety programs.

The move comes as authorities grapple with the economic hardships and mounting death toll of the pandemic. The Legislature, led by Democrats, convenes Jan. 19 for a 60-day session as New Mexico faces major uncertainties about economic recovery.

Tight restrictions on public gatherings and nonessential business remain in place across most of the state.

At the same time, the state has financial reserves of roughly $2.5 billion at its disposal.

Official Says Many In New Mexico Eligible For COVID-19 Vaccine - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's top health official says many residents are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations because they have one or more preexisting medical conditions.

The state recently expanded vaccine eligibility to those who are 75 and older and anyone over 16 who's at risk because they have cancer, kidney disease, heart problems or other chronic illnesses.

Front-line essential workers like grocery store employees and educators who can't work remotely also are on the list.

Dr. Tracie Collins, the state health secretary, on Monday urged people to be patient because vaccine supplies are limited. She added that the state is being flexible with providers to ensure doses aren't wasted.

The vaccinations come as the state has seen an uptick in the weekly average of confirmed COVID-19 infections. The rate of spread also remains above the target set by the state.

More than 170,000 doses have been shipped to New Mexico and over 78,000 of those having been administered, according to state and federal tracking data. That puts the state among the top in the nation when it comes to vaccine distribution.

Nearly one-third of the vaccinations already distributed have gone to health care workers with three of New Mexico's major hospital networks.

The state on Friday released its updated plan for distribution. It details how people will be prioritized based on medical conditions and other risk factors.

The vaccinations come as the state has seen an uptick in the weekly average of confirmed COVID-19 infections. The rate of spread also remains above the target set by the state.

New Mexico health officials on Monday reported an additional 933 infections, bringing the total to more than 157,000. That includes six new cases among inmates at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Cibola County.

Inmates at county and state lockups are among those now eligible for vaccines, but Collins noted that they still fall behind those with at least one preexisting condition.

Health officials on Monday also reported a statewide total of 2,764 deaths related to the pandemic.

New Mexico Vaccinates Thousands Of Health Care WorkersAssociated Press

About 24,000 health care workers with three of New Mexico's major hospital networks have been vaccinated.

Top medical officials with University of New Mexico Hospital, Presbyterian Healthcare Services and Lovelace Health System provided an update Monday on vaccination efforts. They say they're working with the state Health Department as the rollout is expanded to include more people.

The state on Friday released its updated plan for distribution. It details how people will be prioritized based on preexisting conditions and other factors. Federal data show more than 170,000 doses have been shipped to New Mexico with nearly 77,000 of those having been administered.

Vaccinations come as the state has seen an uptick in the weekly average COVID-19 case count. The rate of spread also remains above the target set by state health officials.

Health officials on Monday announced 933 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to more than 157,000 since the start of the pandemic. There were 15 additional deaths as well. The number of deaths of New Mexico residents related to COVID-19 is now 2,764.

New Mexico Reports 1,208 New COVID-19 Cases, 17 More Deaths - Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico on Sunday reported 1,208 new COVID-19 cases and 17 more deaths.

The latest numbers increased the state's totals since the pandemic began to 156,157 cases and 2,749 deaths.

Of the new cases reported Sunday, 270 were in Bernalillo County with 152 others in Doña Ana County. 

Officials on Saturday had announced 1,507 additional known COVID-19 cases and 22 more deaths.

The state on Friday expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations to people 75 and older as well as residents with underlying medical conditions that place them at greater risk. 

The expanded list under what is known as Phase 1B of the distribution plan also includes front-line essential workers who can't work remotely and certain vulnerable populations such as those experiencing homelessness, and those in correctional facilities or residential treatment centers.

Navajo Nation Reports 175 New COVID-19 Cases, 3 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported 175 new coronavirus cases and three more deaths. 

The latest figures released Saturday evening increased the tribe's totals since the pandemic began to 24,979 cases and 869 known deaths. 

Health officials say more than 215,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 on the reservation and nearly 13,000 have recovered. 

The Navajo Nation started a weekend lockdown Friday night that extends until 5 a.m. on Monday.  All Navajo Nation residents are required to stay at home unless they are essential workers or have an emergency.  The weekend lockdowns extend through Jan. 25.

Oil Companies Lock In Drilling, Challenging Biden On Climate - By Matthew Brown And Cathy Bussewitz  Associated Press

In the closing months of the Trump administration, energy companies stockpiled enough drilling permits for western public lands to keep pumping oil for years. 

That stands to undercut President-elect Joe Biden's plans to block new drilling on public lands to address climate change. 

An Associated Press analysis of government data shows the permit stockpiling has centered on oil-rich federal lands in New Mexico and Wyoming and accelerated in September and October as Biden was cementing his lead over President Donald Trump. 

The industry was aided by speedier permitting approvals since Trump took office.

The goal for companies is to lock in drilling rights on oil and gas leases on vast public lands where they make royalty payments on any resources extracted. Biden wants to end new drilling on those same lands as part of his overhaul of how Americans get energy, with the goal of making the nation carbon neutral by 2050.

Companies submitted more than 3,000 drilling permit applications in a three-month period that included the election, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Officials approved almost 1,400 drilling applications during that time amidst the pandemic. 

That's the highest number of approvals during Trump's four-year term, according to AP's analysis.

Officials Tour Possible Space Command Site In Albuquerque – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Air Force officials have toured the grounds of Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque to evaluate the site as a possible location for the U.S. Space Command. 

The Albuquerque Journal reported that strategic basing officials during the Thursday tour focused primarily on infrastructure at the base to house the Space Command, the latest of 11 unified commands under the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Kirtland is one of six locations being considered. The others include Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Redstone Army Airfield in Alabama, Port San Antonio in Texas and its current temporary headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. 

Eva Blaylock, a spokeswoman for the base, said the highly trained scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory, in addition to the Kirtland's military infrastructure, could be advantageous in the city's bid for the headquarters.

If Kirtland is chosen, it is expected to bring more than 1,000 jobs to Albuquerque, officials said. The Space Command will be where all branches of the military coordinate with each other when conducting operations in, from or through space.

Assistant Air Force Secretary John Henderson said the department is expected to announce its "preferred" location later this month.

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.

New Mexico Utility Regulators Ready For Big Issues In 2021 - By Kevin Robinson-Avila Albuquerque Journal

The state Public Regulation Commission's five elected members won't waddle away like lame ducks, despite voter approval to replace them with three governor-appointed commissioners.

Constitutional Amendment 1, approved by 56% of voters in November, will transform the New Mexico regulatory panel from its 20-year status as a five-member elected body into a three-member commission appointed by the governor from a list of candidates proposed by a bipartisan nominating committee. 

That won't happen until 2023, and current commissioners intend to make the most of their next two years in office.

That includes a hefty list of legislative agenda items the commission will push in the new session that starts Jan. 19, including possible reforms to the state's Energy Transition Act, as well as efforts to increase and stabilize the PRC's annual budget to hire more professional staff and lease a new office.

And apart from legislative initiatives, the PRC will preside over some huge utility issues this year. High among them are Public Service Co. of New Mexico's request to merge with the Connecticut-based renewable energy company Avangrid and the utility's proposal to withdraw from the coal-fired Four Corners Generating Station in 2024, seven years ahead of schedule.