MON: Racing To Resume As Virus Restrictions Ease, Lawmakers Debate Cannabis Legalization, + More

Mar 1, 2021


New Mexico To Resume Horse Racing As Virus Restrictions Ease - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The commission that oversees horse racing in New Mexico says live racing is set to resume in April now that public health restrictions are being eased.

The tracks and their associated casinos were hit hard by the pandemic. Without revenue from slot machines and tables, purse money was reduced last year to a fraction of what it in 2019.

The Racing Commission said Monday that purse accounts are expected to experience an influx not seen in nearly a year.

State health officials say reduced positivity rates and daily case totals are clearing the way for more economic activity.

Under the revised public health order issued last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, large entertainment venues such as racetracks will be permitted to operate depending on whether the counties in which they are located meet the state's benchmarks for COVID-19 positivity rates and new per-capita cases.

Regional transportation officials also announced that limited service on the state's commuter rail — the New Mexico Rail Runner Express — will resume next week. Masks will be required and the train cars will be cleaned throughout the day.

Spread rates and daily cases have been on a downward trend in New Mexico. In all, health officials have reported more than 185,000 confirmed infections since the pandemic began, and the statewide death toll recently topped 3,700.

While more vaccine doses are being shipped to New Mexico, officials say supplies still are not keeping up with demand. About 668,000 people have registered for shots.

Of the more than 590,300 doses that have been administered since the campaign began, state data shows about 13% were given within the last seven days.

New Mexico Regulators Want More Details On Power Plant Sale - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's largest electric provider must file an amended application with state regulators who will determine whether it can transfer its shares in a coal-fired power plant to an energy company backed by the Navajo Nation.

Regulators say Public Service Co. of New Mexico's application to abandon its stake in the Four Corners Power Plant was insufficient and doesn't go far enough in explaining whether the transaction would benefit the public.

The utility has until March 15 to submit a revamped application and additional evidence.

Environmentalists have concerns about the sale, saying it runs counter to a New Mexico law aimed at ending fossil fuel electricity generation.

PNM's abandonment request seeks to recover $300 million it has invested in Four Corners using low-cost bonds that would be paid off by utility customers.

PNM is defending its past investments in Four Corners. In filings with the Public Regulation Commission, the utility said it supports including additional information in the pending abandonment case as well as supplemental testimony regarding the effect of the Energy Transition Act on considerations related to the prudence of its investments.

PNM also has argued that using low-cost bonds to recover its investments and replacing coal with cheaper renewable generation could save customers anywhere from $30 million to $300 million over time compared to remaining in Four Corners until 2031.

The amount saved would depend on the costs of whatever replacement power is ultimately approved by state regulators.

Mariel Nanasi, a longtime PNM critic and executive director of New Energy Economy, called the power plant a toxic liability. She accused PNM of mismanagement for deciding several years ago to spend more money on the plant despite growing liabilities linked to fossil fuel generation.

New Mexico Details Its Request For Student Testing Waiver - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico education officials have released details of a request to the federal government to waive some standardized testing requirements this year due to the pandemic.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, they ask for an exemption from the requirement to test 95% of students. Instead, they want to test at least 1% of students and gather a representative sample.

Officials say testing even half the student population would be challenging under the virus restrictions. Under the plan, the state would provide all families the option to have their students tested this spring, but not require them to do so.

The recent clarification followed a statement made in January in which the department said it would request a waiver to allow schools and districts to skip high-stakes student assessments again this spring, shifting instead to optional testing.

Following requests by The Associated Press, the Public Education Department on Thursday released a letter it sent to the Department of Education that included specifics of its waiver request.

NMSU Remains Against Declaring Campus A SanctuaryAssociated Press

New Mexico State University is rejecting requests that the Las Cruces campus take on sanctuary status for students who are in the country illegally.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported Sunday that officials declined formal proposals from the Associated Students of NMSU and the Faculty Senate to establish a sanctuary declaration.

Proponents of NMSU being a sanctuary campus say it would protect students and faculty who are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients — people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. They say it would also help international students feel safer.

NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu said in a campus-wide email late last week that the school's stance on the matter has not changed.

Arvizu also said the school already has other policies in place that protect students who don't have legal immigration status. They include not making proof of citizenship a factor in admission and not releasing private information without consent or a legal mandate.

Furthermore, campus police and security cannot detain someone solely because of suspicions about their citizenship.

Santa Fe Community College remains the only New Mexico school to declare itself as a sanctuary campus.

New Mexico Seeks Pot Legalization Amid Discord On Oversight - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Several proposals to legalize cannabis are competing for support in the New Mexico state Senate with three weeks left to send a bill to the governor. 

There's widespread support among lawmakers for creating a taxed and regulated market for recreational sales. 

Efforts to legalize cannabis took center stage Saturday as a Senate panel grappled with how the state might effectively stamp out illicit pot, prevent child access and foster a competitive marketplace and job growth. The committee aims to produce a compromise bill with broad support within a week.

The debate marked a tantalizing moment for proponents of cannabis legalization after voters last year ousted hardline opponents in the Legislature. 

A Republican legalization proposal is shifting discussions toward an emphasis on workplace safety and low-taxes that stamp out the black market.

The state's constitution doesn't provide for legalization by ballot initiative, putting the Legislature firmly in charge of legalization and related issues of taxation and law enforcement.

Outside Investigators Approved To Help Albuquerque Police – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A federal judge has approved an order proposing the creation of an outside team to assist the Albuquerque Police Department with investigations into officer-related use of force cases. 

The Albuquerque Journal reported that U.S. District Judge James Browning signed off on the order after a federal court hearing on Friday, and said he will issue a written opinion on the matter in April in response to comments he made in court. 

The U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Albuquerque proposed hiring an administrator and an undetermined number of investigators to assist the police department's internal affairs force division in cases where police officers use force causing injury, hospitalization or death. 

External investigators, who would be privy to all evidence, documents and investigative notes, will be tasked under the order with evaluating the quality of internal investigators' work and notify the police department and attorneys of any existing deficiencies.

The city hopes to have an administrator in place in May to start hiring the team. 

New Mexico Reports 245 New COVID-19 Cases And 16 More Deaths - Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico on Sunday reported 245 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 16 additional deaths.

The latest numbers pushed the state totals to 185,132 cases and 3,716 known deaths since the pandemic started.

Bernalillo County, the state's largest, had 91 of the 245 new cases.

On Friday, the New Mexico Department of Health reported 659 COVID-19 infections, marking the highest daily case total in more than three weeks. 

The agency noted that 191 of those cases involved inmates at a state lockup in Lea County.

State officials earlier this week expressed optimism about downward trends in the overall spread of the virus among the general population, with all 33 counties reporting positivity rates below 10%. 

However, they acknowledged that the seven-day rolling average of daily cases remained above the state's target. 

Navajo Nation Reports 7 New COVID-19 Cases And 3 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation is continuing on a downward trend in the number of daily coronavirus cases. Tribal health officials on Saturday evening reported seven new cases of COVID-19, down significantly from around the holidays. 

The latest numbers bring the total to 29,719 cases since the pandemic began. 

Three additional deaths also were reported Saturday, bringing the total to 1,168. 

The Navajo Nation reported 23 new cases and four deaths Friday. 

A daily curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and a mask mandate remain in effect for residents of the vast reservation that covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to prevent the spread of the virus.

New Mexico House Speaker Seeks Dismissal Of Ethics Complaint - Associated Press

Attorneys for New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf have asked the State Ethics Commission to dismiss a complaint that a retired judge filed against the Santa Fe Democrat over his sponsoring legislation potentially helping his law practice. 

The complaint filed by Aztec resident Sandra Price accuses Egolf of sponsoring legislation that would financially benefit his legal practice without disclosing the conflict of interest. 

Egolf is a co-sponsor of pending legislation to open the way for civil rights lawsuits to be filed in state district court against state and local public officials. 

The House has approved the bill, sending it to the state Senate for consideration.

The dismissal motion filed Friday by Egolf's attorneys called the complaint frivolous and unsubstantiated.

Egolf is not required to treat every piece of proposed legislation as a possible conflict of interest because it might hypothetically allow him to represent a potential client in the future, the motion said.

The motion said the complaint ignores the fact that New Mexico has a part-time legislature with many members having jobs in a variety of professions. 

Price told the Santa Fe New Mexican that she'd reviewed the dismissal motion, including its contention that farmer-legislators may end up voting on bills that affect the agricultural industry as a whole:

"But this is much closer for him (Egolf). He is an attorney pushing a bill directly tied to cases his firm handles," she said.

It's up to the commission to decide who's right, Price said. "I'm glad they're there to look at those things."

No Artwork Damaged In Flooding At Hispanic Cultural Center - Associated Press

No artwork was damaged when waterlines broke at the National Hispanic Cultural Center during a cold snap that hit Albuquerque, officials said Friday.

Much of the work to repair the flood damage has been completed.

Two waterlines froze and broke in mid-February when temperatures in Albuquerque dipped well below freezing. Crews were able to clean up water near the center's front entrance and inside the Visual Arts building within hours.

Tey Marianna Nunn, director and chief curator of the Art Museum and Visual Arts program, said the biggest concern was for the artwork. It was moved to other areas within the cultural center and wasn't damaged. She said it's now being returned to its original location.

The National Hispanic Cultural Center functions as a museum and performance center. It also has a genealogy and cultural library, and a Spanish-language institute.

Pandemic Leaves Tribes Without US Recognition At Higher Risk - By Christine Fernando Associated Press

As COVID-19 disproportionately affects Native American communities, many tribal leaders say the pandemic poses particular risks to tribes without federal recognition. 

Lacking a political relationship with the United States means those tribes are denied federal coronavirus relief funding for state, local and tribal governments. 

Without federal funding, tribal leaders say they are less-equipped to prevent infections and curb the significant economic toll the pandemic has had on their communities. 

Tribes seeking federal recognition also face a long, expensive process that makes the designation often feel out of reach.

Five tribes were recognized under the Obama administration and seven tribes under the Trump administration, the latest being the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana, according to the Interior Department.

The petitions of six tribes based in New Mexico, California, Florida and Michigan and are being considered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Five more tribes in Louisiana, North Carolina and California are seeking federal recognition but haven't completed their paperwork yet.

New Mexico Coach Paul Weir Stepping Down At End Of Season - Associated Press

Paul Weir is stepping down as the University of New Mexico's basketball coach at the end of the season.

In a statement posted Friday on the program's website, athletic director Eddie Nuñez said the school and Weir mutually agreed to part ways after the season. 

The Lobos (6-14, 2-14 Mountain West) will play their regular-season finale at Colorado on Wednesday and take part in the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas, starting March 10.

Weir is in his fourth season as coach of New Mexico. He has a 58-61 overall record with the Lobos, including a pair of 19-win seasons.

Learning Remotely Means Getting Creative On Navajo Nation - By Kate Groetzinger KUER-FM

Teachers and families are getting creative to work through remote schooling in San Juan County, Utah, which overlaps with the Navajo Nation. 

NPR member station KUER in Utah reports mortality due to COVID-19 is around five times higher than in the rest of Utah so parents there are not ready to send their children back to school, despite the fact that poor internet access has made at-home schooling on the Navajo Nation difficult. 

Only around 30% of the 289 students at Whitehorse have reliable access to the internet, according to Whitehorse Principal Kim Shaefer, due to a combination of poverty and poor infrastructure in the area.

So, the school has been delivering paper packets to every student, twice a semester, since March. But Shaefer said the school isn't allowed to accept the packets back, due to safety concerns, so the students have to find a way to submit them.

In some cases, she added, the students will even call in their assignments by phone.

But their remote-school efforts appear to be paying off. Around 80% of the students at Whitehorse are on track to be promoted or graduate. 

That's just 7% lower than the graduation rate in 2019.