THURS: Albuquerque Airport Brings Back Some Flights, Governor Revs Up Reelection Campaign, + More

Jun 3, 2021


Albuquerque Sunport Restoring Some Flights Nixed By PandemicAssociated Press

With more people getting COVID-19 vaccines, the Albuquerque International Sunport is restoring some flights to its operation.

City officials announced Thursday that several flight routes will be added back at the Albuquerque airport and other flights will increase their frequency.

Among the returns is Delta Air Lines will resume non-stop service this weekend between the Sunport and Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport in Minnesota. Meanwhile, jetBlue will boost its non-stop flights to New York City from two to four times weekly to daily until July. Then the flight will be available five times per week until the end of the summer.

Officials say the Sunport has seen the most passenger traffic since before the pandemic in recent weeks. During the worst of the pandemic, traffic was down by 97%.

New Mexico Governor Revs Up Campaign For Reelection - By Morgan Lee and Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is preparing for the first major rally of her reelection campaign.

Invitations to watch the Thursday evening event went out to campaign supporters, touting the Democratic governor's accomplishments on issues ranging from tax policy to recreational cannabis since taking office in January 2019.

But Lujan Grisham's Cabinet officials are confronting criticism over an estimated $250 million overpayment of unemployment benefits amid limited oversight of fraudulent claims, the use of an auto-deleting messaging app at the state's child welfare agency and missed deadlines for the state to receive federal education funds.

Early contenders for the Republican nomination to take on Lujan Grisham in 2022 include Sandoval County Commissioner Jay Block. The last incumbent governor to lose reelection in New Mexico was Bruce King, who was defeated in 1994 by then-Republican Gary Johnson.

"We've slashed taxes for working families, delivered hundreds of millions of dollars of pandemic relief for small businesses, boosted school funding as part of our moonshot dream, legalized cannabis and so much more," Lujan Grisham said in the email invitation.

Lujan Grisham signed legislation this year that expands two kinds of tax benefits for working and low-income families, along with a one-time $600 income tax credit or rebate to low-income workers. That relief is estimated at about $185 million in its first year.

She also signed legislation to raise the surtax on health insurance premiums by about $150 million annually. Some of those funds will be used to help lower monthly health insurance premiums for low-income individuals and employees of small businesses.

Newly signed marijuana reforms will establish legal cannabis sales by April 1, 2022. Starting June 29, people 21 and over can legally possess up to 2 ounces (56 grams) of marijuana.

State general fund spending on public schools is schedule to increase by 7.3%, or $234 million, for the fiscal year starting July 1.

There is no indication that Lujan Grisham will have Democratic challengers for her party's nomination.

The state Democratic Party is riding high after a lopsided win in Tuesday's special congressional election to fill an Albuquerque-based seat vacated by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Democrat Melanie Stansbury beat Republican state Sen. Mark Moores by about 24 percentage points.

Audit Deems New Mexico Staff Payments UnconstitutionalAssociated Press

A state auditor in New Mexico has warned the Legislature that a plan to pay $300 to legislative staffers who worked in the Capitol this year is unconstitutional.

State Auditor Brian Colón said his office told the Legislature that the state Constitution prohibits giving extra compensation to a public servant after services are rendered, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

"I've got to hold everybody accountable when it comes to the law," Colón said, noting that auditors have warned other public bodies that payments would violate the state Constitution.

The warning was in response to legislation passed in this year's 60-day session that calls for a one-time $300 "compensation adjustment" for employees working in the Capitol during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill is set to take effect later this month, and up to $165,000 would be paid out after that.

Legislative Council Service Director Raul Burciaga said he is unable to halt the payments, because the legislation was passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Democratic state Sen. George Muñoz, who is also chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the legislation was intended as a gesture of thanks to staff members and not a violation of law.

The provision at issue prohibits enacting a law "giving any extra compensation to any public officer, servant, agent or contractor after services are rendered or contract made." However, the state Constitution does not prohibit providing extra pay for current work.

Wyoming Smokejumper Dies Of Injuries Suffered In New MexicoAssociated Press

A Wyoming smokejumper has died of injuries suffered last month while fighting a wildfire in New Mexico, the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday.

Tim Hart of Cody, Wyoming, suffered a hard fall on May 24 while responding to a fire in Hidalgo County, New Mexico. He was flown via air ambulance to a hospital in El Paso, Texas, where he died Wednesday evening, the agency said.

"Our hearts go out to Tim's family, loved ones, friends, fellow Forest Service employees, and the entire wildland fire community and I ask that you keep them in your thoughts and prayers during this time of sorrow while respecting the family's privacy," Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said in a statement.

Hart, 36, was working for the West Yellowstone Smokejumpers based in the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana at the time of his death.

He had been a wildland firefighter since 2006, working in North Carolina, Arizona, Oregon, Wyoming and Nevada. He joined the smokejumper program in 2016 and worked his rookie season in Idaho, the agency said. He was based in Montana beginning in 2019.

The cause of his hard fall is still being investigated, said Marna Daley, spokesperson for the Custer Gallatin National Forest.

New Mexico Wildfire Forces Closure Of Gila Cliff DwellingsAssociated Press

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument will close this weekend while crews continue efforts to contain a wildfire in the Gila National Forest.

The National Park Service said Thursday that the Cliff Dwellings will shut down beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday and until further notice.

The lightning-caused blaze, which was first reported May 20, has burned roughly 60 square miles (155 square kilometers).

Firefighters will conduct burn-out operations west of the Cliff Dwellings on the so-called Johnson Fire. The hope is to reinforce fire lines and keep the blaze from getting to the Cliff Dwellings or the community of Gila Hot Springs.

Previously, fire officials were allowing controlled burning while monitoring any potential threat to the Cliff Dwellings, a treasured pre-Colombian settlement preserved in rock.

Fire officials say they will allow burning that is healthy for forests, but are monitoring the threat the Johnson Fire may pose to the nearby Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a treasured pre-Colombian settlement preserved in rock.

Trails into the Gila closed Tuesday to protect public safety.

Fire season in New Mexico is on track to be even hotter and drier than usual, with lower flow in many of its rivers.

US Seeks Bids To Manage Underground Nuclear Waste Dump - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. Energy Department is seeking bids to manage the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository amid efforts to rebound from a pandemic-related slowdown and as work continues to replace the facility's ventilation system following a 2014 radiation release that forced a nearly three-year closure.

The agency issued its final request for proposals for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Wednesday. The four-year contract to manage the southern New Mexico facility is worth about $3 billion and includes six one-year extension options.

The current contract with Nuclear Waste Partnership is set to expire next April. The company plans to bid again.

The repository is central to the federal government's multibillion-dollar program for cleaning up Cold War-era waste left over at sites around the country that were involved in bomb making and nuclear research.

State environmental regulators recently concluded a virtual public meeting on proposed permit changes that watchdog groups have said could open the door to expanded operations at the repository. It will be months before a final decision is made.

While federal law limits the kind of waste that can be shipped to the repository, opponents have said the U.S. Energy Department is looking to expand the mission to include high-level and other types of waste.

Watchdog groups and other critics have accused the federal government and Congress of stalling numerous efforts to open other repositories and find other solutions to both defense-related waste and spent nuclear fuel that's piling up at commercial nuclear power plants around the U.S.

The repository has been in operation for more than two decades, having received nearly 12,900 shipments and disposing of the waste in vaults that have been mined out of a salt formation deep underground. The idea is that the shifting salt will eventually entomb the radioactive tools, clothing, gloves and other debris that make up the waste.

Demand Rises For New Mexico Pandemic Small Business Loans - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico state finance authorities have said that demand appears to be building for minimum-interest loans aimed at helping small businesses that lost income or experienced major disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic.

New Mexico Finance Authority CEO Marquita Russel told a panel of state legislators on Wednesday that about 865 businesses have applied for loans worth a combined $65 million since the program was overhauled in March.

Reforms to the state's small business recovery loan program, signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in early March, doubled the maximum individual loan amount to $150,000 and broadened eligibility after businesses expressed a limited appetite for the original program.

"That program, as a result of the changes made to it, really had some traction and we've seen a great deal of interest," Russel said.

The federal government has closed out its paycheck protection program that provided forgivable loans to businesses beginning in April 2020. Restaurants are still in line for federal relief under the Biden administration's $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package.

New Mexico's small business recovery loans are repaid at half the prime rate of interest that commercial banks charge their most creditworthy customers, with zero interest accrued during the first year. Repayment installments are not due for the initial three years.

The program was originally created during a June 2020 special session of the Legislature as the pandemic took hold and state emergency health orders shut down a variety of nonessential businesses that could not operate remotely.

Under original terms of program, the state lent out $41.7 million through about 880 approved applications.

The current application period runs through May 31, 2022, on a first-come basis. The finance authority can lend up to $500 million.

California Man Sentenced For Assaulting Flight AttendantsAssociated Press

A California man has been sentenced to six months in prison for assaulting two flight attendants while traveling from San Diego to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico announced the sentencing Wednesday of 43-year-old Alton James Johnson of Yuba City, California. James pleaded guilty to the assault on Jan. 12.

Prosecutors said in a plea agreement that Johnson repeatedly touched a female flight attendant on her legs during a December 2019 flight. She asked him to stop and he then grabbed her by the buttocks.

Prosecutors say a second flight attendant stepped in to help and he grabbed that attendant by the arm.

The U.S. Attorney's Office says Johnson admitted in the plea agreement to having been under the influence of alcohol but in control of his actions.

Governor Puts All Counties In Least-Restrictive Virus Status Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday issued a new public health order that places each of New Mexico's 33 counties in the least-restrictive category when it comes to pandemic-related mandates.

While state officials pointed to the decreased risk of COVID-19 transmission statewide, Lujan Grisham's administration acknowledged that five rural counties would have slipped back into the more restrictive yellow category within the state's color-coded risk system had it not been for the new health order.

The governor has set a goal of ending the color-coded system at the end of June, as long as 60% of residents are fully vaccinated by then.

"We're almost there," she said in a statement, suggesting that more vaccinations would pave the way for small businesses and the economy to "roar back to life."

Vaccination rates in De Baca, Guadalupe, Harding, Roosevelt and Torrance counties have lagged as not all residents want to get shots.

With the pace of vaccination registration slowing overall, the state on Tuesday rolled out a new effort that uses cash to get more people in line. New Mexico is offering the largest single cash prize — $5 million — among a growing number of states staging lotteries to promote inoculations.

According to the latest state data, about 56% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.

Republican state lawmakers are criticizing the governor for using federal pandemic relief aid for the vaccination lottery. They argue that Lujan Grisham's vetoes earlier this year of legislative proposals for how to use the money were unconstitutional and that Democratic lawmakers have been unwilling to take action to preserve the Legislature's authority.

"It is clear she wants to use this money to rehabilitate her image amid numerous scandals and New Mexico's anemic recovery," said Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho.

Urging Democratic lawmakers to push back, he said that giving any governor the unilateral authority to dole out billions of taxpayer dollars is "unconscionable and unconstitutional."

Legislators in March assigned $1.1 billion to backfill the state's unemployment insurance trust, underwrite roadway projects, provide several years of tuition-free college to in-state students and shore up finances at state museums. Lujan Grisham vetoed those provisions.

Santa Fe Opera Gears Up For Ticket Sales, Season Opener - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The gates at the famed Santa Fe Opera are open again, and General Director Robert Meya said Wednesday that he and the entire company are excited to return to the stage in July following nearly a year of planning and preparation amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Meya said during a virtual news conference that the company recently obtained approval from state officials to increase theater capacity and begin ticket sales on June 10. That means the open air venue will have about 1,000 additional seats for every performance this summer and for the first time will offer nightly simulcasting outside on giant video walls.

"While the past year has presented countless challenges, it has also pushed us to explore new avenues for bringing opera to our community," Meya said.

That has included investments in the opera's audio and visual infrastructure for things like the simulcasting and other digital offerings, such as virtual backstage tours.

More than $5 million in tickets had been sold last year before the opera was forced to cancel the 2020 season due to the pandemic. Without a regular season, the opera was faced with a $10 million loss in revenue, leaving officials to stretch federal relief money and donations as far as they could go.

In a regular year, the opera's operating budget is about $25 million, with 40% coming from ticket sales and donations making up another 40%.

Some patrons held on to their tickets for future years while others donated theirs back to the opera to help compensate seasonal staff. Sponsors also helped to match donations.

Meya did not address the opera's financial situation during the news conference, but acknowledged that the journey over the past year has been long.

"The fact that we will be on stage in a few weeks is a testament to the hard work, unfailing optimism and sheer faith of the hundreds of staff members — both year-round and seasonal — who call the Santa Fe Opera their home," he said.

In recent years, the venue has been the backdrop for productions about the dawn of the nuclear age in 1940s New Mexico and a world premiere of a techno-infused opera about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died last fall, also used to be a regular visitor to performances in Santa Fe.

Among the new productions this season will be the world premiere of The Lord of Cries by John Corigliano and Mark Adamo. There also will be a special, one night-only concert featuring soprano Angel Blue in early August.

Among the health precautions this season, masks will be required for everyone visiting the opera.

As the opera prepares for a different kind of opening night, new Chief Artistic Officer David Lomelí said the industry also is navigating a new era that includes audiences in cyberspace. He believes the Santa Fe Opera can lead a think tank of creators who can tell stories relevant to the world today while still holding true to the traditions of the medium.

"We are experiencing a generational shift in our industry. The industry leaders of our companies are changing," said Lomelí, a native of Mexico who recently joined the Santa Fe Opera. "An opera company today will need all the artistic firepower that they can summon in order to capture the minds of an audience that is already bombarded with myriad options for entertainment at the reach of their hands."

Like its audience, Lomelí said he believes the industry itself also is moving toward more diversity among its artists.

New Mexico General Services Secretary Announces Retirement – Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

The secretary of the New Mexico General Services Department announced his retirement Wednesday after about 30 years in state government.

Ken Ortiz, 51, will retire from the state New Mexico General Services Department, which provides resources and services supporting state agencies, local government bodies and public schools, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

During his two years in the position, the department made $32 million in energy investments to state buildings, added 28 electric cars to its fleet and installed 30 charging stations for the cars.

The investments included installing solar panels, new central-air systems, low-flush toilets and tinted windows, Ortiz said. The investments are expected to save the department more than $1 million in energy costs, he said.

"It helps all of us," Ortiz said of the energy-efficiency work. "Not just state employees, but the citizens of New Mexico and our children for generations to come."

Ortiz also said the department assisted in planning a new 44,000-square-foot forensic laboratory under construction in Santa Fe, worked to become more transparent and bring more government contract dollars to local businesses.

Ortiz first began in the position after Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected, serving as chief of staff and other leadership roles in the secretary of state's office from 2011 through 2018. He had previously served as secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions and director of the Motor Vehicle Division. His career in government began in 1993, where he also worked in the Taxation and Revenue Department and the Human Services Department.

"It's mixed feelings," Ortiz said. "It's tough to leave, but I'm also looking forward to the next chapter in my life as well. I have really enjoyed the opportunities and the people I've gotten to work with."

Ortiz said he has no immediate plans beyond spending time with his family.

Deputy Secretary Duffy Rodriguez is expected to serve as the department's interim head while the governor's office searches for a replacement for Ortiz.

"I am deeply grateful to Ken for his willingness to serve New Mexicans in this role," Lujan Grisham said. "He has been a steady and trustworthy public servant for decades. I wish him the best."

Candidate Interrupted By Sex Toy On Drone, Punched At Event – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A New Mexico sheriff who is running for mayor of Albuquerque was interrupted while on stage at a campaign event by a flying drone with a sex toy attached to it and a man who punched him.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales' campaign said the Democrat was unharmed and "will not be intimidated." 

The Albuquerque Journal reported that a video posted on Facebook shows Gonzales answering questions from the audience while standing on a stage at an events center when the drone bearing the sex toy started buzzing near the stage.

A sheriff's office report said the owner of the event center grabbed the device and that 20-year-old Kaelan Ashby Dreyer unsuccessfully tried to grab it.

The report said Dreyer then turned his attention to Gonzales, swinging his fist and calling him a "tyrant." A deputy wrote that Dreyer punched Gonzales' hands and was then removed from the event by deputies.

Gonzales said at a news conference on Wednesday  that he believed Dreyer was with several companions and spotted someone standing on the other side of a fence who he believes was flying the drone. 

"It became so distracting from the sound and everything I couldn't really get my point across," Gonzales said. 

Dreyer has been charged with petty misdemeanor battery and misdemeanor resisting, evading or obstructing an officer. According to a deputy in the report, Dreyer said that he did not intend to hit Gonzales but was upset at the way Gonzales answered a question and intended to swing his fist through the air.

Gonzales suggested Wednesday that the stunt with the drone may have been sent by the rival campaign of incumbent Mayor Tim Keller, also a Democrat.

Keller's campaign condemned the stunt as "disruptive, rude and immature" and denied any involvement.

"To suggest we were behind it is pathetic and the kind of desperation that has marked Manny's troubled campaign," Keller campaign manager Neri Holguin said.

Dreyer denied to the Albuquerque Journal that he was working for Keller's campaign and said he's not a fan of the incumbent either. He declined to comment further.

Dreyer did not have a listed phone number where he could be reached by The Associated Press to comment or a listed attorney in court records to comment on his behalf.

Navajo Nation Reports No Additional Deaths From COVID-19 - Associated Press

For the second day in a row, the Navajo Nation is reporting no additional deaths of COVID-19.

The Navajo Department of Health reported Wednesday that only six new cases of the virus were reported on the vast reservation that covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

The Navajo Nation has reported 1,322 deaths as of Wednesday since the start of the pandemic and 30,847 cases.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says more than half the reservation's adult population is fully vaccinated but officials want to see at least 75% of the eligible population vaccinated to reach community immunity.

He urged people to keep their guard up and get vaccinated if they haven't already.

The vaccine is available during drive-thru events or by appointments at health care facilities across the reservation.

Las Cruces Board Selects Ramos As School SuperintendentAssociated Press

Interim Superintendent Ralph Ramos has been chosen as permanent superintendent of the Las Cruces public school system, filling a vacancy created by the Feb. 25 death of Superintendent Karen Trujillo.

The Board of Education selected Ramos on a 4-1 vote Tuesday evening following a search for a successor for Trujillo, who died after being struck by a vehicle while walking in her neighborhood.

Ramos began his 28 years with Las Cruces Public Schools as an eighth-grade science teacher. He began moving up in the district's administrative ranks after transferring to a high school in 2000.

Before Ramos became the interim superintendent, he spent 12 years as the principal at Camino Real Middle School.

During the virtual forum on May 26, Ramos said he intends to lift up student voices and hear their opinions about their learning, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We need the student voice at the table as well," Ramos said.

Democrats Seek Momentum In Lopsided US House Victory - By Morgan Lee and Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A major Southwestern metro region delivered a resounding victory to a Democratic congressional candidate who embraced the Biden administration's prescription's for economic recovery, as voters rebuffed Republican overtures across Albuquerque's heavily suburban and Latino political landscape.

Tuesday's special election vaulted 42-year-old Democrat Melanie Stansbury, a second-term state representative, into the congressional seat held previously by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

The election is a precursor to a handful of races to fill vacancies in Congress ahead of 2022 midterm elections. Democrats held a 219-211 majority in Congress going into Tuesday's vote in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District.

Stansbury won roughly 60% of the vote in a four-way race, handing a stinging defeat to three-term Republican state Sen. Mark Moores.

Uncertified election results on Wednesday showed a victory margin of 24.5 percentage points for Stansbury — far greater than Haaland's 16-point win in 2020. That even edged past Biden's 23-point win in New Mexico last year.

Stansbury highlighted a working-class, public school upbringing in Albuquerque — her mother was a factor worker and crane operator — and she embraced top-line Democratic initiatives on pandemic relief, infrastructure spending and interventions to slow climate change.

State Democratic Party official say they used the special election to rebuild advocacy infrastructure and return to in-person political events, keeping in mind the party's narrow majority in Congress.

Stansbury leveraged fundraising drives by splitting contributions with other Democratic politicians. Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, campaigned in New Mexico alongside Stansbury during the final week of early voting.

The Democratic effort contacted voters 350,000 times in its largest field program for the district in more than a decade, state party Chairwoman Jessica Velasquez said.

"We know that we can't afford to lose a single seat" in Congress, Velasquez said. "I think that this race bodes really well for Democrats moving forward. We've seen a lot more Democrats turning out to vote early, a huge amount of enthusiasm, especially since we've returned to holding some in-person events and frankly it's been a great opportunity for us to continue to build Democratic infrastructure."

Republicans had little to salvage from the lopsided loss.

Moores focused on local concerns about the crime rate in Albuquerque over national politics, and he leveled criticism at New Mexico's delayed reopening of the economy as the pandemic wanes. The public safety mantra bore echoes of Trump and his condemnation last year of crime rates in Democrat-led cities as he dispatched federal agents to Albuquerque.

Rod Adair, a demographer and political consultant who previously served as a Republican in the New Mexico state Senate, noted that the Republican congressional nominee lost ground in voting margins for each of the five counties represented in the 1st Congressional District, compared with 2020 voting returns.

He described a "moribund" state Republican Party that was unable to help a skilled GOP candidate, and failed to link the economic distress of the pandemic to Democratic leadership in the White House and the New Mexico governor's office.

"The party was invisible," Adair said of the GOP. "Overriding all of this, New Mexico is migrating leftward, and we've seen that in the political demographics of the state and especially in" the 1st Congressional District.

Stanbury's victory preserves an all-female House delegation for the state. Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell last year ousted a Democratic incumbent from the conservative-leaning 2nd Congressional District in southern New Mexico.

The 1st Congressional District encompasses Albuquerque, rural Torrance County and other outlying areas that include the Indigenous community of Sandia Pueblo. Libertarian nominee Chris Manning won a little over 1% of Tuesday's vote, and independent Aubrey Dunn Jr. got nearly 3%.

The district's voters have heavily favored Democratic candidates in recent years. Prior to 2008, the district often backed Republicans for Congress, including Heather Wilson, who later became secretary of the U.S. Air Force under President Trump.

Democratic political consultant Sisto Abeyta says the state's Democratic voters remain highly averse to the Trump brand of politics that still overshadows GOP candidates.

"We're used to the Pete Domenici Republicans," Abeyta told KANW radio, in reference to the deceased six-term U.S. senator who retired in 2008. "The Republican brand kind of just wrapped themselves around the Trump brand, and they haven't shaken loose from it."