THURS: APS Rejects Hybrid Learning, State Senate Passes $200M Business Relief, + More

Feb 18, 2021

  

New Mexico Schools Make Plans For Virtual, Hybrid Learning - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Albuquerque Public Schools officials are defending their decision to keep the state's largest school district in remote learning.

On Wednesday night, the school board rejected a proposal aimed at partially returning students to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic as part of a hybrid learning model.

Critics of the decision argued that it chose the needs of teachers, who have not been able to receive widespread vaccinations, over students, whose grade-failure rates have doubled under remote learning.

The board voted 4-3 against hybrid learning, keeping the district virtual through the end of the year with limited in-person groups.

Officials said that around two-thirds of teachers would not volunteer to participate in hybrid learning until vaccines were available to them or virus outbreaks dropped significantly. That would hobble the rollout and create large waiting lists for families, about half of whom want to return to in-person learning.

The board also approved a measure to allow some groups in-person instruction, including students at risk of failing or seniors who need additional help. It will be up to each school to identify which students need additional in-person instruction, district officials said.

The proposed hybrid plan would have brought back kindergarten through second grade on March 1, followed by all elementary students.

New Mexico state officials said all schools should enter a hybrid mode, with students attending school about two days per week, starting Feb. 8. Medium-sized districts aver already started, while others also decided to remain online.

In Las Cruces, school officials rolled out their plan this week. It allows high school students who opted to return to attend class in person two days a week.

Navajo Nation Reports 43 New COVID-19 Cases, 13 More Deaths – Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials reported 43 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday with 13 additional deaths.

The latest numbers bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 29,386 since the pandemic began.

There have been 1,127 reported deaths that were related to COVID-19. Tribal President Jonathan Nez said the Navajo Area Indian Health Service has administered 101,332 vaccines doses on the Navajo Nation as of Thursday.

That surpasses the goal of administering at least 100,000 doses by the end of this month.

Nez says that even those who have been fully vaccinated need to continue taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

Utility Financing Bill Clears New Mexico Senate PanelAssociated Press

A measure aimed at saving customers money when utilities opt to close power plants and recover lost investments has narrowly cleared its first legislative hurdle.

A New Mexico Senate panel voted 5-4 Thursday to advance the bill. Supporters of the legislation say it would clear the way for other utilities to use the same financing mechanisms that were afforded Public Service Co. of New Mexico under the state's landmark Energy Transition Act.

In the case of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, PNM was allowed to recover its lost investments with $361 million in low-cost bonds that will be paid for by ratepayers.

Utility officials have said those additional charges will be offset by the savings from abandoning the coal-fired power plant and replacing it with renewable energy and battery storage systems.

Some lawmakers raised questions about potential risks in the bond market overall, while others said the legislation could conflict with existing state laws that deal with bankruptcy and property rights.

New Mexico Senate Endorses $200 Million For Business Grants - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's Senate has endorsed a bill that would provide $200 million from the state general fund to thousands of businesses that experienced income declines in 2020, in a nearly unanimous vote Thursday.

The bill would provide individual grants of up to $100,000 without repayment to businesses for the reimbursement of rent, lease or mortgage obligations on property located in New Mexico. The bill returns to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

The arrangement tests the boundaries of the state Constitution's "anti-donation clause" that prohibits government donations as a precaution against corruption.

The proposal from Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf and allied state Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos stands among a long list of bills aimed at reviving the local economy as New Mexico emerges from the pandemic and aggressive emergency health orders from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Republican Sen. Pat Woods of Grady bristled at the prospect of continued business restrictions as relief initiatives are drafted.

¨There still aren't any assurances that we'll have those businesses open," Woods said. He cast the lone "no" vote against the bill on Thursday.

The proposed grants would be contingent on the hiring or rehiring of employees. Similar grants with more restrictions under the Local Economic Development Act are exempt from the constitutional provisions that prohibit the direct donation of taxpayer dollars as an anti-corruption measure.

A House-approved version of the bill would keep grant applications confidential — an exception to transparency provisions in the state inspection of public records act. The Senate-approved bill would keep only tax-return information confidential, Muñoz said.

Businesses owned by five state senators benefited last year from small business grants enacted by the Legislature and underwritten by the federal relief funds, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under provisions of the public records act.

Separately, state legislators are advancing proposals for minimal-interest loans to small businesses, tax rebates to low-wage workers and a monthslong tax holiday for restaurants.

It was unclear whether the governor supports the bill as written. Lujan Grisham has indicating her support for $475 million in relief spending during the coming fiscal year, deferring to legislators on many details.

New Mexico's current emergency health order limits public gatherings to 20 people or less depending on local COVID-19 infection rates, with limited capacity at most businesses and no access to entertainment or close-contact recreational venues.

New Mexico Senate Considers $200 Million In Business Relief - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A bill is headed toward a state Senate vote that would provide $200 million from the state general fund to thousands of businesses that experienced income declines in 2020.

Scheduled for a crucial vote Thursday, the bill would provide individual grants of up to $100,000 without repayment to businesses for the reimbursement of rent, lease or mortgage obligations. The arrangement tests the boundaries of the state Constitution's "anti-donation clause" that prohibits government donations as a precaution against corruption.

The proposal from Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf and allied state Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos stands among a long list of bills aimed at reviving the local economy as New Mexico emerges from the pandemic and aggressive emergency health orders from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

A Senate committee this week rejected provisions of the bill that would have permanently boost payouts from the state's closing fund for business expansions and relocations. Senate approval would return the bill to the House for consideration of the amended initiative.

"When you're closed and you have no other source of income and you just need to survive, we need to make those opportunities for New Mexicans in any way, shape or form," Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup said Wednesday as the lead Senate budget committee endorsed the grant program.

Republican Sen. Pat Woods of Grady bristled at the prospect of continued business restrictions as relief initiatives are drafted.

¨There still aren't any assurances that we'll have those businesses open," Woods said.

The proposed grants would be contingent on the hiring or rehiring of employees. Similar grants with more restrictions under the Local Economic Development Act are exempt from the constitutional provisions that prohibit the direct donation of taxpayer dollars as an anti-corruption measure.

A House-approved version of the bill would keep grant applications confidential — an exception to transparency provisions in the state inspection of public records act. Proposed amendments by the Senate do away with the confidentiality provisions.

Businesses owned by five state senators benefited last year from small business grants enacted by the Legislature and underwritten by the federal relief funds, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under provisions of the public records act.

Separately, state legislators are advancing proposals for minimal-interest loans to small businesses, tax rebates to low-wage workers and a monthslong tax holiday for restaurants.

New Mexico's current emergency health order limits public gatherings to 20 people or less depending on local COVID-19 infection rates, with limited capacity at most businesses and no access to entertainment or close-contact recreational venues.

New Mexico Ramps Up Vaccine Distribution, Awaits Supplies Associated Press

Top health officials in New Mexico say the state has boosted the number of vaccines given daily by more than 20% over the past two weeks.

State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said Wednesday during a briefing that New Mexico is ranked third in the nation for distribution, having administered nearly all the doses it gets every week.

So far, more than 450,000 shots have been given. About 7% of New Mexicans are fully vaccinated with their first and second shots. That's double the figure from two weeks ago.

Collins called it a supply and demand mismatch, saying the state will not be able to expand eligibility until more doses are shipped. The state's allocation has been growing in recent weeks and is expected to reach more than 72,500 next week, she said.

The state's vaccine dashboard also now provides details about vaccination rates based on race, ethnicity and age. It shows higher vaccination rates among those 75 and older and among those who are Native American.

Collins reiterated Wednesday that the goal is to distribute shots as equitably as possible, with the focus being those who are most vulnerable as a way to prevent more deaths.

The seven-day average case total has been trending downward over recent weeks. Just over 280 newly confirmed cases were reported Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to 181,332 since the pandemic began last year. The death toll stands at 3,562.

New Mexico Foresees More State Income From Oil In Short Run - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A rebound in oil and natural gas prices is changing the outlook for state government finances in New Mexico as the Legislature drafts a spending plan for the coming fiscal year.

A team of economists from three state agencies and the Legislature said Wednesday that state government income is likely to increase by $339 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1 to a total of $7.55 billion.

State government income would exceed current annual spending obligations by 2.3% if the new estimate holds true. Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz of Gallup said the state could be in a precarious financial situation when federal relief ends.

He said the unapproved federal relief plan proposed by President Joe Biden would provide as much as $1.6 billion to state government, another billion dollars for public education and $838 million aimed at local governments across New Mexico.

The state's looming financial challenges include a shortfall of at least $450 million in its depleted unemployment trust fund, for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

Severance taxes and royalties on oil production account for most of the bump in forecasted state income, amid higher market prices for oil and surging local production in the final months of 2020.

Muñoz said he has written a letter to the White House asking for an exemption from a recent pause on oil lease and permit approvals on federal land. The Democratic senator believes permitting delays on pipeline infrastructure could make it harder to bring natural gas to market amid surging prices — and even lead to greater releases and burning of excess gas directly into the atmosphere.

Biden has vowed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from oil and natural gas. In January, the administration halted leasing, permitting and other approvals for petroleum development on federal lands by suspending for 60 days the regulatory authority of federal land managers across the country.

The stakes are high for New Mexico state government given its heavy reliance on revenue from oil and natural gas development to pay for basic services, from public schools to prisons.

Groups Ask Biden For Wider Environmental Review Of Nuke Work - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Watchdog groups want the Biden administration to reconsider a decision by a U.S. agency not to conduct a more extensive environmental review related to production of the plutonium cores used in the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The renewed request comes as federal installations in New Mexico and South Carolina face a deadline of making 80 cores per year by 2030. Jobs and billions of dollars in government spending are at stake.

The National Nuclear Security Administration said it has no plans to revisit the environmental review. But the agency has confirmed that its approach to plutonium core production is among the programs under review as the new administration takes over.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico, South Carolina-based SRS Watch and California-based Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment sent a letter to the U.S. Energy Department last week, asking that a rigorous environmental review be done before production is ramped up at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina.

The groups have cited provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act saying plutonium core production would significantly increase the amount of radioactive and toxic wastes generated at the two locations and that the collective environmental effects need to be considered.

The nuclear security agency said in an email to The Associated Press that the issues raised by the groups were considered during previous public participation opportunities.

Political Violence Inspires New Mexico Bill - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

State legislators have advanced a bill that would further prohibit threatening public officials or directly interfering with their work.

The proposal comes in the wake of partisan violence in the U.S. and public anger over public health measures meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Across the country, dozens of public health officials have resigned.

In New Mexico, a man was sentenced to jail time for threats  to the governor in August on Facebook, under federal interstate transmission of threatening communication charges.

In a hearing Wednesday, bill sponsor Sen. Joseph Cervantes underscored the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. He also mentioned the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

It is unclear if the proposed law would fill a gap in state criminal laws, as most threatening behavior is already illegal. 

Extortion, which can include using the threat of violence to compel someone to commit any act, is already a third-degree felony in New Mexico. Violent threats, as well as obstructing public officials, such as by blocking them from entering a building, is already a petty misdemeanor.

Cervantes did not respond to requests for comment.


 

2021 Spaceport America Cup To Be Virtual Event In New Mexico - Associated Press

This year's Spaceport America Cup will be held as a virtual event.

It was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spaceport America and partner Experimental Sounding Rocket Association have announced that the June 18-20 event will be an online competition and technical conference with student teams from across the globe competing to win technical awards.

One team will be selected as the overall 2021 Virtual Spaceport America Cup winner. 

In addition, teams will participate in interactive poster session reviews, hear from special guest speakers, and participate in technical forums on a variety of topics. 

The virtual event will also provide industry sponsors with the opportunity to interact with students for recruitment.

The Spaceport America Cup is one of the largest intercollegiate rocketry engineering contests and has been held in New Mexico since 2017. 

More than 1,700 students and faculty come to southern New Mexico for the annual competition. 

Navajo Nation Reports 27 New COVID-19 Cases, 2 More Deaths – Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials reported 27 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday with two additional deaths.

The latest numbers bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 29,336 since the pandemic began. There have been 1,114 reported deaths that were related to COVID-19.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that even those who have been fully vaccinated need to continue taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

The tribe has a nightly curfew in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to limit the spread of the virus.

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