THURS: Community Solar Proposal Moves Forward, Virus Cases Continue Downward Trend, + More

Jan 28, 2021


New Mexico Community Solar Proposal Clears First Hurdle - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A proposal that would allow community solar programs to be established in New Mexico has cleared its first legislative hurdle despite questions from some lawmakers and concerns among investor-owned utilities.

The bill cleared the Senate Conservation Committee on a party-line vote Thursday. Democrats said it would complement state mandates for generating electricity from renewable resources by expanding access to solar energy for businesses and residents who are unable to put up their own solar panels.

Republican lawmakers said there are still uncertainties about the costs for utility customers. Some lawmakers also said the bill should include a preference for New Mexico-based solar providers.

Community solar projects open the door for households and businesses that don't have access to solar because they rent, don't have the rooftop space or can't afford the upfront costs of a photovoltaic system.

Instead, developers build small, local solar facilities from which customers can subscribe and receive credit on their electricity bills for the power produced from their portion of the solar array.

Supporters say aside from adding more renewable energy to the grid, community solar projects can offset electricity costs for subscribers, including low-income residents.

However, both Democrat and Republican lawmakers had questions about whether costs could be passed along to other utility customers who aren't subscribers.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 40 states have at least one community solar project online, with nearly 2,600 cumulative megawatts installed through 2020.

The association estimates that the next five years will see the community solar market add as much as 3.4 gigawatts nationwide, or enough to power roughly 650,000 homes.

Downward Trend Of COVID-19 Cases Continues In New MexicoAssociated Press

New Mexico health officials on Thursday reported an additional 678 confirmed COVID-19 infections, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to nearly 172,000 cases.

The latest figures include 20 inmates at three of the state's prisons.

Overall, confirmed cases and related deaths have been trending downward along with hospitalizations.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a social media post Thursday that the state's public health measures are making a difference and that spread of the virus slows every time people stay home and avoid gatherings.

Meanwhile, vaccinations are underway for the oldest New Mexicans as well as younger residents who have pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk. State officials have said the pace of vaccinations is limited by supplies.

More than 86% of the 276,850 doses that have been shipped to New Mexico have been administered.

State data shows more than 530,000 residents have registered online to receive the vaccine.

Lawmakers Eye Expanding School Year To Offset PandemicAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers are proposing a plan that would require schools to extend the next academic year as a way to make up for learning losses in the coronavirus pandemic

The Albuquerque Journal reports Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat, proposed the bill and said more instructional time has shown to boost academic achievement.

Remote learning has been the norm over the past 10 months, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced this week that schools would be allowed to transition back to partial in-person learning in February.

Remote learning deprived some students of an education because they lack access to technology, with those in rural areas suffering disproportionately and as many as half of Native American students unable to connect online.

Despite efforts by the state's Public Education Department and school districts, many students lacked internet into December. Those without electricity suffered the most.

Senate Bill 40 passed the Senate Education Committee and heads to the Senate Finance Committee. The requirements would be temporary, applying only to the 2021-22 school year.

The $139 million plan would offer two options that require schools to extend the next academic year by 10 or 25 days. Schools would have to provide either the K-5 Plus program, or join extended learning time programs.

Teachers would be paid for the additional work and that money would come from a school reform fund.

School districts and boards are divided over the bill, with Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces supporting it and others calling for more local control.

Navajo Nation Reports Error In Hardship Assistance ChecksAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation says about 120,000 checks have been issued to tribal members who applied for hardship assistance amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The tribal controller's office says the total includes 370 checks that were duplicated because of a printer server failure.

Controller Pearline Kirk says office personnel are planning to contact applicants affected by the error with more information. Staff also will void duplicate checks that haven't been processed.

The hardship assistance program is paid for by a portion of the $714 million the Navajo Nation received from a federal coronavirus relief bill.


New Mexico Senators, Advocates Back Biden Oil And Gas Plans - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Local officials and residents in New Mexico's oil patches are anxious as the Biden administration takes aim at the oil and natural gas industry with a series of new executive orders.

But the state's two U.S. senators, both Democrats, are supporting the actions, saying it's time to rethink the nation's energy policies.

Sen. Martin Heinrich said he would not support a permanent, unilateral ban on new oil and gas leases but he believes a pause is appropriate despite concerns from industry groups and others that doing so could have immediate implications for the state's bottom line.

Freshman U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan argued that not addressing climate change is a threat to national security. He also said hearing from the public about safeguarding sacred places and building new economic opportunities will be important as the Biden administration reviews the oil and gas program.

President Joe Biden aims to cut oil and gas emissions and double energy production from offshore wind turbines. He's also directing agencies to focus investments on regions that face job losses as the U.S. begins to shift toward wind, solar and other resources.

The Biden administration last week also suspended for 60 days the regulatory authority of federal land managers in field offices across the country, meaning any decisions regarding leasing, permitting or other reviews and approvals have to be funneled to top officials with the U.S. Interior Department.

Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, whose district includes New Mexico's share of the Permian Basin, said the president's actions are hasty and could have dire consequences for state coffers and local communities given the industry's role in New Mexico's economy.

Herrell sent a letter this week to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, asking that she join with her to protect jobs and the state's interests. She noted that one-third of New Mexico's budget relies on oil and gas revenues, with more than $1 billion going toward public education.

Lujan Grisham's office has been analyzing the potential effects of the policies on New Mexico. However, there was no indication her office would consider seeking a waiver to insulate operations in the state.

The Democratic governor in her state of the state address this week doubled down on her commitment to renewable energy and emissions reductions, including enacting tough methane and air pollution rules for oil and gas operators. She said she wants to crack down on pollution in a way that is not punitive but innovative.

On Wednesday, she said she would work with the Biden administration to "ensure the development of a balanced national policy that acknowledges and incorporates the important lessons from an all-of-the-above energy state like ours" and takes into account the financial realities of states like New Mexico.

Officials Say Most New Mexico Counties See Virus Improvements Associated Press

New Mexico health officials say almost all of the state's 33 counties have shown improvements over the last two weeks when it comes to reducing daily case totals and test positivity rates.

The latest data released by the state Health Department shows seven counties have improved and moved into the yellow category, while sparsely populated Harding County remains green.

The rest of the counties — including those that span New Mexico's most populated areas — remain in the red zone due to higher risks.

However, state officials say more than two-thirds of counties are on the cusp of reaching the metrics required for yellow classification.

Under the state's county-by-county color-coded systems, those counties that meet certain benchmarks for test positivity rates and the per-capita daily incidence of new COVID-19 cases can begin to rollback some public health restrictions.

Over the past two weeks, 28 counties saw their per-capita new daily case rate improve, while 29 saw their test positivity rates get better.

Officials said Bernalillo, Doña Ana, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties were among those to see improvements.

Overall, daily case counts and hospitalizations have been trending downward in New Mexico.

Confirmed infections have topped 171,000 since the pandemic began, with nearly 27,000 cases being reported since Jan. 1.

That's a notable decrease from the number of cases reported during November and December when monthly totals surpassed 43,000 and 49,000 respectively.

Navajo Nation Reports 152 New COVID-19 Cases, 4 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Wednesday reported 152 new COVID-19 cases and four more deaths. 

The latest figures bring the total reported coronavirus cases on the reservation to 27,887 with 989 known deaths. 

On Monday, the tribe extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

The Navajo Department of Health has identified 53 communities with uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, down from 75 communities in recent weeks. 

The Navajo Nation also is lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events. The actions in the latest public health emergency order will run through at least Feb. 15. 

Cowboys For Trump Leader Seeks Release From Washington Jail - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Defense attorneys for jailed Cowboys for Trump leader Couy Griffin urged a federal judge Wednesday to release the New Mexico county commissioner and gun rights advocate as he awaits trial in Washington in connection with the siege on the U.S. Capitol.

Federal prosecutors want Griffin, a resident of Tularosa, held without bail in Washington — as a flight risk and danger to others — on charges that he knowingly entered the Capitol grounds with the intent to disrupt government business.

Prosecutors cite a history of threatening comments, racial invective, access to firearms and vows that Joe Biden would never be president.

In federal court filings, attorneys for Griffin said federal authorities have been misleading and selective in their characterization of Griffin's comments to FBI agents and in public, noting that he is a Christian pastor and "not a mafia member."

The filings also show that Griffin told FBI agents that he never went inside the Capitol. He did, however, post videos on social media showing himself on an exterior balcony of the Capitol amid throngs of Donald Trump supporters as a mob stormed the building.

He was arrested by U.S. Capitol Police on Jan. 17 after returning to Washington, vowing opposition to President Joe Biden's election victory and inauguration.

More than 150 people have been charged in federal court with crimes following the Jan. 6 riot.

Before returning to Washington, Griffin spoke at a meeting of the Otero County Commission at length about his presence at the U.S. Capitol as riots broke out and the building was breached and about his plans to return to Washington with guns in his vehicle.

Griffin's attorneys say the guns were a self-defense precaution in response to threats, saying Griffin explained in public and in interviews by the FBI that he was worried about online threats.

On the way to Washington, Griffin said he decided to leave his guns with friends in Pennsylvania and was arrested unarmed.

New Mexico Lawmakers Consider Hair Discrimination Bill - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A bill to protect New Mexico residents from discrimination stemming from hairstyles or religious coverings is gaining traction in the state Legislature.

It cleared the House Education Committee on Wednesday. It would protect students and workers from discrimination against hairstyles and head coverings that express a person's religious, cultural or racial identity.

Black and Native American women told lawmakers stories of institutions treating them differently because of their hairstyles.

Others who testified talked about a 2018 case in which an Albuquerque teacher was accused of cutting a Native American student's hair during class on Halloween.

If the bill is passed and signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico would be the eighth state in the nation to protect students and workers against hair discrimination under what's known as a CROWN Act.

That stands for "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair," which is part of a national lobbying effort by Dove, the National Urban League, Color Of Change and Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Across the country, workers have been pressured to cut or chemically alter their hair to satisfy employer grooming codes.

The bill is sponsored by two Albuquerque Democrats, House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton and Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero.

The city of Albuquerque adopted a municipal version of the CROWN Act earlier this month.

Beloved, Older Snow Leopard Dies At Albuquerque Zoo Associated Press

A zoo in Albuquerque has announced that its longtime resident snow leopard named Azeo has died.

The ABQ BioPark Zoo says the 19-year-old snow leopard was found dead in his outdoor exhibit space Thursday after spending more than 15 years at the zoo. Results from a necropsy are pending.

Snow leopards usually live up to 12 years in the wild and up to 15 years in captivity. Park officials say most snow leopards are elusive and solitary but that Azeo was gentle with the female leopards and interacted with zoo employees.

Azeo came to New Mexico from the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Canada in 2004 and has since sired 12 cubs with his first mate Kachina and two more cubs with his second mate Sarani.

Kachina died in 2017 at age 14 of an inoperable tumor in her neck and throat.

The zoo still has three snow leopards, including Sarani. An official said that the zoo anticipates getting more snow leopards. It was unclear when and how many.

Vaccines Among Last Hurdles To Open New Mexico Classrooms - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

New Mexico's teacher's unions say a slow vaccine rollout and the expiration of federal COVID-19 sick leave are the remaining hurdles to getting students in schools, while school administrators are adding fire inspections and bus contracts to the list.

On Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that some of the power to reopen schools will be given back to local districts nearly a year after they closed their doors.

That decision came with the blessing of union officials and a promise to the state's teachers, who are among the oldest and therefore most vulnerable teaching population in the country.

"None of you — no educator, no school worker — should ever have to choose between your health and the students you serve," Lujan Grisham said in her State of the State address to the Legislature, which convenes this month for its annual session.

Earlier this month, the state began to vaccinate teachers.

In Santa Fe, a private school managed to get all 90 of its staff vaccinated, while the public school district had 100 shots for staff, out of some 2,000 employees.

The state's largest district, Albuquerque Public Schools, hasn't hosted a single vaccine clinic, spokeswoman Monica Armenta said Tuesday.

The announcement appeared to catch many school leaders off guard.

"I'm of two minds — on one hand I'm elated. We've been looking forward to the possibility of getting our students back into classrooms starting to resume some sort of normalcy," said APS Interim Superintendent Scott Elder on Wednesday. "But I will admit to it was a little frustrating when we had given guidance saying okay if we're going to do it give us lead time so that we can take care of the things that we need to take care of." 

Included in guidance sent out after Lujan Grisham's speech is a mandate for schools to get a fire marshal visit, which must be scheduled two weeks in advance. That could be a bottleneck for Albuquerque 143 schools, Elder says. So will rehiring bus drivers laid off during the pandemic.

The Albuquerque Public School board will consider a new school action plan Feb. 3.

Union leaders were consulted in advance, but many of the details will be left to districts.

"The teachers still need to get vaccinated. They still need COVID leave," said Albuquerque American Federation of Teachers president Ellen Bernstein in an interview before the announcement.

But the state has largely protected teachers. And it has no plans to pressure districts to open up or mandate they return in person. 

"The governor has done just about everything that a governor can do to keep citizens in this state safe. She has shut things down. She has required people to wear masks. She has fined people for not doing so," said NEA New Mexico teacher union president Mary Parr-Sanchez. 

She's also optimistic about vaccines. 

"The health department isn't the only one that is receiving vaccines and so there are other ways that districts can get large quantities of educators vaccinated. And, and that's what's been happening," Parr-Sanchez said.

In the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho, vaccination clinics were canceled by state officials citing miscommunication with districts and limited supply.

"We are disappointed that there was no information shared on the vaccination timeline for educators," said Rio Rancho Public School spokeswoman Bethany Pendergras.

New Mexico Health Secretary Tracie Collins said Wednesday that schools will need to rely on new virus testing regimens to reopen with some sense of security, while the state waits the vaccine supply chain to grow. 

"Regarding schools reopening, you know we're going to prioritize teachers getting a vaccine who are 75 and older," Collins told a panel of state legislators Wednesday. 

She and Human Services Secretary David Scrase say the vaccine bottleneck is at the federal level.

"All schools can still open but if you're in what we're calling a red county, you would be tested much more often than you would in a yellow or green," said Scrase, referring to color codes for infection rates. "Initially school districts have the option -- not the requirement, but the option -- to open on Feb. 8."

Counties in green will initially need 12.5% testing rates among staff, while counties in red will need 25% testing rates, according to the Public Education Department, which plans to ramp up staff testing to 100% within 8 weeks.