THURS: Pandemic Pinching University Enrollment, Biden Halts Public Land Oil And Gas Leases, + More

Jan 21, 2021


New Mexico Universities Feel Pinch Of Pandemic - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Officials at New Mexico's two largest universities say freshman enrollment is holding steady if not increasing despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

However, University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes acknowledged that enrollment overall has decreased and officials are concerned about the negative trend.

Stokes on Thursday delivered her annual state of the university address as colleges and universities across the country grapple with shrinking enrollments.

At New Mexico State University, President John Floros expects spring enrollment to hold steady. He said the challenges going forward will be finding more ways to make higher education accessible to more people.

New Mexico's lottery scholarship once covered 100% of tuition costs, but that has been reduced over the years. Lawmakers tightened eligibility and made other changes due to demand, rising tuition costs and the volatility of lottery revenues.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's latest budget proposal calls for funneling more than $122 million to the Higher Education Department to further develop a scholarship program that would once again put the state on a tuition-free path for residents.

Prison Inmates Among Latest Confirmed Cases In New Mexico Associated Press

Ten inmates at a state prison and one inmate at a federal lockup in central New Mexico are among the latest confirmed COVID-19 cases.

State health officials on Thursday reported an additional 997 cases. That puts the statewide total since the pandemic began at nearly 167,000 cases.

Another 35 deaths were also reported, bringing that tally to nearly 3,050. Hospitalizations also remained steady, with more than 640 people being treated around the state.

Despite lower daily case numbers, state officials have been encouraging people to continue following mandates that include wearing masks and social distancing as all but two of New Mexico's 33 counties still have elevated spread and positive rates.

They're also pushing for more people to register to get vaccinated. Just over one-fifth of the state's population has signed up so far and about 163,000 doses have been administered around the state.

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division will allow some new vehicle registration appointments starting Jan. 25, more than two months after registrations were stopped due to a spike in COVID-19 infections.

Albuquerque, County, Water Authority To Promote Pay EqualityAssociated Press

The city of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and their joint water authority say they will promote gender pay equality by giving a 5% contract preference to businesses that pay men and women equitably.

A statement released Thursday said the preference being offered by the city, the county and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority means that a company's bid amount will be considered 5% lower if equal pay is verified within the company.

According to the statement, agencies in the three governments will implement the change starting Monday and that a company's pay equity reporting form is valid for one year.

New Mexico Governor Signs Bill To Fund Legislature, Security - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is signing the first bill of the 2021 legislative session, funding the work of the legislature amid heightened security concerns.

The $32 million bill is a sliver of the approximately $7 billion in general funds the legislature will deliberate allocating in this year's longer 60-day session.

New this year, the bill includes $2.1 million in additional security costs amid an unprecedented hardening of the capitol complex following the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C.

The New Mexico legislative session has been closed to the public because of the pandemic, and the capitol is guarded by soldiers, sheriff's deputies and state police due to threats.

Two layers of fencing ringed most of the area, and police deployed video surveillance towers. Legislators vacated the building Wednesday in part to avoid occupying the building during the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

The bill also provides $200,000 to pay for the governor's legal team as it faces ongoing lawsuits related to pandemic-related public health orders.

Biden Halts Oil And Gas Leases On US Land, Water For 60 Days - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

The Biden administration has suspended new oil and gas leasing and drilling permits on U.S. lands and waters for 60 days as part a review of programs at the U.S. Department of Interior.

The move follows campaign pledges by President Joe Biden to halt new drilling on U.S. lands and end the leasing of publicly owned energy reserves as part of his plan to address climate change.

The suspension went into effect immediately under an order signed Wednesday by Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega and drew a quick backlash from the oil industry.

The order also suspends the approval of new mining plans, land sales or exchanges and the hiring of senior-level staff.

The administration's announcement drew a quick backlash from the oil industry's main trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, which said limiting access to publicly owned energy resources would mean more foreign oil imports, lost jobs and fewer tax revenues.

National Wildlife Federation Vice President Tracy Stone-Manning welcomed the move and said she expected Biden to make good on his campaign promises and end leasing altogether or at the least impose a long-term moratorium on any new issuances.

But the impact could be blunted by companies that stockpiled drilling permits in the closing months of the Trump administration.

Officials approved almost 1,400 permits on federal lands, primarily in Wyoming and New Mexico, over a three-month period that included the election. Those permits, which remain valid, will allow companies to continue drilling for years, potentially undercutting Biden's climate agenda.

Oil and gas extracted from public lands and waters account for about a quarter of annual U.S. production. Extracting and burning those fuels generates the equivalent of almost 550 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, the U.S. Geological Survey said in a 2018 study.

New Mexico Lawmakers Among Beneficiaries Of Relief Grants - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Direct grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations that are a hallmark of New Mexico's coronavirus relief effort have been awarded to several state legislators as well as enterprises that have sued the state over Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's aggressive public health restrictions.

Nearly $100 million in grants were paid out to 6,800 businesses and nonprofits at the end of 2020, illustrating the breadth of the economic distress brought on by the pandemic.

Public records obtained by The Associated Press show successful applicants included businesses overseen by five current or recent state senators, a family-oriented amusement park that has sued the governor as it seeks to reopen, numerous Catholic charities, local chambers of commerce and hundreds of struggling restaurants and hotels run by lone proprietors and business magnates.

Marquita Russel, CEO of the New Mexico Finance Authority that administers the grants, said a high priority was given to the hard-hit leisure and hospitality industries. Money ran out with thousands of applications still pending, she said.

"We were able to fund about 47% or 48% of all applications submitted," Russel said.

Grants were awarded to businesses run by four Democratic state senators — Sens. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, George Muñoz of Gallup, John Sapien of Corrales and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City. They recused themselves from voting in November on a bill that authorized the grant program, along with additional relief for the unemployed and immigrants without legal status.

Republican Sen. William Sharer of Farmington voted against the legislation. His debt collection business received a $15,000 grant.

Sharer said he objected to the economic aid on principle because he would rather see a repeal of public health restrictions that have forced the closure of entertainment venues, banned indoor dining and limited occupancy at many essential businesses. However, he said the grant his business received meant "a couple more people stayed on the payroll."

Cervantes, an attorney and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, confirmed that his Las Cruces-based law office was awarded $15,000 and that demand for legal services has fallen off, like much of the economy.

"I think we've done a good job in making sure it reaches all parts of the state and doesn't show any bias," Cervantes said of relief. "I have heard from some businesses that didn't qualify and are disappointed, and I'm disappointed for them."

Muñoz said he recused himself from voting in November because it might benefit his 20-employee construction company and a residential property company overseen by his wife. The property company forwarded information about rent payment subsidies to its trailer-park tenants, he said.

His construction company had to expand its payroll amid new pandemic-related costs so the $15,000 grant came in handy, Muñoz said. He brushed off the idea of any personal financial motives.

"I'm still driving the same truck. I'm still wearing the same boots," Muñoz said.

Sapien, whose insurance business received $10,000, has retired from the Legislature. Ramos, whose Silver City-based business received $10,000, lost his Democratic primary-election bid.

Top-ranked Democratic legislators have placed new economic relief measures at the top the agenda for a 60-day session that convened Tuesday. Prominent relief proposals would ease the repayment terms of a low-interest loan program for small businesses that draws on a multibillion-dollar trust fund. The program has loaned about $40 million — out of $400 million made available.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria described the proposed loan changes as "very, very generous and designed to get the money out the door and get people to use it."

Lawmakers also want to pay down by $300 million the state's growing debts toward unemployment benefits to avoid future payroll taxes on businesses.

Colin Keegan, founder of artisan distillery Santa Fe Spirits, missed out on getting a grant. The business has temporarily closed a tasting room in downtown Santa Fe and laid off half its staff, while distilling alcohol-based hand sanitizer to try to survive financially.

"That's shocking that legislators are taking the money," Keegan said. "I don't know everyone's situation. It doesn't sit well, I can put it that way."

At least six businesses received grants as they were suing the state for compensation, arguing that health restrictions constitute a regulatory "taking." The state Supreme Court is weighing whether to let the lawsuits proceed.

Attorney Blair Dunn, who represents plaintiffs including Hinkle Family Fun Center, says the businesses have an obligation to pursue available public aid despite their ongoing cases. The amusement park received a $50,000 award.

Grants also went to oilfield companies and solar installers, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner. Donut shops to four-star restaurants were among the eateries to get money.

Grants worth $338,000 went to 14 businesses associated with Gerald Peters — an art dealer and philanthropist with diverse real estate and business holdings in Santa Fe that are major sources of employment. That includes the Rio Chama Steakhouse, which is frequented by legislators and lobbyists.

Cowboys For Trump Leaders Seeks Cover For Financial Backers - By Morgan Lee Associated Press, KUNM

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit from the jailed founder of New Mexico political group Cowboys for Trump. 

The lawsuit dismissed Wednesday was filed in June 2020 to block or avoid possible financial disclosure requirements for the group. 

Couy Griffin and Cowboys for Trump had sued in response to mounting pressure on the group to register as a political committee in New Mexico. 

Griffin, an elected county commissioner in southern New Mexico, remains jailed following his arrest Sunday in Washington on charges of illegally entering the U.S. Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6 siege by an angry mob of then-President Donald Trump's supporters.

Griffin had returned to Washington after vowing to dispute President Joe Biden's election victory on Inauguration Day and exercise his gun rights. Federal prosecutors argue Griffin should be held without bond until trial, and local and state officials are calling for him to resign from public office.

Attorneys for Griffin in the political finance case could not immediately be reached. 

In the lawsuit on financial disclosures, Griffin and Cowboys for Trump argued that they don't engage in the type of independent political spending that triggers registration in New Mexico as a political committee.

Griffin told The Associated Press last week before his arrest that he had registered Cowboys for Trump as a for-profit business to avoid disclosing information about contributors, claiming they might be harassed or threatened as he has been. The group is not registered with federal or state election regulators.

The New Mexico secretary of state says that Cowboys for Trump qualifies as a political committee, amid its parades on horseback and merchandise sales in support of Trump.

The secretary of state's office prevailed in a June arbitration decision that ordered Cowboys for Trump to register, file expenditure and contribution reports and pay a fine of $7,800. 

Following the dismissal Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver announced she will pursue enforcement of an arbitration order against Cowboys For Trump that was granted in July 2020.

The order concurred with the Secretary of State that the organization was in violation of state campaign finance laws.

Official Says New Mexico Doesn't Expect To Run Out Of Vaccine - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials say they don't expect to run out of coronavirus vaccine.

Health Department spokesman Matt Bieber said Wednesday that the state orders the maximum number of doses it can and its orders are typically filled.

Nearly 200,000 doses already have been delivered to the state, and more than three-quarters of those have been administered. That puts New Mexico among the top states when it comes to distribution rates.

The state continues to have one of the fastest distribution times in the U.S. It has administered nearly 153,000 shots so far. More than 471,000 New Mexicans have registered for the vaccine.

While health care workers were given first priority, officials with some of the largest hospitals in New Mexico say between 20% and 30% of their medical staff have declined a shot. They couldn't pinpoint exact reasons since taking the vaccine is optional, but noted that some may be waiting to see how it affects people.

State health officials said they expect that hesitancy to decline over time.

Some governors complained last week about the federal government's allocation of doses, and it's unclear how soon President Joe Biden's administration is expected to make changes to the nation's approach when it comes to distribution.

About 70% to 75% of health workers at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe have been vaccinated. Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Gonzales said during a briefing Tuesday that side effects were minimal for the first group so more staffers started signing up.

About 80% of health care workers within the University of New Mexico Hospital system in Albuquerque have been vaccinated, officials said.

Under New Mexico's distribution plan, the vaccine is now going to those who are 75 or older as well as people with medical conditions that put them at risk. Those who work in certain front-line essential businesses also are part of the current phase.

The state's death toll surpassed 3,000 on Wednesday as an additional 34 fatalities related to complications stemming from the virus were reported.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico have topped 165,800. More than 880 additional cases were reported Wednesday.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and some people can be infected without showing symptoms.

Navajo Nation Reports 94 New COVID-19 Cases, 11 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Wednesday reported 94 new COVID-19 cases and 11 more deaths. 

The latest figures bring the total reported coronavirus cases on the reservation to 26,612 with 933 known deaths. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says residents still need to remain vigilant and practice health safety measures like staying home. 

Tribal officials say more than 225,000 people on the vast reservation have been tested for COVID-19 and nearly 14,000 have recovered. 

The Navajo Nation extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

APS Announces Six Semifinalists For Top Post By Nash Jones, KUNM

The largest school district in New Mexico has announced the semifinalists for its top post.  

The Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education confirmed Wednesday a slate of six candidates in its search for the district’s next superintendent.

APS says that the candidates include three people selected during the first round of the search, which was halted in March due to the pandemic. Two others were identified when the search process relaunched in November. Interim Superintendent Scott Elder is also included in the group.

The list includes an Albuquerque principal, an assistant superintendent from Illinois, an assistant professor from the University of Tennessee and a former superintendent and consultant from New York.

The applications of each of the six candidates are posted for review on the APS website.

According to a district statement, finalists from the group will be announced Feb. 5 following interviews scheduled earlier in the week. Another round of interviews with the finalists, along with a public forum, are planned for mid-March.

The district says community members will be able to submit questions ahead of the forum, which will likely take place online.

APS says its board hopes the new superintendent will be announced by the end of March and start the job July 1.

New Mexico Airman Facing Military Trial In Fatal Car Crash - Associated Press

An Air Force airman in New Mexico is facing a military trial next week in connection with a fatal car crash nearly two years ago. 

Airman 1st Class Calvin Cooper is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide and reckless driving. Prosecutors say Cooper could get a court martial and prison time if convicted. 

Cooper was the only one charged out of four Kirtland Air Force Base airmen involved in the March 21, 2019, crash that resulted in the death of 39-year-old Angelica Baca of Albuquerque. 

Authorities say Baca was fatally struck by a car as she crossed a street in southeast Albuquerque. 

Cooper was allegedly driving above the speed limit and lost control of his vehicle.

The trial will be held in Kirtland's courtroom and is scheduled to begin Monday.

Jurisdiction was ceded by the Bernalillo County District Attorney's office to the Air Force to conduct a further investigation and prosecute the case.

New Mexico College Teams Finally Returning Home - By John Marshall AP Sports Writer

Teams from the two largest New Mexico universities have finally gotten clearance to return home after starting their seasons on the road.

An amendment to COVID-19 guidelines will allow teams from the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State to start practicing in their home state again, though they still can't play home games.

The basketball teams from the two universities started their seasons on the road due to strict coronavirus measures at home.

The tight restrictions in New Mexico forced the biggest athletic moneymakers at the state's two largest universities to take drastic steps.

New Mexico's football team moved to Henderson, Nevada, and completed a seven-game season this fall. The men's and women's basketball teams relocated to the Texas Panhandle.

New Mexico State's two basketball programs moved to Arizona. The men have had eight games canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 issues and paused all team activities on Jan. 4 due to multiple positive tests within their program. The women's team also had to pause all activity due to a positive test last weekend.

New Mexico Zoo Sends Endangered Wolf Pack To Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A New Mexico zoo has sent a pair of endangered Mexican gray wolves and their seven pups to Mexico as part of conservation efforts in that country.

Officials at the zoo in Albuquerque said Tuesday that the pack of predators was sent south last week and will eventually be released into the wild after they learn to hunt and survive on their own.

The zoo has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for decades on Mexican gray wolf recovery efforts. Several wolves born at the zoo have been released into the wild over the years, but officials say this marks its first international pack release.

Officials said the pack was selected for release in part because it has shown to be a strong family.

More Mexican wolves are in the wild now than at any time since they were nearly exterminated decades ago. At least 163 wolves were counted during last year's survey in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, marking a nearly 25% jump in the population from the previous year. There are an estimated 30 wolves in the wild in Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental.

Work is underway on this year's survey, with results expected in the coming weeks.

A subspecies of the Western gray wolf, Mexican wolves have faced a difficult road to recovery that has been complicated by politics and conflicts with livestock. The challenges have been mounting: Ranchers and rural residents say the situation has become untenable as 2019 marked a record year for livestock kills. In the first nine months of 2020, 140 kills were confirmed.

Federal and state wildlife managers have established several food caches in Arizona and New Mexico as a way to keep the wolves from preying on cattle. They also have logged several dozen efforts to scare away wolves to try to prevent more conflicts.

The Fish and Wildlife Service also is in the process of rewriting rules that govern management of the wolves due to a legal challenge by environmentalists. A federal judge has ordered the new rules to be finalized by May 21.