TUES: Education Lawsuit Demands Tech For Students, Virus Death Toll Surpasses 2,000, +More

Dec 15, 2020

Education Lawsuit Demands Internet For New Mexico Students - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Lawyers representing Native American students say New Mexico is violating a 2018 court order in a landmark education case as attempts to boost internet access and provide learning devices are falling short.

The case covers 80% of the state's students, including Native Americans and those who are low-income or disabled.

Lawyers representing the students say educational opportunities would not have been as inadequate had the state complied with the court order and ensured access to technology for all students.

In a motion filed Tuesday, they asked a court to compel the state to provide laptops and internet to students who still lack them.

With in-person learning banned by state officials until mid-January and plans for hybrid learning scrapped for the vast majority of students earlier this year, the inability to access remote classes has been a challenge for many rural and low-income students, particularly Native American children living on tribal lands.

Education officials across the state's 89 school districts have purchased tens of thousands of laptops and worked with the governor and the Public Education Department to provide Wi-Fi hotspots in many areas during the pandemic.

In response to the motion, the Public Education Department highlighted state efforts to support increased internet access during the pandemic.

A spokeswoman pointed to the north central Peñasco school district mentioned in the motion, saying it has gone from having 50 families without internet access in August to just two.

But thousands of children are still offline, and an untold number have limited internet connectivity that doesn't allow them to upload or download video. Some students have relied on their parent's cellphone hotspots, which can run out of data or can't be left at home when the parent goes to work.

Top New Mexico Health Official Hopeful About Vaccine Rollout - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The new state health chief says the arrival of vaccines in New Mexico marks a turning point and she's hopeful for a brighter day as people get vaccinated over the coming months.

Still, health Secretary Tracie Collins said Tuesday that while vaccination will prevent COVID-19 infection, there is more that needs to be learned about how effective inoculations will be in stemming transmission of the virus.

She says that means residents still need to wear masks, maintain social distancing, wash their hands often and keep up with other COVID-safe practices.

Tuesday marked Collins' second day at the helm of the state Health Department. As public health mandates remain in place, Collins said the state will balance vaccine distribution with the continued push for COVID-19 testing and options such as at-home testing.

New Mexico has seen its weekly rolling average of new infections decrease, but deaths remain high.

The statewide death toll since the pandemic began surpassed 2,000 on Tuesday as an additional 28 deaths were reported by state health officials. More than 20% of those deaths were reported in the past two weeks alone.

The first vaccine doses are going to frontline health care workers at medium to high risk of exposure as they work with COVID-19 patients. The next group will include staff and residents at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Collins said decisions are pending about which groups of people to vaccinate after that.

While vaccination is optional for health care workers, state officials have said they hope to get as many people inoculated as possible. The vaccine requires two dozes, with the second coming three weeks after the first.

New Mexico Land Boss Ends Fresh Water Sales For Oil And GasAssociated Press

The New Mexico State Land Office is halting the practice of selling fresh water from state trust lands for use in oil and gas development.

Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard detailed the shift in policy in a letter issued Tuesday. She sent the letter to companies that hold easements that grant access to trust land for pumping fresh water.
Under the change, existing easements will not be renewed once they expire and no new easements will be issued.
The agency says the policy is aimed at encouraging the industry to use recycled or produced water given the scarcity of fresh resources in New Mexico.

The agency cited data reported by companies to FracFocus, a national registry, that indicated nearly 14.5 billion gallons of water were used for overall production in New Mexico in 2019, with recycled or produced water making up only a fraction of the total use.

According to the State Land Office, oil production on trust land in the Permian Basin is at an all-time high despite disruptions that resulted from a global price war earlier this year and the ongoing consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. That has resulted in the availability of more produced water.

Garcia Richard suggested that more intervention is needed from the state Legislature to address New Mexico's water issues and that the policy change within her agency marks a small step to help preserve fresh water resources.

New Mexico University Leader On Biden-Harris Transition TeamAssociated Press

New Mexico State University Chancellor Dan Arvizu has been chosen as part of the transition team for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that Arvizu was approached to help the U.S. Department of Energy in the transition from the outgoing Trump administration to the Biden administration. He is also expected to review the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Arvizu said in his most recent university system-wide email that it is a volunteer position and is not associated with his university position.

Before Arvizu became chancellor in June 2018, he worked in the energy field at Bell Laboratories, now known as Nokia Bell Labs, and Sandia National Laboratories.

Arvizu also served as director of the Department of Energy's Renewable Energy Laboratory from January 2005 until his retirement in 2015.

He will be joined on the transition team by at least three other people who worked for the state of New Mexico.

Officers Fatally Shoot Man In SUV During Barricade SituationAssociated Press

Authorities say an armed man was fatally shot by law enforcement officers from three different agencies during a barricade situation stemming from an incident of domestic violence in the Farmington area on Monday.

The State Police said at least one San Juan County sheriff's deputy and officers from Farmington Police Department and the State Police shot a passenger in a parked SUV when he pointed a gun at the driver.

No identities were released. Authorities had stopped the vehicle which was sought in connection with a reported beating of a woman by her husband, who was armed, the State Police said.

Native American Film Producer/Actor Gets Prison In Rape CaseAssociated Press

Native American film producer and actor Redwolf Pope has been sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting a Seattle woman in New Mexico in 2017.

A jury found the 44-year-old Pope guilty of rape and voyeurism three months ago. He was sentenced Tuesday.
Prosecutors say Pope took photos and video of himself sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in a Santa Fe hotel room.

Pope was credited with about 2½ years of time served and will be required to register as a sex offender. 

Pope also faces rape charges in two cases in Seattle and will stand trial in that city after serving time for his conviction in New Mexico.

New Mexico Legislature Considers 'Hybrid' Session For Safety - Associated Press

Leading legislators in New Mexico say the next regular legislative session in early 2021 is likely to take place in a hybrid of in person and online.

Democratic Senate majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said Monday that a "huge piece" of the next session likely will be conducted online through video conferencing as a precaution against pandemic dangers. He noted that many local governments are conducting public business entirely online.

The comments came during an online-only meeting of top-ranked lawmakers and legal counsel to the Legislature. The state's lead budget writing committee last week abandoned in-person meetings. It was unclear what prompted that decision.

A 60-day legislative session is scheduled to convene on Jan. 19. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has raised the prospect of postponing major reforms until later in the year after quickly approving a budget, while top Democratic legislators appear determined to stick to the normal schedule.

The Democratic House speaker indicated that online committee hearings are likely and that the House will limit the number of bills that can be introduced by each member to five to streamline the session.

He said that the House no longer supports a proposal to move in-person committee meetings to a downtown convention center in Santa Fe to provide greater social distancing.

Republican minority leader Jim Townsend says a per-person cap on bills favors Democrats, who will hold a 45-25 majority in the coming year.

Vaccine Arrives In New Mexico As Deaths Mark Another High - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The first coronavirus vaccines have arrived in New Mexico as hospitals prepare to distribute doses to frontline health care workers.

The first vaccinations came Monday with health care workers at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe.

New Mexico will get more than 17,500 doses as part of the first wave.

The shipments come as new COVID-19 cases have decreased but hospitalizations and deaths remain high.

On Sunday, New Mexico tied its previous record of 44 for the number of coronavirus-related deaths reported in a single day.

The statewide death toll inched toward 2,000 with an additional 21 deaths reported Monday. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began has topped 121,200.

Leaders of three of the state's largest health care providers said during a briefing Monday that they're excited about the prospect of vaccinations for medical staff who work daily with COVID-19 patients and other health care workers who are at high risk.

But they said the vaccinations won't change the way hospitals operate and that personal protective equipment and other protocols that have been adopted over the last several months will remain in place.

Hospital officials in Albuquerque said they expected to receive their doses later this week and would immediately vaccinate frontline workers who opt in. Receiving the vaccination will be voluntary for the health care workers.

Under the state's plan, later shipments will be distributed to staff and residents at long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. Decisions are still pending about which groups of people to vaccinate after that.

State health officials have said critical workers and vulnerable populations include police and corrections officers, public transit workers, child care center personnel and possibly teachers.

Navajo Nation Receives Vaccine, Reports 158 New COVID-19 Cases And 2 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation began receiving coronavirus vaccine doses on Monday as tribal health officials reported 158 additional COVID-19 cases and two more related deaths.

In all, the tribe has reported 19,766 virus cases resulting in 722 deaths since the pandemic began.

On Monday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer visited the Gallup Indian Medical Center as the first vaccine shipment arrived.

The tribe is expecting a total of 3,900 coronavirus vaccine doses to be delivered by Tuesday with about 7,900 more doses arriving next week.

Those vaccines will cover healthcare workers, emergency medical staff, traditional practitioners working in Indian Health Service facilities, and the staff and patients in long-term nursing facilities.

Tribal officials have said nearly all intensive care unit beds on the reservation are being used as COVID-19 cases surge.

The Navajo Nation has extended its stay-at-home order though Dec. 28 in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

New Mexico Electors Support Biden, As GOP Sues To Invalidate - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Five New Mexico electors have cast their votes for Joe Biden to formalize the Democratic candidate’s victory in the state's presidential vote. The electors wore face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus as they met Monday inside a Statehouse committee room.

Biden won the statewide popular vote by a margin of nearly 11 percentage points over President Donald Trump.

That didn't stop a group identified as Republican Party-appointed electors from gathering in a hallway of the state Capitol to sign papers indicating their support for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, in cooperation with two people who recorded video with their phones.

State Republican Party spokesman Mike Curtis said the people were exercising free speech.

Trump's campaign committee filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in New Mexico that accused election regulators of violating state law concerning drop boxes that were used to collect absentee ballots.

The lawsuit contends that secure containers for collecting ballots should be guarded by video surveillance and that the rules were not being followed.

In a news release, the Republican Party of New Mexico, led by former congressman Steve Pearce, said it worked with Trump's legal team and is questioning the validity of votes and the outcome of the presidential election.

The secretary of state's office characterized the lawsuit as "yet another attempt by the outgoing Trump administration to silence the voices of lawful voters," according to an email from agency spokesperson Alex Curtas.

He said that the state Republican Party has acknowledged that the drop box system was appropriate by withdrawing an earlier lawsuit on the matter.

"We look forward to its swift dismissal," Curtas said in the email.

The Electoral College took on added importance this year because of Trump's refusal to concede he lost his race for reelection.

The meeting was accessible to the public and media by video webcast only. Electors of diverse backgrounds greeted the public briefly in English, Spanish and a Native American language.

The last time New Mexico sided with a Republican presidential candidate was the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush.

There were no immediate signs or protest or celebration outside the Capitol building, which has been the site of weekly pro-Trump rallies since the Nov. 7 election.

At a state district court in Albuquerque, defeated Republican congressional candidate and former police detective Michelle Garcia Holmes on Monday filed a detailed plan for inspecting hundreds of thousands of election ballots in the state's most populous county.

With support of the Republican Party, Garcia Holmes filed a court petition in early December to ensure Bernalillo County ballots are accessible for inspection by volunteers at a storage warehouse.

She said in court filings that the request was made "with an eye toward prospective improvements in election policy and retrospective, outside verification of certain results."

Pearce has said the effort is linked to a widespread examination of vote tabulation equipment.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland defeated Garcia Holmes by 16 percentage points, or more than 52,000 votes, to win reelection to the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District.

US Supreme Court Sides With New Mexico In Pecos River FightAssociated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with New Mexico in a fight with Texas over the Pecos River.

The decision issued Monday centers on evaporation and New Mexico's obligations to deliver a certain amount of water to Texas each year.

The court found that the river master overseeing the compact between the two states correctly calculated that New Mexico should get credit for floodwater it stored in 2014 at the request of Texas.

That state had argued that a significant amount of water had evaporated while it was in storage. The states wanted the court to clear up how to account for the evaporated water.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that Texas' arguments disregarded the history of proceedings related to the Pecos River and that both states previously agreed to the water master's regulations that meant New Mexico would not be held accountable for evaporative losses.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas and the state's top water official, State Engineer John D'Antonio, said they were pleased with the court's decision.

New Mexico and Texas also are feuding over management of the Rio Grande in separate case pending before the Supreme Court.