TUES: Gathering Of Nations Goes Virtual, Court Backs Governor's Pandemic Authority, +More

Feb 16, 2021

Gathering Of Nations Powwow Canceled For 2nd Year In A RowAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The world's largest powwow has been canceled for a second consecutive year because of the pandemic.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Monday that the Gathering of Nations Powwow, typically held in Albuquerque, will be entirely online.

Gathering of Nations founder Derek Mathews says they can't hold the live event until the state opens up for large gatherings. He was told that the powwow won't likely be possible until April of 2022.

He also says it wouldn't be right to risk people's safety, especially considering how COVID-19 has devastated tribal communities.

Normally in the spring a string of powwows hosted by Native American tribes and universities would be underway across the U.S., with tribal members honoring and showcasing their cultures through dancing and singing in traditional regalia.

In 2019, the Gathering of Nations Powwow drew around 91,000 people from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It also led to an economic impact of $22 million for Albuquerque.

The virtual powwow will be held April 23-24 with dance performances and competitions livestreamed from various places.

Bill On Civil Rights Lawsuits Passed By New Mexico House - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Legislators in the New Mexico House of Representatives have endorsed reforms to rein in police immunity from prosecution, voting 39-29 in favor of a bill that allows civil rights lawsuits in state court against a variety of local government agencies.

The vote Tuesday moves the bill from Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf and Rep. Georgene Louis to the state Senate for consideration.

In response to financial concerns voiced by local governments, sponsors amended the bill to cap liability for damages at $2 million. Liability applies only to government agencies and not individual public employees.

The bill raises the stakes on legal claims that are currently capped at about $1 million under state tort law.

The House vote fell along largely partisan lines with Republicans voting in opposition, joined by a handful of Democrats, including Reps. Derrick Lente of Albuquerque, Ambrose Castellano of Serrafina and Susan Herrera of Embudo.

Prospects for approval in the state Senate are uncertain amid opposition by local governments, school boards and police associations.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces is a co-sponsor. Last year he successfully ushered through the Legislature a red-flag gun law that can be used to remove firearms from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

New Mexico City's Disputed Statue Located At Private HomeSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A New Mexico city's statue of a Spanish colonialist that was removed following disputes over its representation has been quietly kept at a private home for months.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the statue of Don Diego de Vargas was removed from a Santa Fe park in June on the orders of Mayor Alan Webber during tensions over local monuments.

Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo says he saw the statue but declined to identify the property to prevent vandalism.

City spokesman Dave Herndon says the statue has been in the same place since the mayor requested its removal.

Some New Mexicans have decried de Vargas as a symbol of Spanish colonization, while supporters have said de Vargas is a symbol of Hispanic pride for leading a peaceful resettlement.

The statue, which was donated to the city and installed in 2007, has been vandalized on multiple occasions. The statue was removed for repairs after a 2013 attempt to pry the figure from its base.

Webber called for the removal of the statue in June along with two other controversial monuments, the Santa Fe Plaza obelisk and the Kit Carson obelisk.

Herndon would not reveal where the city expects the de Vargas statue will be kept.

Amid Pandemic, New Mexico Forges Path To Legal Cannabis - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators are sprinting amid the pandemic to come up with a framework for regulating and taxing recreational marijuana after voters ousted key opponents of pot legalization in 2020 elections.

Four proposals backed by Democrats with a social justice bent are competing for traction at the Legislature, along with a Republican proposal aimed at stamping out the illicit pot market.

The Legislature has until March 20 to send a cannabis bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, an enthusiastic backer of marijuana as a tool of economic development and fiscal security for the state. T

he state's Constitution doesn't allow for ballot initiatives, leaving cannabis legalization to the legislative process.

The primary election in 2020 unseated several staunch legalization opponents, including the former top-ranked Senate Democrat.

Elections last year beyond New Mexico also are changing the political calculus, as four states including Arizona passed referendums allowing recreational marijuana.

A House panel on Monday advanced a bill that places an emphasis on economic and social issues by subsidizing medical marijuana for poor patients, underwriting grants for communities affected by drug criminalization and expunging convictions for cannabis use and possession.

Senate committees are poised to vet at least three separate proposals. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, an arbitration attorney by trade, says he's eager to bring a compromise bill to the floor.

Active opponents of legalization include Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, a former congressman who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018. But some prominent Republicans are seeking a seat at the cannabis negotiating table.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell is the top Republican on a judiciary committee tasked with recommending a final bill for Senate consideration. He says legalization is necessary to stamp out the illicit market, and he has introduced a bill that would funnel taxes on cannabis toward a road safety fund to underwrite training for "drug recognition experts" to identify drug-impaired drivers.

The bill leaves no room for homegrown marijuana that might complicate efforts to penalize people involved in black market cannabis.

The prevailing House bill would allow some homegrown marijuana for personal use and might open cannabis markets to be tribally controlled enterprises through state agreements.

It also provides "integrated cannabis microbusiness" — marijuana's version of a small winery that can potentially grow, package and sell cannabis products at one site.

New Mexico Supreme Court Backs Governor's Pandemic Authority - Associated Press

The state Supreme Court has issued a written opinion that shows new resolve in its support of pandemic-related health restrictions placed on businesses by the governor of New Mexico.

At the same time Monday, the Legislature took initial steps that could place new limits on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's authority to declare a health emergency. 

The Supreme Court opinion provides detailed and updated reasoning for a decision in August that rejected a lawsuit brought by several restaurants and their industry association. 

The court said a suggestion that the Legislature holds special sessions to guide the pandemic response was obviously unworkable. Chief Justice Michael Vigil did not participate in the case.

A state Senate committee on Monday advanced a bill that would give the Legislature a share of authority over extended public health emergencies. 

The bill from Republican Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca would limit the duration of public health orders to 45 days and require legislative approval to extend an order.

The committee withheld a favorable endorsement but kept the initiative alive for further vetting prior to any possible Senate vote.

New Mexico health officials reported 200 additional COVID-19 cases on Monday and nine deaths.

Legislators Advance Bill Aimed At Allowing Recreational Pot - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Legislators have advanced a proposal to legalize recreational cannabis across New Mexico and lift the state's tight restrictions on production for its medical cannabis program.

After more than six hours of testimony and deliberations, a legislative committee on health issues on Monday endorsed one bill backed by Democrats and sidelined a second, in efforts to set up a taxed and regulated marketplace for broad cannabis sales.

The two-day hearing pushed to the forefront an initiative that would subsidize medical marijuana for the poor and do away with current limits on the number of plants each licensed producer can grow.

In all, four legislative proposals have been filed that would throw open the doors to widespread marijuana sales and use — 14 years after New Mexico established a medical marijuana program involving a variety of medical conditions, from cancer to post-traumatic stress.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham campaigned in 2018 on efforts to launch a recreational marijuana marketplace to create new jobs and diversify an economy that is tethered closely to oil and natural gas production. Several prominent opponents of legalization lost legislative elections in 2020, boosting prospects for broad cannabis reforms.

Democratic state Rep. Andrea Romero of Santa Fe pitched a bill Monday that would authorize statewide sales of cannabis to adults 21 and older with some local discretion over taxes and possible limitations on where and when pot is sold. It won endorsement on a 7-4 committee vote with Democrats in support.

Romero's bill — co-sponsored by Albuquerque Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez and Deborah Armstrong — would waive current taxes on medical marijuana and add a state excise tax of 9% on recreational cannabis sales. Local governments could add an additional 4% tax.

One-fifth of the tax revenues from cannabis would be set aside to underwrite sales to medical cannabis patients who can't afford the drug. About one-third of revenues would go toward grants that reinvest in communities that have been disproportionately affected by criminalization of drugs and to fund substance abuse prevention programs and marijuana abstinence education for youths.

Other revenues would be channeled to the state general fund.

A bill from state Democratic state Rep. Tara Lujan of Santa Fe would maintain some state restrictions on how much cannabis can be grown by licensed producers. Proponents of the approach say it would guard against a potential price collapse that might consolidate the cannabis industry in the hands of a few large-scale industrial growers. That bill was set aside Monday in the House, while a Senate version remains under consideration.

Republicans in the legislative minority are expressing mixed opinions on whether or how to proceed with a recreational marijuana marketplace.

Bill Advances To Hold Special Primary Congressional Election Associated Press

State legislators gave a warm welcome Monday to a bill that would change the candidate nomination process to replace U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland as she seeks confirmation as secretary of the Interior Department under President Joe Biden.

Haaland's confirmation would trigger a seldom-used party nomination process that some people regard as undemocratic.

Under current state law, candidates for a special general election would be nominated by a small circle of political activists who sit on central committees for the state Republican and Democratic parties.

A bill from Republican state Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque and Democratic state Rep. Daymon Ely of Corrales would change the selection process to a district-wide special primary election, followed by the special general election.

On Monday, a Senate panel on election policy advanced the bill after its first public hearing. Further vetting lies ahead before a possible Senate floor vote.

Moores and Ely say that current primary selection process would effectively disenfranchises voters.

"This bill gives power to the electorate to choose their candidates and requires candidates to demonstrate voter support versus mere party support," Moores said in a statement.

The current nomination process also is being challenged in court by a Republican contender for the 1st District seat encompassing Albuquerque.

State legislative analysts estimate that the special primary election would double the $3 million cost of the special general election.

Outside Team To Assist Albuquerque Police Internal AffairsAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The city of Albuquerque and the U.S. Department of Justice have proposed a plan to temporarily assist Albuquerque Police Department internal affairs investigators.

The Albuquerque Journal reported an outside team is expected to correct issues as they arise and train detectives on how to improve their job performance.

The proposal was filed in federal court and agreed to by the city, the justice department and an independent monitor overseeing police reform.

The plan is a response to a November report by independent monitor James Ginger that said the police department failed at every level to regulate itself.

Ginger evaluated progress the city made in compliance with a settlement agreement resulting from a 2014 justice department finding that officers showed a pattern and practice of excessive force.

Ginger found officers failed to report use of force, detectives in the Internal Affairs Force Division were "going through the motions" and the department leadership allowed subpar work that was approved by the department's chief at the time.

Chief Michael Geier was asked to step down partly because of the report. Deputy Chief Harold Medina now serves as interim head of the department.

Medina, who now serves as interim head of the department, said it welcomes the resources and expertise while changing its use-of-force investigations.

University Ends Journal Subscriptions In Face Of Budget Cuts - Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

The New Mexico State University Library has decided not to renew its subscriptions to 433 scholarly journals in the wake of budget cuts. 

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that the school for several months has been preparing for two years of budget cuts in anticipation of coronavirus-related economic strain. 

One-third of the subscriptions were titles in a package that the library's interim dean Katherine Terpis said will save the university $800,000 over the next two years. 

The other cancelations will save about $45,000 more. 

The journal subscriptions allowed students and professors to access the works for research purposes.

They will still be able to access past content that the school already paid for but new content will be available as a purchase-on-demand, through an interlibrary loan or document delivery. 

The school will still have access to other scholarly journals and has about $267,000 in dedicated student fees to pay for subscriptions. 

New Mexico Reports 200 COVID-19 Cases, 9 Deaths Monday Associated Press

New Mexico health officials reported 200 additional COVID-19 cases on Monday and nine deaths.

The latest numbers bring the state to a total of 180,761 known cases and 3,538 deaths since the pandemic began.

Bernalillo County reported more cases than any other, with 65 new cases. Doña Ana County reported 21 new cases, San Juan County reported 20 cases and McKinley County reported 19 cases.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

New infections in New Mexico have been trending downward and health officials said last week that vaccinations have helped bring the numbers down.

However, they stressed that public health practices such as mask-wearing and hand-washing are still important as different variants continue to emerge.

Navajo Nation Reports 55 New COVID-19 Cases, 3 More Deaths Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials reported 55 new COVID-19 cases and three more deaths.

The latest numbers released Sunday evening bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 29,269 since the pandemic began. There have been 1,111 deaths reported related to COVID-19.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez issued a statement reminding people to continue to take precautions to avoid spreading the virus and to protect their loved ones. He also encouraged people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

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

Tribal officials said more than 15,760 people have recovered from COVID-19 on the reservation and nearly 240,000 tests have been administered.