TUES: Lawmakers On Track To Pass $300M Relief Bill In Special Session, + More

Nov 24, 2020

New Mexico On Track To Pass $330 Million Virus Relief Bill - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

Republican lawmakers are voicing support for a coronavirus relief package proposed in the Democratic-controlled New Mexico legislature.

Bipartisan support emerging in the House signals that the $330 million bill will pass quickly.

If signed this week, the state could distribute $1,200 stimulus checks to people who are unemployed or who have run out of unemployment this year.

It would also provide smaller $750 checks for New Mexico residents who weren't eligible for the federal stimulus check this year, including dependents and immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Most of the proposed spending will be made possible by federal relief funding previously assigned to New Mexico.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for the one-day special session as the state faces its steepest death and infection rates, and as around $319 million in unspent federal coronavirus aid relief was expected to expire.

New Mexico reported 2,107 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, bringing the total to more than 86,200. There were also 28 more deaths, pushing the total number of dead to 1,428.

With Democrats holding large majorities in both houses, the roughly $330 million relief bill was expected to pass during the special session of the Legislature Tuesday. But support from top GOP lawmakers signaled that it could pass quickly.

The bill allocates $100 million to support businesses with 100 or fewer employees. The New Mexico Finance Authority is tasked with distributing the grants, which can be up to $50,000, and has wide discretion about whom to choose. It's instructed to focus on the service industry.

Outside the state Capitol, two dozen people gathered in opposition to the relief bill, and the health orders from the governor that have closed many businesses and mandated mask wearing. One brought a sign that said "my body, my face, my choice."

The building is normally open to the public and buzzing with lobbyists during a legislative session but has been closed since the onset of the pandemic.

New Mexico Gives Businesses Testing Option To Avoid ClosureAssociated Press

New Mexico grocery stores and other essential businesses could avoid mandatory closures triggered by COVID-19 surges among employees if they agree to regularly test their workers and help with the state's contact tracing efforts.

The state health and environment departments announced the voluntary program Tuesday. A business would have to submit a plan that details surveillance testing and contact tracing efforts for each of its locations.

New Mexico on Tuesday reported an additional 2,107 COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to nearly 86,500 since the pandemic began. Another 28 deaths were reported and more than 870 people were hospitalized.

State officials already have acknowledged that the current rate of testing would have to more than double to effectively identify and track infections.

The state currently is averaging close to 12,000 tests a day as laboratories are working around the clock to keep up with demand and volunteers are being sought to help with the effort.

Canvassing Board Certifies Joe Biden's Win In New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The state canvassing board has certified Joe Biden's win in New Mexico, delivering the state's five electoral votes to the Democrat.

Approval came Tuesday as the board met remotely amid the surging pandemic. Biden's victory without a campaign visit to New Mexico extended a string of victories for his party in a state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by 14 percentage points.

However, Biden's margin of victory fell short of that margin because of significant Republican turnout in some parts of the state. New Mexico was one of several states due to certify the election on Tuesday.

Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a member of the canvassing board, said overall turnout and the number of absentee ballots cast marked records for the state.

Toulouse Oliver also touted the integrity of the election, saying there were multiple levels of checks and a review by an independent auditor to ensure accuracy.

The review turned up what she called "a small number of very minor findings," which included some hand counting errors and an unspecified voting system error. The secretary of state's office did not immediately provide details about which counties were affected.

The Republican Party of New Mexico announced last week that it was working with President Donald Trump's campaign and looking into what party officials described as irregularities.

The party during early voting had raised concerns about poll watchers not having access to the ballot verification process. Party officials also voiced concerns about the machines and software used by the state. But no legal challenges were filed in New Mexico in the weeks following the election.

The canvassing board on Tuesday also issued orders for automatic recounts in three close races, including a state House seat and a judicial post in southern New Mexico and the race for district attorney in a district that covers several central counties.

Audit Details Lack Of Oversight At New Mexico Spaceport - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

An audit performed as part of an investigation into the conduct of Spaceport America's former chief executive details what officials call a severe breakdown of internal controls that resulted in possible taxpayer funding waste and abuse.

The report was made public Tuesday by the state auditor's office after it was finalized in November by an independent forensic accounting firm.

Former Spaceport CEO Dan Hicks was placed on administrative leave earlier this year and later fired after he was accused of circumventing internal controls and accounting procedures.

He has declined to discuss about the allegations. State officials say they're addressing the transparency and oversight concerns.

The state Economic Development Department paid the accounting firm to review procurement procedures and agreements governing the gross receipts tax and the use of revenue generated by the tax. The state auditor's office also reviewed financial aspects related to the spaceport.

The report is based on interviews with Hicks and spaceport staff along with emails, documents and other information gathered during the three-month investigation. It details improper procurement, excessive travel spending and a lack of financial oversight going back several years.

Scott McLaughlin, the spaceport's operations director and an aerospace engineer, has been serving as the interim head of Spaceport America since late June. He will continue to lead the spaceport until the board hires a permanent director.

The board is scheduled to meet next on Dec. 2.

Located in a remote stretch of southern New Mexico, Spaceport America is billed as the world's first installation built specifically for the burgeoning commercial space industry to ferry paying passengers to the lower fringes of space and launch other payloads into orbit.

The idea to build the desert outpost was first hatched years ago by British billionaire Richard Branson and former Gov. Bill Richardson.

While commercial flights have yet to begin, Virgin Galactic — the spaceport's anchor tenant — is preparing for its first space test flight from the facility.

The flight was planned for last week but public health restrictions prompted by the pandemic forced a delay.

More Than 240k Navajos Apply For Tribal Virus Relief Funding Associated Press

About three-quarters of Navajos enrolled with the tribe have applied for financial assistance due to the coronavirus pandemic. The deadline to file an application is Monday.

Already, more than 240,000 Navajos have applied. The Navajo Nation has about $90 million available for hardship assistance. The money comes from the tribe's share of a federal coronavirus relief package.

The tribe has about 327,000 members, making it one of the largest of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. It has about $90 million available for hardship assistance that comes from the Navajo Nation's share of a federal coronavirus relief package.

The average payment would be $454 for adults and $151 for minors, according to the controller's website. But the decision is expected to be made based on need, up to $1,500 for adults and $500 for children.

More money could be added to the fund next month if other projects fall through.

Tribes across the country have until Dec. 30 to spend the money. Many turned to financial aid programs to disburse the funding quickly.

New Mexico Lawmakers Consider $1,200 Payment To Unemployed - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

New Mexico lawmakers are considering a virus relief bill Tuesday during a one-day legislative session called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The bill aims to inject about $350 million in direct economic aid for the unemployed, small businesses and emergency housing subsidies. For workers laid off during the pandemic, it would provide a $1,200 one-time payment to help hurting households. Money may also be allocated for increased COVID-19 testing capacity to speed up results.

Lawmakers say the proposed spending will be made possible by federal relief funding previously assigned to New Mexico.

Democratic lawmakers are optimistic that they can introduce and pass the bill in one day.

If they do, the bill could be signed into law by Thanksgiving and state officials could send the $1,200 stimulus checks before Christmas.

Despite days of negotiations and calm on both sides of the aisle tensions flared late Friday with Democratic speaker of the House Brian Egolf telling reporters that Republicans were withdrawing support for the bill. He said he didn't know why.

Republican-heavy counties in the oil-rich southeast of the state like Artesia have seen some of the highest unemployment rates in the state as energy prices have tanked with the global economy.

Monday afternoon, Townsend dismissed the governor's proposed relief measures as "band-aids and ineffective and too little, too late pain relievers."

The Statehouse will be closed to the public as a precaution against virus transmission, with some lawmakers participating remotely. Webcasts are scheduled for floor debates and possible committee hearings in the Democratic-led Legislature.

New Mexico Aims To Boost Virus Testing With Saliva Samples - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The New Mexico Health Department hopes to expand capacity for COVD-19 testing by offering saliva testing. Starting Monday, officials said the FDA-approved test is being offered at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque.

The method is recommended for asymptomatic individuals and involves swabbing the mouth to collect a saliva sample.

The tests will be self-collected, but trained personnel will be present when and where these tests are available to ensure samples are properly collected.

New Mexico has seen cases skyrocket in recent weeks and officials have been looking for ways to expand testing options.

Hospital officials on Monday also renewed their pleas for people to stay home and refrain from holiday gatherings.

The state on Monday reported an additional 2,259 confirmed cases, bringing the total to nearly 84,150 since the pandemic began. The death toll has reached 1,400.

The state for the past week has been averaging close to 12,000 tests per day but officials have said that would need to double in order to get a better handle on limiting spread.

New testing sites have opened up, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned during a recent briefing that there aren't enough medical professionals to administer tests as more New Mexicans request them.

State agencies have put out the call for volunteers to help with duties such as opening test kits, running test results to medical personnel and managing traffic at testing sites.

State officials on Monday also acknowledged the lag in the turn-around time for results. Whether positive or negative, they're planning to notify people via text and email to close the gap.

Navajo Nation Reports 197 Additional Virus Cases, No Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation is reporting 197 additional COVID-19 cases and no deaths from the virus as of Monday evening.

A day earlier, officials had reported 383 cases, an all-time high for the vast reservation.

In all, the tribe has reported more than 15,000 cases of the virus and 631 deaths since the pandemic began.

The Navajo Nation is currently under a three-week stay-at-home order. Only essential workers are allowed to come and go. Others are permitted to travel in cases of emergency or for essentials.

Netflix To Expand Production Hub In New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Netflix is pledging an additional $1 billion investment in its production hub in New Mexico.

The company joined government officials Monday in announcing its plans.

About 300 acres would be added to the existing campus on the southern edge of Albuquerque, making it what officials say will be one of the largest film production facilities in North America.

Aside from construction jobs, the project is expected to result in 1,000 production jobs over the next decade.

A total of $24 million in state and local economic development funding will be funneled toward the expansion, and bonds will help reduce some taxes for Netflix.

Netflix first marked its presence in New Mexico in 2018, when it announced it was buying Albuquerque Studios and pledged $1 billion in spending over a decade. At the time, government officials saw the move as a transformative victory for a state that has struggled to lessen its reliance on federal funding and oil and gas development.

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos pointed to the proximity to Los Angeles, the crew base and local talent as reasons for the continued investment.