TUES: Legislature Seeks Greater Spending, Sewage Monitoring Helps Prevent COVID Outbreak, + More

Jan 12, 2021


New Mexico Legislature Seeks Greater Spending Amid Pandemic - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Leading New Mexico legislators are proposing a 4% increase in state general fund spending that would devote new resources to health care and public education amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The detailed budget proposal was announced Tuesday by Democratic and Republican members of a lead budget-writing committee.

Legislators are also proposing cost-of-living pay increases for state workers and public school employees and a bailout of the state's indebted unemployment trust fund to avoid future payroll tax increases.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is suggesting 3.3% increase in spending without blanket pay raises. Economists are predicting a rebound in state government income on top of multibillion-dollar financial reserves.

Budget negotiations will begin in earnest with the start of the 60-day legislative session on Jan. 19. They are likely to include proposals for first-time economic relief to low-wage workers in the private sector who have labored through the pandemic.

The Legislature and governor are largely in agreement on the need for increased spending for the state Health Department, which oversees coronavirus testing, infection tracing and vaccinations.

Legislators want to devote $300 million to pay down ballooning debts to the federal government for unemployment insurance benefits that were paid to jobless New Mexico residents.

Democratic state Rep. Patty Lundstrom of Gallup, a lead budget negotiator in the House of Representatives, characterized the proposed state spending increases as cautious changes that would leave the state with financial reserves of $1.6 billion — equal to 22% of annual state spending obligations.

Recovered Midwestern Bird Soars Off Endangered Species List - By John Flesher AP Environmental Writer

Federal officials say a bird called the interior least tern is being dropped from the endangered species list. The small, fish-eating bird lives along rivers, lakes and wetlands in the Great Plains and Lower Mississippi Valley.

Its numbers plummeted in the late 19th century as its feathers became popular for women's hats. Later, it was harmed by dam construction and other river engineering. Conservation efforts have boosted the interior least tern's numbers in recent decades.

Environmental groups support the decision to remove federal protections. A number of states, including New Mexico, are all known to have colonies of the terns.

"We consider it an Endangered Species Act success story for sure," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity.

But he cautioned that vigilance was needed to make sure the bird's river habitat remains secure.

"Scientists are warning that we're in danger of losing 1 million species to extinction," Greenwald said. "Efforts to manage rivers in a more natural way are the kinds of things we need to do to avoid the extinction crisis."

Trump Asks To Drop Voting Allegations In New Mexico, For Now - Associated Press

President Donald Trump abruptly asked a court Monday to drop a lawsuit that challenged New Mexico's use of drop boxes for absentee ballots in the 2020 general election as well as vote-counting equipment sold by Dominion Voting Systems. 

The request filed Monday with a federal court in Albuquerque would dismiss the lawsuit from Trump but allow the concerns to be revisited. 

Similar allegations by the Trump campaign about Dominion vote-counting have been rejected as without evidence by the federal agency overseeing election security. 

State election regulators want allegations in the case to be dismissed permanently. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver had requested that Trump's campaign be sanctioned for pursuing meritless litigation.

The state Republican Party has publicly echoed some concerns raised in Trump's lawsuit about the election vote count, voting machines and drop boxes.

Joe Biden won the vote in New Mexico by nearly 11%.

New Mexico Touts Sewage Monitoring Program In COVID-19 FightAssociated Press

State officials say a wastewater monitoring program has helped to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at a juvenile justice facility in southern New Mexico.

The New Mexico Environment Department said the virus was detected in wastewater samples taken from the state-run facility in Las Cruces in late December.

After testing more than 100 people, they were able to determine that an asymptomatic positive individual was working in the facility. That person was isolated and subsequent wastewater samples did not detect the virus, indicating an outbreak was prevented among the young people and staff at the facility.

Sixteen federal, state and local correctional facilities are enrolled in the program. Twice a week, the Environment Department collects sewage samples at the facilities and analyzes them for COVID-19 gene markers.

The Environment Department is posting the sampling data on its website.

Officials plan to expand the effort as funding allows.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico were approached 158,000 as an additional 893 cases were reported Tuesday by state health officials. That included nearly two dozen inmates at correctional facilities around the state who tested positive.

State health officials also reported another 30 deaths, bringing the statewide tally to nearly 2,800 since the pandemic began.

New Mexico Governor Supports Tapping Endowment For Education - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico Democrats say they're closer than ever to increasing withdrawals from one of the country's largest endowments to fund education initiatives.

Increasing annual payouts from the $20 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says a 1% increase in distributions should be set aside to fund early childhood education.

While the withdrawals will decrease future growth of the fund, Democratic legislators argue that the state needs to invest more in education. They say public sentiment is shifting in their favor, and a new crop of progressive legislators can get the needed resolution passed.

Democrats said Monday that public opinion polling commissioned by supporters of the measure shows increased favorability among voters, with 63% of Republicans and 79% of Democrats indicating support. The poll of 500 likely voters was conducted last week by Latino Decisions and had a 4% margin of error.

The Land Grant Permanent Fund has grown to around $20 billion in part because it pays out much less than it collects from land uses like oil and natural gas drilling and mineral mining. It's also fueled by returns on stock market investments.

It is one of the largest endowments in the U.S. of any type of institution, topped only by large universities such as Harvard.

If approved during the upcoming legislative session, the measure could be voted on as early as November and as late as 2022.

New Mexico Democratic Party Chair Won't Seek Another Term - Associated Press

The chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party of New Mexico says she will not run for another term when her current tenure ends in April. 

Marg Elliston made the announcement Monday. 

Elliston has served as chair for three years and led the party through two election cycles, including campaigning amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the recent election, Democrats solidified their majority in the state Legislature. They also held on to all but one congressional seat — losing the key southern district to Republican Yvette Herrell. 

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham praised Elliston for her leadership over the recent years.

The party said Elliston has overseen the expansion of programs aimed at bolstering the party's future by recruiting staffers, candidates and volunteers. She also led a number of successful fundraisers and expanded the party's outreach to Native American voters.

Before taking over as party chair, Elliston previously led the Democratic Party of Sandoval County and had volunteered as a lobbyist at the Legislature.

New Mexico Governor Seeks New Spending On Health, Education - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is recommending a 3.3% increase in state general fund spending in the coming fiscal year to devote more to public education and health and workplace safety programs.

The move comes as authorities grapple with the economic hardships and mounting death toll of the pandemic. The Legislature, led by Democrats, convenes Jan. 19 for a 60-day session as New Mexico faces major uncertainties about economic recovery.

Tight restrictions on public gatherings and nonessential business remain in place across most of the state.

At the same time, the state has financial reserves of roughly $2.5 billion at its disposal.

Official Says Many In New Mexico Eligible For COVID-19 Vaccine - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's top health official says many residents are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations because they have one or more preexisting medical conditions.

The state recently expanded vaccine eligibility to those who are 75 and older and anyone over 16 who's at risk because they have cancer, kidney disease, heart problems or other chronic illnesses.

Front-line essential workers like grocery store employees and educators who can't work remotely also are on the list.

Dr. Tracie Collins, the state health secretary, on Monday urged people to be patient because vaccine supplies are limited. She added that the state is being flexible with providers to ensure doses aren't wasted.

The vaccinations come as the state has seen an uptick in the weekly average of confirmed COVID-19 infections. The rate of spread also remains above the target set by the state.

More than 170,000 doses have been shipped to New Mexico and over 78,000 of those having been administered, according to state and federal tracking data. That puts the state among the top in the nation when it comes to vaccine distribution.

Nearly one-third of the vaccinations already distributed have gone to health care workers with three of New Mexico's major hospital networks.

The state on Friday released its updated plan for distribution. It details how people will be prioritized based on medical conditions and other risk factors.

The vaccinations come as the state has seen an uptick in the weekly average of confirmed COVID-19 infections. The rate of spread also remains above the target set by the state.

New Mexico health officials on Monday reported an additional 933 infections, bringing the total to more than 157,000. That includes six new cases among inmates at the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Cibola County.

Inmates at county and state lockups are among those now eligible for vaccines, but Collins noted that they still fall behind those with at least one preexisting condition.

Health officials on Monday also reported a statewide total of 2,764 deaths related to the pandemic.

Navajo Nation Reports 154 New COVID-19 Cases, But No Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Monday reported 154 new COVID-19 cases, but no deaths.  

The latest figures increased the tribe's totals since the pandemic began to 25,383 cases while the known death toll stayed at 871. 

Health officials say more than 216,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 on the reservation and nearly 13,000 have recovered. 

The tribe is continuing weekend lockdowns that run from Friday night to early Monday morning through Jan. 25.

New Mexico Vaccinates Thousands Of Health Care Workers Associated Press

About 24,000 health care workers with three of New Mexico's major hospital networks have been vaccinated.

Top medical officials with University of New Mexico Hospital, Presbyterian Healthcare Services and Lovelace Health System provided an update Monday on vaccination efforts. They say they're working with the state Health Department as the rollout is expanded to include more people.

The state on Friday released its updated plan for distribution. It details how people will be prioritized based on preexisting conditions and other factors. Federal data show more than 170,000 doses have been shipped to New Mexico with nearly 77,000 of those having been administered.

Vaccinations come as the state has seen an uptick in the weekly average COVID-19 case count. The rate of spread also remains above the target set by state health officials.

Health officials on Monday announced 933 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to more than 157,000 since the start of the pandemic. There were 15 additional deaths as well. The number of deaths of New Mexico residents related to COVID-19 is now 2,764.