WED: Economists Outline Budget Hole In State Government, + More

May 6, 2020

Memo Outlines Budget Hole For New Mexico State Government - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The economic fallout in New Mexico from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to wipe out between $2.1 billion and $3.9 billion in previously anticipated state government income by mid-2021, a group of state economists announced Wednesday.

A memo from staff economists at three executive agencies and the Legislature outlined two scenarios for the economic downturn and recovery.

Both involve plummeting state revenues from personal income taxes and gross receipts taxes on sales and services, as well as reduced income from severance taxes and federal royalty payments on oil production.

The decline in revenue far outstrips the $1.25 billion earmarked for New Mexico under the main federal coronavirus relief package that was designed to help businesses, workers and the health care system. Additional federal relief was earmarked for Native American communities.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham plans to call the Legislature to a special session the second week of June to rewrite the $7.6 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year that starts on June 30.

The governor wants the Legislature to consider temporarily tapping more money from the state's $18 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to shore up state finances and the economy, at the risk of reducing routine annual annual distributions over the long run.

LANL Studying New Virus Strain As NM Cases Rise To 4,291Albuquerque Journal

Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory working with other scientists say there may be another strain of coronavirus emerging that is more contagious.

The Albuquerque Journal reported the team published its initial research last week and found this new strain is replacing the strain from China and could make people more susceptible to reinfection.

The work could inform development of a vaccine, but it has not yet been peer-reviewed.

There were 153 more positive tests for COVID-19 in New Mexico on Wednesday. There are now 4,291 in total. Officials said there were also seven additional deaths, bringing that total to 169.

Two of those deaths were in congregate living facilities in Bernalillo County.  State health officials say they have identified at least one positive case in residents and/or staff in 29 such facilities around the state.

McKinley County in northwest New Mexico continues to lead in the number of cases with more than 1,300.

Navajo Nation Reports 6 Additional Deaths Due To COVID-19Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials report six additional deaths from COVID-19, raising the total on the tribe's reservation to at least 79 as of Tuesday.

Tribal officials also reported 85 additional positive COVID-19 cases, raising the total on the reservation at least 2,599 as of Tuesday.

The Navajo Nation has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, with the tribe implementing curfews to try to stop the spread of the disease among residents of its far-flung communities. The reservation includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The counties with the most reported positive cases as of Tuesday were New Mexico's McKinley County with 705 cases and Arizona's Apache and Navajo counties with 622 cases and 556 cases, respectively.

Sierra County Sheriff Deputizes 20 Churchgoers Amid PandemicKOB-TV, Associated Press

A rural county sheriff in New Mexico has deputized about 20 church members at an in-person church service, working around Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's public health order designed to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

KOB-TV reported that Sierra County Sheriff Glenn Hamilton said it's about recruiting help and preparing for the worst but he also noted that law enforcement is exempt from the governor's stay-at-home order, meaning people can now attend future services.

The newly deputized can help with administrative staff duties and crowd control, but not actual law enforcement. These deputies have no authority until called into service, which has not happened yet.

There has been one case of COVID-19 in Sierra County so far.

Official Says US Must Move Ahead With Nuclear Weapons Work - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A top nuclear security official says the U.S. must move ahead with plans to ramp up production of key components for the nation's nuclear arsenal despite challenges tied to the coronavirus.

Federal officials have set a 2030 deadline for increased production of the plutonium cores used in nuclear weapons. The work will be split between facilities in New Mexico and South Carolina and will attract billions of federal dollars.

The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration said in a recent letter to U.S. Sen. Tom Udall that her agency has worked with the contractor that manages Los Alamos on precautions to protect employees from the virus while moving ahead with defense work.

Watchdog groups have called for a more in-depth look at the plutonium core project at Los Alamos, but the National Nuclear Security Administration rejected those efforts earlier this year.

The agency opted to prepare a supplemental analysis of an environmental review done for Los Alamos more than a decade ago.

New Mexico Mandates Face Masks At Retail Stores, RestaurantsAssociated Press, KUNM

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is ordering workers at retail stores and restaurants to wear face coverings as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19, starting with big box stores and major grocery stores on Wednesday.

The requirement extends to other essential businesses starting on Monday.

A new testing strategy for the state prison system also was announced Tuesday, and the state plans to underwrite a monthly hazard bonus for child care workers.  

The state reported 107 more positive cases Tuesday bringing the total number to 4,138. There were five more deaths as well, bringing that total to 162.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the state has not yet achieved a uniform downward trend in infections and aggregated cell phone data shows that residents are traveling more.

Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel announced that the state will begin systematically testing prison inmates for the first time. By May 13, the state intends to test all guards and staff, along with 25% of inmates. Incoming inmates will be tested and isolated from the general prison population for 14 days as a precaution against virus transmission.

Workers At New Mexico Meat Plant Tested For CoronavirusAssociated Press, KUNM

More than 400 workers at a meat packing plant in southern New Mexico have been tested after state officials say an employee at the facility turned up positive for COVID-19. Officials confirmed Tuesday there are now five positive cases.

Test kits for the workers were flown to the state Health Department's lab in Albuquerque for processing Monday and Tuesday. Health officials said the facility, Stampede Meat in Santa Teresa, is still safely operating and employees already are following state and federal guidelines for safe food handling.

New Mexico has 4,138 cases as of Tuesday and 162 deaths. Several thousand tests have been done in Doña Ana County, turning up 170 total cases — far less than McKinley, Bernalillo, Sandoval and San Juan counties. McKinley County, which includes Gallup and part of the Navajo Nation, accounts for three of every 10 cases statewide.

The Civil Air Patrol also has helped transport test kits from Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces to the Albuquerque laboratory and delivered a shipment of personal protective equipment to the Farmington area and brought test kits to the lab on the way back.

US Regulators Grant More Time To Consider Nuclear Fuel Plan - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The public will have more time to comment on an environmental review related to a proposed multibillion-dollar complex in New Mexico that would store spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants around the U.S. 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted a request by members of New Mexico's congressional delegation, providing another 60 days for the process. 

In a preliminary recommendation, the commission favors approval of a license for Holtec International to build the facility in southeastern New Mexico. 

The congressional delegates had argued more time was needed given the health emergency that has resulted from the coronavirus outbreak. 

The delegation said in a statement that full public participation is particularly important for projects involving nuclear waste.

The commission plans to hold a nationwide webinar and five public meetings in New Mexico during the revised public comment period. 

Treasury To Begin Distributing Virus Relief Money To Tribes - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The U.S. Treasury Department says it will begin distributing billions in coronavirus relief funding to tribes.

The announcement Tuesday comes more than a week after a congressional deadline to get $8 billion to tribal governments. 

Tribes sued to keep the funding from Alaska Native corporations, which own Native land but aren't tribal governments. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington, D.C., gave the tribes a victory last week by limiting the funding to the country's 574 federally recognized tribes while he settles the question of eligibility.

The Treasury Department says tribes will receive a combined $4.8 billion based on population over the next several days and the rest will be doled out later. 

Tribes are relying on the money to stay afloat, respond to the coronavirus and recover after shutting down casinos, tourism operations and other businesses.


GOP US Senate Hopeful Unveils Ad, Doesn't Mention Trump Name - By Russell Contreras Associated Press

Former television weatherman and Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Mark Ronchetti has released a new ad with uplifting messages but doesn't mention President Donald Trump by name. 

The ad unveiled Tuesday targeting New Mexico GOP voters uses footage of the raising of the American Flag on Iwo Jima and astronauts on the moon. 

The commercial comes after the Albuquerque Journal reported last week his GOP rivals criticized him for saying at a climate change event last year that he was a Republican "until the orange one." 

Ronchetti campaign manager Jeff Glassburner called opponents unelectable who "are engaging in negative attacks because they have no substance to their campaigns."

New Mexico Man Pleads Guilty In Case Involving DNA TrackingAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A man in New Mexico could face at least a decade in prison after investigators used an unusual technique of tracking DNA through a genealogy service to link him to a 2015 rape.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that Angel Gurule pleaded guilty Monday to criminal sexual penetration in what authorities believe is the state's first case of an arrest made after investigators uploaded his DNA profile to the database that allows members of the public to investigate their heritage.

Defense attorney Raymond Maestas said he plans to present evidence of mitigating factors during the sentencing hearing, including details of childhood trauma and testimony by psychologists who examined Gurule.

Virgin Galactic Posts Loss, Touts Future Potential Revenue  - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Virgin Galactic has reported a first-quarter net loss of $60 million but is touting tens of millions of dollars in potential future revenue as more people have put down deposits for the chance to buy a ticket once the spaceline resumes sales. 

Company officials outlined earnings for the quarter during a webcast Tuesday.

The presentation comes just days after Virgin Galactic celebrated the first glide flight of its spaceship over its new home at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

The company is in the midst of final testing but has yet to offer a date for the start of commercial flights. It also has inked a new agreement with NASA to develop high speed technologies.