WED: First Lady Visits Albuquerque, US Pauses Oil And Gas Leases, + More

Apr 21, 2021

Jill Biden Visits Southwest US Amid Vaccine Push - By Susan Montoya Bryan and Morgan Lee, Associated Press

First lady Jill Biden has kicked off a three-day visit to the U.S. Southwest on Wednesday with a tour of a vaccination clinic in New Mexico, where early efforts to get people registered for shots helped to propel the state's standing as a national leader in vaccine distribution.

The tour includes stops in Albuquerque and later the Navajo Nation as the United States is set to meet President Joe Biden's goal of administering 200 million coronavirus doses in his first 100 days in office. The president also outlined his administration's latest plans to motivate more Americans to get shots as demand diminishes.

In New Mexico, nearly 40% of residents 16 and older have been fully vaccinated. While eligibility was expanded earlier this month as part of the Biden administration's push, the focus is now shifting to younger people ahead of the summer break.

State health officials also are recruiting trusted voices in local communities to respond to skepticism about vaccine efficacy and safety. The first lady had encouraging words for three people waiting for shots at a clinic in Albuquerque.

"I've had the shot, and it doesn't hurt," she said at the clinic that the governor described as a linchpin of efforts to serve minority communities.

Viviana Galvez, who works at the clinic, told Biden she was hesitant at first to receive a shot because she gets steroid injections in her spine and was concerned about what kind of effect that might have. After doing more research, she decided to go ahead and get vaccinated.

"What do we have to lose? We don't want to lose any more lives, we don't want to lose our family members, our friends. We just need to get it done," Galvez said. Her mother and daughter also received their shots.

Staff at the Albuquerque clinic have been working overtime and on weekends to immunize more people.

"It's been a long year. People are tired, but they're hopeful," said Will Kaufman, medical director at First Choice Community Healthcare.

Biden was accompanied by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose administration has been working to ensure that shots are distributed to rural and underserved areas through mobile clinics and partnerships with community health organizations.

At a drive-thru vaccination clinic in remote Mora County on Tuesday, health workers and members of a volunteer medical corps sped through a list of registered patients and offered shots of the Moderna vaccine to unregistered companions and a few passersby. Emergency technicians fanned out at day's end, traveling down dirt roads to administer shots to homebound elderly residents in a sprawling county with just 4,500 residents who are 80% Latino. Mora is among the poorest counties in the nation.

The clinic's lead pharmacist, Uri Bassan, said local vaccination efforts are shifting toward eligible high school students before they disperse on vacation and to summer jobs and college.

Melvin Maestas, 44, heard of the clinic by word of mouth and arrived with his 81-year-old father, who has dementia. They both received doses.

"To me it's a relief. I'm worried that it's starting to come up again," Maestas said of infection rates.

As part of her swing through the Southwest, the first lady also will meet Thursday with Navajo President Jonathan Nez and first lady Phefelia Nez in Window Rock, Arizona, before delivering a radio address. She is scheduled to attend a listening session Friday with Navajo students before taking a tour of a vaccination site that caters to Native Americans.

Amid Biden's visit to states that stretch to border with Mexico, New Mexico state health officials highlighted that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is required to stay away from vaccine sites and that the state only shares information with federal immigration officials under very extraordinary circumstances.

Biden and the governor wrapped up their quick visit to the Albuquerque clinic by handing out buttons and stickers.

First Lady Jill Biden To Visit Albuquerque, Navajo NationAssociated Press

First lady Jill Biden plans to visit an Albuquerque health care facility as part of a three-day, two-state visit to the U.S. Southwest this week.

The White House announced that Biden will be accompanied by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham when she visits the First Choice Community Healthcare clinic in Albuquerque's South Valley on Wednesday afternoon.

Biden also will travel to the Navajo Nation where she will meet Thursday with Navajo President Jonathan Nez and First Lady Phefelia Nez in Window Rock, Arizona, before delivering a radio address.

She's scheduled to attend a listening session Friday with Navajo students before taking a tour of a vaccination site.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID-Related Deaths For 10th Day In A Row – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported finding no new COVID-19 related deaths for the 10th consecutive day.

The tribe reported nine new confirmed coronavirus cases, but no additional deaths on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The latest numbers bring the Navajo Nation's pandemic case total to 30,380 with the death toll remaining at 1,262.

Tribal health officials said more than 16,500 people have recovered from COVID-19 thus far.

The tribe had been easing into reopening but that slowed somewhat after coronavirus variants were confirmed on the reservation. Tribal officials urged residents to stay vigilant.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez said the tribe recently had a cluster of COVID-19 cases as a result of a family gathering where people were not wearing masks.

Tribal public health orders mandate that masks be worn on the reservation and a daily curfew is in effect. Restaurants cannot have dine-in services.

Navajo Nation roads also are closed to visitors and tourists, which doesn't affect travel on state highways that run through the reservation.

Meanwhile, health care facilities across the reservation continue to offer the vaccine by appointment or at drive-thru events.

Updated COVID Map Shows Some Counties Losing GroundKUNM, Santa Fe New Mexican

An updated statewide COVID-19 map released Wednesday by the New Mexico Department of Health shows most counties staying at the same levels in terms of re-opening.

But 8 counties regressed to the yellow level, including Catron, Chaves, Eddy, Harding, Lincoln, Rio Arriba, Sierra and Socorro, while Colfax moved to the most restrictive red level.

Another 5 counties advanced to less restrictive levels while 15 counties are still in yellow, including Bernalillo. Santa Fe County remains in turquoise, the least restrictive level.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the new map prompted calls from Republicans for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to revamp the state’s system of designating counties red, yellow, green or turquoise.

The system uses the per-capita daily incidence of new COVID-19 cases and average COVID-19 test positivity within county’s borders to determine the level of public health risk and requirement for each county.

The state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases was 219 as of April 15, according to the New Mexican. That’s above a target of 168.

Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said he is disappointed to see some counties regressing but also said he’s optimistic most of the state will be in green or turquoise by the end of May.

State health officials said 57% of New Mexicans have been partially vaccinated and nearly 40% are fully vaccinated.

Court Denies Former Priest's Appeal In New Mexico Abuse CaseAssociated Press

A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld a former Roman Catholic priest's convictions and 30-year prison sentence in a New Mexico case centered on sexual abuse of an altar boy at a veterans cemetery and military base.

A 58-page decision by the three judges on a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel denied Arthur Perrault's appeal, saying they were convinced Perrault "received a fundamentally fair trial in compliance with his constitutional rights."

Perrault had fled the United States decades before he was returned from Morocco after being indicted in 2017.

Perrault was convicted in April 2019 of six counts of aggravated sexual abuse and one count of abusive sexual contact with a minor under 12. He maintained his innocence during his October 2019 sentencing.

Formerly a pastor at an Albuquerque parish and a chaplain at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, Perrault was accused of sexually abusing a boy at the base and at Santa Fe National Cemetery.

The two sites are within federal jurisdiction, which allowed U.S. authorities to file charges with no statute of limitations.

Navajo Nation Reports Its First COVID-19 Death In 11 DaysAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported its first COVID-19 related death after 10 consecutive days of no such fatalities.

The tribe also reported eight new confirmed coronavirus cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The latest numbers bring the Navajo Nation's pandemic case total to 30,388 with the known death toll now at 1,263.

Tribal health officials say more than 16,500 people have recovered from COVID-19 thus far. The tribe had been easing into reopening but that slowed somewhat after coronavirus variants were confirmed on the reservation. Tribal officials urged residents to stay vigilant.

US Ends Oil, Gas Lease Sales From Public Land Through June - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

The U.S. Interior Department is cancelling oil and gas lease sales from public lands through June amid an ongoing review of how the program contributes to climate change, officials said Wednesday.

The action does not affect existing leases, and the agency has continued to issue new drilling permits during the open-ended review ordered by the White House, said Nada Culver, deputy director of Interior's Bureau of Land Management.

The petroleum industry and its Republican allies in Congress have said the oil and gas moratorium will harm the economies of Western states without putting a significant dent in climate change. There is no end date for the review, but an interim report due this summer could reveal the Biden administration's long-term plans for lease sales.

Sales were scheduled in June in at least two states — Nevada and Colorado. Details on the cancellations were obtained by The Associated Press in advance of the public announcement.

Officials previously postponed or suspended lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other states including Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah.

Biden on Jan. 27 ordered Interior officials to review if the program unfairly benefits companies at the expense of taxpayers and its impact on climate change. Federal courts have blocked prior leases in several western states following lawsuits from conservation groups that said climate impacts and other environmental problems from drilling were ignored.

The burning of oil, gas and coal from government-owned lands and waters is a top source of U.S. emissions, accounting for 24% of the nation's greenhouse gases. Oil and gas account for the biggest chunk of human-caused fossil fuel emissions from federal lands following a drilling surge under former President Donald Trump.

The federal government took in about $5 billion last year in royalties and other payments on oil and gas from federal lands, according to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue. Much of that money goes back to the states where drilling occurred.

The leasing ban is only temporary, although officials have declined to say how long it will last. And it's unclear how much legal authority the government would have if it tried to stop drilling on about 23 million acres (9 million hectares) onshore and offshore that were previously leased to energy companies.

Thirteen states sued in federal court in Louisiana last month to try to force the resumption of sales, arguing the sales are required to be held regularly under federal law. Wyoming officials filed a separate suit in their state.

Another legal challenge against the administration is pending from oil and gas industry groups, also in federal court in Wyoming. On Tuesday, a coalition of 21 conservation and Native American advocacy groups represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice sought to intervene in that case in support of Biden.

Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman said the administration was within its legal authority to suspend a program overdue for reform.

'Let Them Go With It': Teachers Lead Talks On Floyd Case - By Carolyn Thompson and Sophia Tulp, Associated Press

As she watched a broadcast of the verdict in the murder trial of the police officer charged with killing George Floyd with her last-period class, middle school teacher Diana Garcia-Allen did her best to stifle her own emotions and keep from crying. She sensed a sadness mirrored in her students.

"I don't think until that moment they felt the weight of it," she said.

The guilty verdicts were welcomed by her students in Fort Worth, Texas — all Hispanic with one Black student — but they had a range of viewpoints. Some were relieved because violent protests might have broken out otherwise. One boy said he didn't see why former police officer Derek Chauvin should serve a lengthy prison sentence, prompting a groan from classmates.

"I kind of just let them go with it," said Garcia-Allen, a career and technology teacher. "I think it's important for them to just share and have a voice."

Tuesday marked the latest challenge for teachers around the U.S. who have grappled with how to address the country's reckoning with racial injustice for the past year. In the moment and the immediate aftermath of the verdict, some have looked to challenge students' thinking or incorporate the trial into their curriculum. Others sought to give youths space to process their reactions or held off on addressing it at all.

Large school districts including Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Houston — Floyd's hometown — stressed that counselors would be available to support students. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Superintendent Scott Elder called on educators to provide guidance to help students process events.

"There is no manual for situations such as those we've been thrust into over the past year, but we know listening with an open mind and without judgment is critical," he said.

At Metropolitan Business Academy, a magnet high school in New Haven, Connecticut, social studies teacher Leslie Blatteau, who teaches mostly students of color, eased into the discussion during a virtual session Wednesday with nine students. When she asked for students' thoughts and feelings on the trial, three spoke up.

"Two really brought up the fact that they it does help kind of bolster their optimism that the movement for Black Lives Matter is working and that the accountability that was established last night is part of the process of moving forward," she said. "And I'm glad. They deserve to feel that amidst all of the all the pain and all of the violence, young people deserve to feel optimistic."

Another brought up Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots of 1992.

"She said she was frustrated that people were saying, 'Oh, they're so relieved about the guilty verdict because there won't be riots.' And she said it's not about the burning buildings. It's about people's feelings. It's about people being heard," she said.

Blatteau said no one brought up Tuesday's police killing of teenager Ma'Khia Bryant in Ohio, and Blatteau herself wasn't ready to raise it.

"If somebody brought it up, I would have gone there. But I wasn't going to, at least not today. Tomorrow," she said, "but not today."

In Helena, Montana, high school social studies teacher Ryan Cooney said he feels a responsibility to expose students in his rural, predominantly white district to events happening elsewhere.  Floyd's death and Chauvin's trial have been featured regularly in a daily presentation and journal session on current events.

On Tuesday, he had several students waiting after school to hear the verdict. One student asked him whether the guilty verdict should be celebrated. He said his initial response was "Yes," but as the excitement has waned, he said he's left torn.

"I have chatted with students this morning, many are still feeling pretty jubilant, but now many of them are starting to realize that yes, in the sense of justice, this is a win," Cooney said. "But with the systemic, societal issues we face as a nation, we still have a lot of work to do."

In some schools, elements of the trial were incorporated into lesson plans.

At New Jersey's Maplewood Middle School, one teacher redesigned an English language arts lesson to analyze the trial's closing arguments with her seventh-graders and another showed video of the post-verdict reaction to spark a discussion. The school's social services team provided a script for teachers who felt like they needed something to help guide conversations.

Some teachers of younger students chose not to bring up the verdict at all. Kelly Crowder, a fourth-grade teacher in Richmond, Virginia, said Wednesday her students had not yet brought it up. She followed their lead.

"At that age, I like to let them bring it up to me and then be there for them, because I don't want to plant anything in their mind to make them upset," said Crowder, who is Black. "Even though I didn't bring up the George Floyd situation, it does not mean it won't come up later in the week. Children have to find the words to articulate their thoughts, so I'm prepared."

In Texas, Garcia-Allen said fear of controversy would likely keep many of her colleagues from addressing the trial. While she had engaged her students on the Capitol riot in January, she couldn't find any other teachers at her school who did.

In the discussion Tuesday after watching the verdict, Garcia-Allen said she focused on facts and tried to keep out her views, although she did challenge the student who questioned why Chauvin should face severe punishment.

"Finally I was like 'Justice, it's finally justice, right?' and so we kind of had that discussion," she said.

She was putting together some dialogue cues to be prepared for additional discussions that were sure to follow this week.

"They feel a genuine empathy," she said. "They were ready to engage in this conversation and learn. And that was that was exciting to see."

Medical Cannabis Legal In Utah, But Not Always Affordable - By Sophia Eppolito, Associated Press/Report For America

Pain left from oil-field work defeated traditional pain pills and dominated William Adams' life — until he tried medical cannabis. But even as he began venturing outside his home for the first time in years, Adams discovered he couldn't afford the cost.

Medical cannabis typically isn't covered by insurance or Medicaid because it remains federally illegal. The group that led the push to legalize it in conservative Utah says that has kept it unreachable for many patients who need it.

The Utah Patients Coalition on Tuesday joined a small but growing list of programs around the U.S. aimed at helping low-income patients access the drug. The project is among the first to offer ongoing subsidies statewide.

"I thought that we had relieved a lot of suffering, and I can't deny that we have," said Desiree Hennessy, executive director of Utah Patients Coalition. "But then the phone calls have changed from 'Hey I need help, I need cannabis'… to 'I can't afford to go to the doctor.' "

The coalition has partnered with cannabis pharmacies across the state that will offer discounted medications to patients approved for the subsidy.

Similar programs include one in Berkeley, California, for patients making less than $32,000 a year. They can access medical cannabis for free at local medical dispensaries through a city ordinance. States like Florida and Oregon offer reduced prices for state medical cannabis cards.

In New Mexico, a longstanding proposal to create a "low-income medical patient subsidy fund" to underwrite medical marijuana purchases failed this year as the state legalized recreational pot during a special session. New Mexico does waive taxes that currently apply to medical marijuana sales and the new cannabis excise tax — a discount of nearly 20% in most cases.

The lead House sponsor of the successful legalization bill there has vowed to reboot social and economic justice provisions that were stripped from the legislation.

Emily Kaltenbach, a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance, said subsidy programs like the one in Utah are critical for low-income patients who have limited options to be able to afford their medicine. One challenge the Utah program may face is raising enough money to keep it going long term, she said.

"We see patients who not only can't afford their medicine, but they also can't afford doctor's visits," said Kaltenbach, who is based in New Mexico. "Many of them are uninsured and so the cost of the visit to get certified to be a patient and then the cost of medicine can have a huge impact."

Dragonfly Wellness, Utah's first marijuana pharmacy, announced Tuesday that it would be donating $130,000 to the subsidy program, which will be entirely funded by donations.

Hennessey had tears in her eyes as she described the impact that money will have on patients' lives. She said it will likely cover the cost of subsidizing medication for the more than 400 terminal patients who have applied for the program.

"I have hope that we are actually going to fill the need," she said.

Utah became the 33rd state to legalize medical marijuana after voters passed a ballot initiative in November 2018, though the program has especially tight controls under a compromise involving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose positions carry outsized sway in its home state.

After contacting his cannabis pharmacy about his financial concerns, Adams, 38, became the first person to pilot the coalition's subsidy program in January. Now his pain has subsided enough that he can go out and enjoy the parts of life he had been missing out on — spending time with his family, fishing and even riding his motorcycle.

"I'm a whole different person with a whole better life than I was six months ago," Adams.

New Mexico Utility Seeks To Recover Spike In Gas Costs - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico Gas Co. wants to recover costs associated with dramatic spikes in natural gas prices over the winter.

The utility said Tuesday it has filed an application with the state Public Regulation Commission. The proposal calls for spreading the recovery of the costs through December 2023 in order to minimize the effects on customers' monthly bills.

If approved by regulators, the average increase for customers would be about $5.70 per month, or about 10%.

Utility officials say the costs faced in February were unprecedented and the market conditions forced the company to pay higher prices.

Even by spreading out the costs over a longer period of time, utility officials acknowledged that it will be tough for some customers to absorb the astronomical price increases that upended the natural gas market in February.

"We're going to try to work with our customers to make this as easy on them as possible. We understand that's going to be a significant increase in their bills for this period of time. We will work with them," said Tom Domme, New Mexico Gas Co.'s vice president for external affairs.

New Mexico Gas Co. was not alone. Utilities across the region were forced to pay higher prices.

As regulated utilities, they pass the cost of fuel onto customers without markup, meaning the prices paid in February would eventually show up in customers' bills.

Nationally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. announced early on that they would be looking into utility and transmission operations during the cold snap. Some members of Congress separately called for federal investigations into possible price gouging as natural gas spot prices spiked and millions of homes and businesses dealt with power outages.

In New Mexico, the attorney general's office opened its own inquiry. Spokesman Matt Baca said the matter is still under review.

Executives with El Paso Electric, Xcel Energy and Public Service Co. of New Mexico testified before state lawmakers earlier this year about how they tried to prepare but were still forced to buy some natural gas on the spot market.

With Xcel buying roughly half of its natural gas off the spot market, the company said at the time that preliminary estimates put the total cost for New Mexico and Texas customers at about $2 million. Profits from sales to other providers in the Southwest Power Pool were expected to help offset that, but customers could still see their monthly bills increase by about $7 over a two-year period.

In the case of New Mexico Gas Co., Domme said the extraordinary costs for the week of Feb. 13-18 totaled about $110 million.

Customers who use more gas will see a bigger increase in their month bills than those who do not, Domme said.

New Mexico Gas Co. has created a $1.2 million fund with shareholder money to help low-income customers and small business owners who have fallen behind on their bills due to the economic consequences of the pandemic. Residential customers can also apply for help through a separate program in which qualified customers receive one-time payments toward their bill.

Domme said the utility is opening its payment centers to work with customers on payment plans.

New Mexico Gas Co. serves about 530,000 customers throughout the state.

US Sets Aside Habitat Critical For Survival Of Rare Songbird - Associated Press

U.S. wildlife managers have set aside areas in seven states as habitat that's critical to the survival of a rare songbird that migrates each year from Central and South America to breeding grounds in Mexico and the United States. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made final the habitat designation for the western yellow-billed cuckoo on Tuesday. 

It covers about 467 square miles along hundreds of miles of rivers and streams. 

Most breeding in the U.S. occurs in New Mexico and Arizona, but the habitat designation also includes portions of California, Colorado, Utah, Texas and Idaho.

US Lab Looks To Boost Power Supply Ahead Of Nuclear Mission - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. government plans to build a new transmission line and make other upgrades costing hundreds of million dollars to ensure its laboratory in northern New Mexico has enough electricity for ongoing operations and future missions that include manufacturing key components for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

Officials have said one of the existing lines that feeds Los Alamos National Laboratory is expected to reach capacity this summer.

The other likely will hit its limit within the next few years amid more high-computing projects related to nuclear weapons design and performance and as work ramps up to build the plutonium cores that are used to trigger weapons.

The U.S. Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration announced Monday that it will work with federal land managers to assess the project's potential environmental effects. A virtual public meeting is scheduled for May 6 and the public will have until May 21 to weigh in on the scope of the planned review.

The proposed transmission line would stretch more than 12 miles, crossing national forest land in an area known as the Caja del Rio and spanning the Rio Grande at White Rock Canyon. New structural towers would need to be built on both sides of the canyon.

The project — which could cost up to $300 million — also would require new overhead poles with an average span of 800 feet, access roads for construction and maintenance and staging areas where materials can be stored.

Federal officials have said they plan to try to have the project avoid known biological, recreational, cultural and historical resources, such as the Camino Real Aldentro National Historic Trail. Another goal would be minimizing visibility of the transmission line from residential areas.

Part of the line would be built along an existing utility corridor, but a new path would have to be cut through forest land to reach an electrical substation.

The Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog group that has been critical of the lab's expansion plans, reiterated concerns about the lack of an overall analysis of the cumulative effects that plutonium core production and more weapons work could have on the surrounding communities.

Greg Mello, the group's director, said no comprehensive information regarding the future of lab is available to the public, to local and state governments or to the immediately affected Native American tribes. He pointed to future land acquisition and site plans and other documents that have been redacted.

"This is a poorly-justified project, one we strenuously oppose," he said in a statement, adding that the electrical capacity the lab claims it needs is double what it has now and is premised on as-yet-unapproved programs and projects.

Environmentalists, residents and others have suggested that the lab tap into its scientific capabilities and consider other options such as superconducting transmission lines, battery storage and solar generation.

They point to the project as an opportunity to move the state close to reaching mandates of electricity generation being carbon-free over the next two decades.

They also voiced concerns about potential effects on the Caja del Rio, saying it encompasses wide Indigenous landscapes and is a scenic gateway to northern New Mexico.

The area has seen an increase in outdoor recreational use and it serves as a migration corridor for wildlife.

New Mexico Labor Agency Defends Tax Rates For Unemployment - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico labor officials are responding with reassurances to an onslaught of complaints about increased tax rates on businesses to support unemployment insurance. In addition, the state intends to extend the time employers can file appeals if they suspect inappropriate tax increases.

A long list of business groups including the New Mexico Business Coalition began writing to the the Department of Workforce Solutions in February to express concern about calculations for increased unemployment tax rates and premiums.

They are questioning the state's compliance with a state pandemic relief law that omits any layoffs from March 2020 through June 2021 from consideration in setting insurance rates. The provision was enacted during a special legislative session in June 2020.

Workforce Solutions Department spokeswoman Stacy Johnston said rate changes are based on a three-year average that can increase even as the state abides by the blackout period.

"A tax rate may have gone up due to benefit charges that took place in the three years prior to March 1, 2020," Johnston said in an email. "This is the most likely cause for an increase based on our review."

Rate notices come with a 30-day deadline for appeal, but all deadlines have been extended to May 30 as a courtesy, she said. A review by Workforce Solutions found no apparent miscalculations in business tax rates tied to unemployment insurance.

Out of 47,000 recent rate notices to businesses concerning unemployment insurance, roughly 15% or 7,000 involved rate increases. About 9,000 businesses saw decreases, Johnston said.

New Mexico Business Coalition President Carla Sonntag says many businesses that scaled back as a result of pandemic-related public health orders are among those experiencing rate increases.

"The bottom line is we shouldn't be going through this," she said.

Sonntag says she contacted state prosecutors and the state auditor's office because she wasn't getting satisfactory answers from the Workforce Solutions Department and former Secretary Bill McCamley, who left the agency last week.

State Auditor Brian Colón said Monday that a review by his office is underway.

"We've received enough complaints that we're concerned that the issue is widespread," he said. "So we are working very closely with Department of Workforce Solutions to get to the bottom of the matter."

George Gundrey, owner of three restaurants including Tomasita's in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, said he was puzzled about the cause of rate increases on unemployment insurance, including a four-fold increase at one restaurant. He has filed an appeal.

He says employment at his restaurants shrank from about 220 people to 45 in the depths of the pandemic while serving only take-out meals.

"They haven't gotten back to me, I had to submit my payment at a higher rate last week," he said.

Gundrey says the financial anxiety also is linked to newly approved legislation for mandatory sick leave and a veto by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that called off a $600 million contribution in federal aid to the state unemployment insurance trust.

Lujan Grisham said the administration needs guidance first from the U.S. Treasury before that move can be made to avoid future payroll taxes.

Judge Rules For News Organizations In Public Records LawsuitAssociated Press

A judge has ordered the Albuquerque school district to pay over $400,000 to the Albuquerque Journal and KOB-TV for violating state law by not turning over public records in a timely manner and not meeting deadlines on responding to requests for documents.

The Journal reported District Judge Nancy Franchini also ruled Monday that the two news organizations are entitled to reasonable attorney fees and legal costs.

Franchini awarded the Journal $293,625 and KOB $118,000 in their lawsuit over documents related to former Superintendent Winston Brooks' departure.

Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta said the district will appeal the ruling.

"APS works diligently to be transparent in responding to all records requests, and this matter was no different," Armenta said.

Journal Editor Karen Moses called the ruling a "clear message of the importance of public bodies following the Inspection of Public Records Act."

However, she said the Journal intended to appeal Franchini's ruling that an investigative report didn't have to be released.

Michelle Donaldson, vice president and general manager of KOB-TV, stressed that public records laws are there to "ensure transparency and accountability."

"A school district cannot pick and choose when to obey the law, especially when it's writing six-figure checks to outgoing personnel," Donaldson said.

New Mexico High Schoolers Will Return After 'Secret Prom' - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America, Las Cruces Sun-News

High school students who attended "secret proms" in a southern New Mexico school district won't face disciplinary actions, and their schools will resume in-person classes sooner than previously thought, school officials said Monday.

The decisions follow an investigation into private house parties in the Las Cruces Public Schools district and backlash from some elected officials over the move to preemptively suspend in-person learning for all students at Mayfield High School.

Superintendent Ralph Ramos told the Las Cruces Sun-News that the event had 200 to 500 students not wearing face masks, according to an investigation that involved state education and health officials.

"To me, that's a huge concern. I'm not here to police private properties," Ramos said, but added that a mass gathering of more than 10 people "brings safety concerns to us at LCPS."

The investigation began last Wednesday after a complaint was filed with the governor's office. School officials also discovered at least one other large student party billed as a secret prom, though with greater adherence to COVID-19 safe practices, Ramos said.

After initially ordering students to stay home until April 26, officials have recalculated the quarantine time from the date of the event, not the complaint, allowing Mayfield High School to return to in-person learning on April 20.

Students from other high schools were notified individually that they need to quarantine, but their schools were not closed.

Student organizers of the secret proms won't face punishment for the private events.

"We have not disciplined anybody," Ramos told the Las Cruces Sun-News, adding that the investigation is focused on safety.

High schools in the district are in the process of planning socially distanced proms.

Agency Reports Navajo Nation's First Hantavirus Case Of 2021 – Associated Press

Health officials are reporting the Navajo Nation's first case this year of Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease spread by infected rodent droppings.

The tribal health department said the case was confirmed in McKinley County in northwestern New Mexico but it wasn't known how the person contracted Hantavirus.

Hantavirus typically is reported in spring and summer, often due to exposures that occur when people are near mouse droppings in homes, sheds or poorly ventilated areas.

Recommended precautions to limit the spread of Hantavirus include ventilating and cleaning areas where there might be mouse droppings.