WED: Gov. Seeks To Sustain Spending And Raises With State Reserves And Federal Recovery Funds, +More

Jun 10, 2020

New Mexico Governor Seeks To Sustain State Spending, Raises - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is urging state lawmakers to tap state reserves and federal recovery money to preserve some state spending increases, including a 2% pay bump for public school personnel and state workers. 

The comments on Wednesday came as New Mexico state lawmakers confront a harrowing decline in annual state government income linked to economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. 

State government economists on Wednesday revised estimates for state government income downward by $439 million for the current fiscal year ending on June 30 and by just under $2 billion for the coming fiscal year.

Estimated revenues for the coming fiscal year are estimated at $5.9 billion. The budget signed in mid-March would have increased state general fund spending by nearly 8% to $7.6 billion, with 4% pay increases at schools and state agencies.

Lujan Grisham is recommending budget revisions that scale back increases at most state agencies by 4%. 

To sustain some increased spending, Lujan Grisham proposed tapping $750 million in federal coronavirus recovery act funds — despite current restrictions that prohibit using those dollars to backfill lost state revenues. The state would tap half of its financial reserves, which stood at $1.9 billion.

Lujan Grisham said it was important to resist the temptation to reduce government spending and services dramatically and run the risk of aggravating problems of poverty and public safety.

Head Of New Mexico's African American Affairs Office Resigns - Associated Press

The head of the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs is stepping down. Executive Director William Scott Carreathers didn't provide a reason for his resignation. 

Carreathers' move follows Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's recent announcement that she was forming a Council for Racial Justice in response to protests over the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. 

State Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a member of the new council, told the Santa Fe New Mexican she believes Carreathers' resignation was a result of miscommunication that somehow he was not informed about the council.

There also has been ongoing frustration among New Mexico's black community about the role of the Office of African American Affairs, along with budgetary and salary discrepancies between it and other state agencies, said David Cooper, the leader of a regional group of African American ministers.

Cooper, a bishop at New Hope Full Gospel Baptist Church in Albuquerque and president of the Minister's Fellowship of Albuquerque and Vicinity, said attempts to elevate the office into a cabinet-level agency have been stymied under several governors, including Lujan Grisham.

Lujan Grisham spokesperson Nora Meyers Sackett told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the governor's office was in contact with the Office of African American Affairs the day it announced the new council and that "the intent was and remains for that office to, of course, play a role on that council going forward."

Sackett said the governor hopes to hire a "dynamic new director" in the near future given the importance of the office. She did not say who would be in charge during the search for Carreathers' successor.

Agency To Provide Covid-19 Tests At Offices For Food Workers - Associated Press

State officials are setting aside time slots for food industry workers for COVID-19 testing at numerous New Mexico Department of Health field offices statewide. 

The Department of Health says the testing time slots each Monday morning will be for people who work at establishments such as restaurants, grocery stories, farmers markets, distribution centers and food manufacturing facilities. 

The department says the effort should help identify, isolate and trace new cases. 

New Mexico health officials Wednesday reported 147 new coronavirus cases with 6 additional deaths related to COVID-19.

That increases the total number of cases in New Mexico to 9,250 and the statewide death toll to 410. 

Report: Closures Cost New Mexico Students Months Of Learning - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

Legislative researchers say only half of New Mexico's students were engaged in online learning after schools shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

A report released Wednesday also says one in five students were unable to connect to online learning in public schools. 

The report states that the learning loss was exacerbated by guidance from the state Public Education Department that teachers focus on reviewing previously learned material. Other states had promoted the teaching of new material.

The findings estimate that the average public school student has lost three months to a year of schooling.

Many summer learning programs also are being cancelled or trimmed. 

The report concludes that the state must prioritize safely reopening schools in the fall in order to stem continued learning losses.

As for spending on education, the pandemic also tanked global oil demand, depriving the state of royalties and contributed to an expected $2 billion budget shortfall. Lawmakers will gather for a special session June 18 to address the shortfall.

Chief Justice Of New Mexico Supreme Court Set To Retire - Associated Press

The chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court is retiring at the end of July. Judith Nakamura will leave the bench after serving on the high court since December 2015. She previously served as a judge in Bernalillo County. 

The Supreme Court's Judicial Nominating Commission is accepting applications to replace Nakamura. They are due June 26. 

The commission will hold an online meeting July 9 to gather input on the candidates and forward its recommendations to the governor, who will appoint a successor.

The chief justice presides over hearings and conferences at the New Mexico Supreme Court and is the administrative authority on aspects of all state courts. 

During her tenure, Nakamura guided the high court's response to the coronavirus pandemic. State courts are now preparing to resume jury trials.

Nakamura says she's always aimed to make sound legal decisions and improve people's lives. She earned an undergraduate and law degree from the University of New Mexico.

New Mexico AG Calls For Uniform Use Of Force Policies - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas is joining the call for police reforms amid the latest wave of protests.

Balderas on Tuesday said state lawmakers should create uniform use of force policies that would require body cameras and ban chokeholds, among other things.

Balderas in 2016 called for a review of how police departments handled shootings by officers. Recommendations were adopted by the state Law Enforcement Academy Board in 2017, but a year later they failed to gain traction as many departments said they hadn't even received the recommendations.

His office did not immediately respond when asked about the push for reforms in the wake of the report.

New Mexico Reports 47 New Coronavirus Cases, 4 More DeathsKUNM News, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials reported Tuesday 47 new coronavirus cases with four additional deaths related to COVID-19. That increases the total number of cases to 9,105 and the statewide death toll to 404 as of Tuesday.

Bernalillo and McKinley counties saw 12 new cases each, with 9 additional positive tests in San Juan County and one in Cibola County. The four recent deaths occurred in those four counties. Two of the four people whose COVID-related deaths were reported yesterday were in their 30s. Both reportedly had underlying health conditions.

A spike in statewide infections over the past week are tied to an outbreak at a prison facility in Otero County, which now has 222 total confirmed coronavirus cases.

Former Albuquerque Detectives File Whistleblower LawsuitAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A whistleblower lawsuit filed by former New Mexico police detectives says they were retaliated against for repeatedly raising concerns about the operation of their department's sex crimes unit.

The Albuquerque Journal reported the lawsuit was filed in 2nd Judicial District Court by former Albuquerque Police Department detectives Mandi Abernathy, Sally Dyer and Teresa Romero.

Their lawsuit says the sex crimes unit leadership undermined the investigation and prosecution of serial rapists and failed to train newer detectives on how to investigate complex and sensitive cases.

The lawsuit also alleges mishandling of their work and assignments or mistreatment by a superior.

Albuquerque police spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos did not respond to the specific allegations. The city had not been served with the lawsuit but plans to investigate, he said.

The department "has been working to improve investigations of sexual assault" including tests of the backlog of rape kits, Gallegos said in an email.

Task Force Investigating Police Shooting Of 81-Year-Old Man - Associated Press

Police in Las Cruces fatally shot a reportedly suicidal 81-year-old man who they say fired multiple rounds at officers and struck a police vehicle. 

The shooting happened Monday afternoon. 

The three Las Cruces Police Department officers who discharged their weapons have been placed on standard administrative leave. 

Police had been responding to a report that the man was having suicidal thoughts. They say he fired toward officers from inside his home and ignored commands to put the weapon down. Police say the man eventually came out of his home, still armed. Three officers fired their weapons, killing the man. His identity has not been released. 

Las Cruces spokesperson Dan Trujillo said Tuesday that police still are working to contact some of the man's family.

A task force made up of local, county and state law enforcement is investigating. It will send its findings to prosecutors for review. 

Legislature Closes Capitol To Public For Budget Rewrite - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The New Mexico Capitol will be off limits to the public as a health precaution against the coronavirus as the Legislature gathers next week to plug a hole in the state budget, leading lawmakers decided Tuesday.

A panel of lawmakers approved safety restrictions and procedures for a special session on June 18 and related financial arrangements.

The Legislature is meeting to rewrite the state's spending plan for the fiscal year that starts on July 1 as state government income falls sharply amid a U.S. recession and a downturn in the state's crucial oil and natural gas sector. 

Live and recorded webcasts will provide a view of legislative deliberations, and media can attend without access to the House and Senate floors or underground corridors.

Legislative staff must undergo coronavirus testing — an optional precaution for legislators. Senate Democratic majority leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe encouraged his colleagues to set an example for the public by taking every available precaution including testing.

Endangered Mexican Wolves Welcome 7 Pups At Albuquerque ZooAssociated Press

Two endangered Mexican gray wolves housed at the Albuquerque zoo are the proud parents of seven pups.

Zoo officials announced Tuesday that the pups recently came out of their den for the first time. Zookeepers have only been able to view the pups by camera so far because the mother is being protective.

Whenever possible, the pups will undergo an exam and their sexes will be determined. The zoo is part of a nationwide captive-breeding network that supports the recovery of the endangered predators in the Southwest U.S.

The latest pups are the second litter for the wolf pair at the zoo.