WED: Governor Signs Pandemic Relief Bills, Republican Collins Backs Haaland For Interior, + More

Mar 3, 2021


New Mexico Governor Signs Pandemic Relief Bills - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed economic relief legislation that provides $600 rebates to low-income workers and a tax holiday for restaurants that have been hobbled by aggressive pandemic health restrictions.

Lujan Grisham on Wednesday signed two bills that are part of an ambitious economic recovery package.

New Mexico state finances and trust funds are rebounding amid a surge in oil production and prices, along with a boost from 2020 federal relief to state and local government, businesses, the unemployed, school districts and tribal governments.

"This pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but the pain has been spread unequally," Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "My hope is these economic relief efforts reach those who need them most."

States including New Mexico are not waiting on more federal help as they approve coronavirus aid packages for residents and business owners devastated by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

A newly signed bill from Democratic Sens. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe and Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City provides a four-month holiday from gross receipts taxes on sales and business services for business operators at restaurants, bars, food trucks, small breweries, wineries and craft distilleries. Instruction for claiming the tax benefit will be distributed later by state taxation officials.

The bill's break for low-income workers applies to 200,000 people who typically claim the state's working families tax credit for individuals earning $31,200 and joint filers who earn up to $39,000. It applies to 2020 filings for personal income tax with the Taxation and Revenue Department.

The state will forgo an estimated $200 million in general fund revenue. Local governments are reimbursed for lost tax income.

The second bill from Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque expands an emergency loan program for businesses that lost income after the pandemic hit in 2020.

It would authorize loans of up to $150,000 to small businesses at sub-prime rates of less than 2% annual interest with a payback term of up to 10 years.

Those terms are more generous to borrowers than the original relief program that provided $40.5 million in loans last year. Prior relief loans can be refinanced under the new terms.

The New Mexico Finance Authority can tap up to $460 million from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund to fulfill loan requests.

New Mexico Weighs Options For Teacher Vaccination Mandate - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Top health officials in New Mexico say the U.S. government needs to boost vaccine supplies if it wants the state to meet a new mandate for getting at least one shot into the arms of all teachers by the end of March.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said during a briefing Wednesday that the state already has vaccinated more than 15,000 educators. With demand still outpacing supplies, the state is in talks with the White House about how to roll out the initiative.

Teachers are next in line under New Mexico's phased-in approach. But health officials have been reluctant to offer a timeline given the limited supplies.

Many New Mexico school districts have opted not to dramatically increase in-person learning despite approval from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Some have opened on a limited basis, allowing students to attend in-person based on the availability of teachers who volunteer.

Citing the limiting factor of vaccine supply, Lujan Grisham said in a statement that she was hopeful Biden's directive was an indication that the federal government would be sending more support to the states to get schools opened safely on a faster timeline.

New Mexico is leading the nation when it comes to the percentage of vaccine doses used, having administered more than 94% of its doses. It's the second-fastest state for administration with nearly one-quarter of residents partially vaccinated and nearly 13% fully vaccinated.

In all, more than 609,000 doses have been administered, and the state has the capacity to distribute more than 50,000 doses per week.

The state this week received more than 17,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson's newly approved one-shot vaccine. Those were targeted to 10 counties that have so far had low vaccination coverage, state officials said.

According to the state's data, vaccinations now account for lowering the incidence of new COVID-19 infections by about 50%. That's up from about 30% just days ago, but state officials stressed that public health restrictions such as mask-wearing and social distancing are still a necessary part of the equation.

State officials described steep declines in new confirmed infections, hospitalizations and deaths because of the virus. Still, they said they are monitoring variants and stressed the importance of testing as a way to keep tracking the virus.

New Mexico Corrections Officer Sues Over Vaccination Mandate - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A corrections officer is suing a New Mexico county over a requirement that first responders and other Doña Ana County employees be vaccinated.

Isaac Legaretta says in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court that forcing employees to take vaccines that aren't yet fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration violates federal law.

Legaretta is facing termination for declining a vaccination. His attorney is seeking an injunction to keep the county from firing or disciplining the officer before a ruling is issued.

County officials are defending the policy, saying it's aimed at ensuring a safe workplace and protecting inmates.

Doña Ana County is among the few spots in New Mexico considered high-risk as spread rates and new per-capita cases continue to be above targets set by the state Health Department.

New Mexico health officials said Tuesday they were not aware of any other counties or municipal governments that were requiring first responders or other employees to be vaccinated at this point.

Top officials with the state's largest health care providers also said since the vaccination campaign began months ago that they would not force their workers to get the shots given the emergency use status.

None of the vaccine makers with emergency authorization in the U.S. has applied for full approval yet.

Employers have been contacting attorneys and human resources consultants  as they try to figure out how to handle vaccinations.

New Mexico Legislature Seeks Reforms To Spur Internet Access - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico legislators are advancing bills that would modernize efforts to expand access to high-speed internet service as online schooling during the pandemic exposes infrastructure gaps.

The state Senate on Wednesday endorsed a bill that creates a centralized office for broadband internet access. Outside of New Mexico's metro areas, internet access can be slow, expensive, or simply not available.

Proposals from House and Senate lawmakers would set up a centralized clearinghouse within state government for improving internet access — following the example of many other states that address broadband internet through one agency.

Currently, that crucial infrastructure work in New Mexico is assigned to corners of seven state agencies, ranging from a three-person team at the Department of Information Technology to staff at the Public Education Department.

Responsibilities run the gamut from digging trenches to wiring school libraries in Native American communities.

A bill in the House would formalize that three-person team inside the Department of Information Technology, elevating it to a full-blown division with almost $1 million in funding and the authority to coordinate digging with other state and local agencies, schools, and private companies to avoid overlapping costs. That bill was scheduled for a House floor vote as early as Wednesday.

The state Senate on Wednesday endorsed a similar bill for a centralized broadband division within the Information Technology Department that does not include a spending allocation.

Collins To Back Haaland For Interior, Sealing Her Approval - By Matthew Daly, Associated Press

Maine Sen. Susan Collins says she will support New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to be Interior secretary.

Collins is the first Republican senator to publicly back Haaland, who's set to become the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

The announcement Wednesday makes Haaland's confirmation by the Senate nearly certain and follows Haaland's endorsement last week by Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Collins says she differs with Haaland on several issues but appreciates her role in helping to lead House passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, a landmark conservation law that Collins co-sponsored.

Interior oversees the nation's public lands and waters and leads relations with nearly 600 federally recognized tribes.

The Senate energy panel is set to vote on Haaland's nomination Thursday. Several Republicans, including Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top GOP senator on energy, oppose Haaland, saying her opposition to fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other issues made her unfit to serve in a role in which she will oversee energy development on vast swaths of federal lands, mostly in the West, as well as offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

Barrasso said a moratorium imposed by Biden on oil and gas leases on federal lands "is taking a sledgehammer to Western states' economies."

Barrasso said the moratorium, which Haaland supports, could cost thousands of jobs in West.

Navajo Nation Reports 20 New COVID-19 Cases, 3 More DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 20 new COVID-19 cases with three additional deaths.

The latest figures from tribal health officials bring the total number of COVID-19 cases to 29,794 cases since the pandemic began. The death toll now is 1,187.

Health facilities on the reservation and in border towns are conducting drive-thru vaccine events or administering doses by appointment.

The Navajo-area Indian Health Service has vaccinated more than 135,000 people so far. A daily curfew from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. and a mask mandate remain in effect for residents of the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to prevent the spread of the virus.

Tribal health officials say more than 16,000 people have recovered from COVID-19.

Civil Rights Claim Seeks $1.8 Billion Or In-Person Schooling - By Morgan Lee And Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

Accusations of civil rights violations have been filed against the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education on behalf of students who cannot return to in-person learning. 

In documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press, attorneys are seeking as much as $1.8 billion, or slightly more than the district's annual budget, on behalf of the district's nearly 90,000 students to cover private school tuition, citing constitutional guarantees to an adequate education. 

Many New Mexico school districts have opted not to dramatically increase in-person learning despite approval from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. 

Albuquerque Public Schools spokesperson Monica Armenta declined to comment because the situation involves pending litigation.

About 20 schools in the district are restarting in-person learning this week with teachers who volunteered to attend to small groups of students who have special educational needs, struggled with online learning or don't have full internet access. Roughly 1,340 students are scheduled to participate.

Other school districts have elected to keep most students in virtual learning for the rest of the spring semester. Some opened on a limited basis, allowing students to attend in-person based on the availability of teachers who volunteer.

New Mexico Governor Touts Progress On Virus, Draws Criticism - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is touting her administration's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying the state stepped up last year with direct economic aid and is looking to provide more relief through pending legislation.

She spoke Tuesday during an online forum, acknowledging that the pandemic has been a cruel hardship. Critics have accused her of ignoring her own policies and spending thousands of dollars on groceries while many New Mexicans remain without jobs and businesses have yet to recover.

The Republican Governors Association on Monday launched a week of digital ads targeting the governor, and Republican leaders in the state say Lujan Grisham's choices have had unfortunate results.

The governor said Tuesday providing more resources to businesses will be key, and more investments will be needed to ensure economic opportunities don't evaporate.

Steve Pearce, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the governor in crafting the public health restrictions created a system that benefited out-of-state corporations. He said small local businesses have been left trying to catch up on loan payments and find ways to boost customer traffic.

Lujan Grisham's office said the governor's decisions have been based on what she believes to be in the best interest of New Mexicans based on data and input from epidemiologists and public health experts.

Spread rates and the weekly rolling average of new COVID-19 infections have declined in New Mexico in recent weeks. The additional 247 confirmed cases reported by state health officials Monday marked one of the lowest levels since September.

Coronavirus testing Monday at the state Capitol building resulted in one positive result, triggering contact tracing and the quarantine of two people, according to Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislature's legal affairs and administrative office.

It was unclear whether a legislator tested positive. The Statehouse is closed to the public, with most legislative deliberations conducted online.

Lujan Grisham touted New Mexico's vaccination rollout, saying it continues to be one of the top in the country and the focus is on getting doses to vulnerable communities.

The plan is to funnel about one quarter of the state's allocation to those most at risk based on socio-economic conditions, minority status and other factors. Lujan Grisham said addressing populations that have higher mortality rates and less access to health care will help save more lives and keep more people from being hospitalized.

The state expects those efforts to ramp up with the arrival this week of the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine.

Data from the state shows more than 671,000 have registered to receive shots, while about 217,000 people have been fully vaccinated.

Unusual Alliance Seeks Policing Reforms In New Mexico - Associated Press

Policing reforms are making for strange bedfellows in New Mexico as the co-founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream and the conservative-backed nonprofit group Americans for Prosperity lobby for a bill to eliminate police immunity from lawsuits on civil rights violations. 

Ice cream entrepreneurs and civic activists Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield on Tuesday joined an online news conference to promote the proposed policing reforms that would allow civil right lawsuits against local officials in state courts. 

Cohen says he hopes the bill will be approved and serve as a model for police accountability movements in other states.

The proposed Civil Rights Act from Democratic state legislators is confronting near-unified opposition from a long list of sheriffs and law enforcement associations.

The bill builds on the recommendations of a civil rights commission, chartered by the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in June as protests over police brutality and racial injustice swept the nation and Albuquerque, New Mexico's largest city. The state House has endorsed the proposal, and the state Senate has until March 20 to send a bill to the governor.

Recent amendments to the bill would cap damages at $2 million and allow lawsuits against agencies only. 

Senate Advances Bill To Cap Small Loan Rates In New Mexico - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A bill capping interest rates at 36% annually for short-term, low-dollar loans has cleared the New Mexico Senate.

Democrats say it will further reduce lending they describe as predatory. Republicans and one Democrat opposing the bill called it out of touch, arguing that on a monthly basis, the bill will cap loans to 3% and largely eliminate access to credit for the poor and unbanked.

Currently, lenders can charge as much as 175% on loans of $5,000 or less.

Supporters of the bill say that local nonprofit organizations and credit unions are increasingly lending to those in need.

The bill passed the Senate largely along party lines in a 25-14 vote. It now heads to the House, where it's expected to pass.

Democratic Rep. Susan Herrera of Embudo said that aggressive lobbying from the storefront short-term loan industry had delayed the bill, adding that the industry makes a lot of campaign donations but that senators sworn in this year turned the tide.

Jason Weeks, a lobbyist representing affected loan businesses, did not immediately respond to requests for comment before and after the vote.

New Mexico Debates Longer School Year Mandate, Virus Make-Up - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The New Mexico legislature is exploring two different ways to make sure kids spend more time in class next year, in an effort to help students catch up from the loss of learning during the pandemic.

Democrats in the Senate have advanced a bill that would require all schools to tap into an existing $200 million fund to extend the school calendar next year.

The one-year mandate would only take effect if the governor's current in-person learning restrictions are lifted. Teachers would have to stick with their students for an additional 10 to 25 days depending on the grade level and would be paid for the extra time.

A bipartisan bill in the House would allow that time to be used in longer days instead. It conflicts with the Senate bill, signaling a potential logjam at the end of the legislative session this month.

The New Mexico School Superintendant's Association supports the House bill for its flexibility, and is backing the Senate bill after President Pro Tem Sen. Mimi Stewart made tweaks to accommodate four-day schools.

Lujan Grisham's Public Education Department wants more schools to embrace the programs. But the department isn't weighing in on a particular approach.

New Mexico's Spaceport America Names New Executive Director - Associated Press

Spaceport America has named New Mexico native Scott A. McLaughlin as its new executive director. 

The company announced the appointment on Tuesday. McLaughlin served as the director of business development at Spaceport America prior to being named interim executive director in July 2020. 

He has worked at several government agencies including the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as in the private sector with tech and engineering companies. 

McLaughlin graduated from New Mexico State University with a degree in electrical engineering.

Spaceport America is a federally licensed launch complex situated on 18,000 acres adjacent to the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.

New Mexico Commuter Train Resumes Service After ShutdownAssociated Press

New Mexico's commuter system linking metro Albuquerque with Santa Fe will resume service next Monday after being shut down for nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rail Runner officials said the system will initially provide limited service and resume operations with fewer trains and weekday service only. Each train will be limited to 25% capacity, or about 160 passengers per train.

Officials said the limited capacity should satisfy initial demand in part because many regular riders are still working from home. The train system was shut down on March 17, 2020.

Crews have operated occasional trains without passengers during the shutdown to avoid equipment and personnel from staying idle. The shutdown also allowed tryouts of a new federally required safety system to help avoid accidents.

The transit district received $55 million through the federal CARES Act, which helped avoid layoffs and furloughs of Rail Runner staff.