WED: Governor Signs Relief Bill While Looking To More Pandemic Help In January, + More

Nov 25, 2020

New Mexico Looks Ahead To More Economic Relief Amid Pandemic - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The flurry to pass a $330 million relief package aimed at helping out-of-work New Mexicans and certain businesses hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic is done.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the measure Wednesday. But she and Republican lawmakers say the hardest work is yet to come as they look for more permanent ways to rebuild a shattered economy.

Republicans had voiced concerns during Tuesday's one-day special session that the relief bill left behind low-income essential workers.

Democratic legislative leaders say they plan to consider an immediate relief package when they return in January for a 60-day session.

State health officials reported 1,873 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, pushing the total number to more than 88,100 since the pandemic began.

There were also 23 additional deaths, bringing the total to 1,451. Nearly 900 people are hospitalized.

Lujan Grisham and others were hopeful that Congress will provide some clarity on what states can expect in terms of future federal relief funding.

She also said the state will continue to look for places to trim spending while making investments that result in new economic opportunities. She specifically mentioned legalizing marijuana.

Under the measure signed Wednesday, $100 million in grants are being made available for small businesses and unemployed workers will receive one-time $1,200 payments. Smaller stimulus checks will go to immigrants without legal status in the country and dependents.

Money also will be funneled toward emergency housing aid and food banks.

Most of the spending is made possible by federal relief funding previously assigned to New Mexico, including around $319 million in unspent funds that were expected to expire soon.

An additional $10 million in state general funds were allocated for COVID-19 testing and tracing efforts.

New Mexico Governor Says Holiday Plans Aren't Worth The Risk - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is making a last push to get people to stay home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

She tweeted a new video from the state health department showing family members eating dinner at their own homes while talking via a livestream.

The governor says seeing family isn't worth the risk and that it's not too late to cancel plans.
State health officials on Wednesday reported 1,873 additional confirmed cases, marking one of the lower daily counts seen in recent weeks.

Overall, the statewide total for COVID-19 infections now tops 88,100 while the death toll stands at 1,451. That includes nearly 23 additional deaths reported Wednesday.

The state's latest public health order will expire Monday, but the governor is not expected to announce any changes until then.

New Mexico recently implemented one of the strictest lockdowns in the country, attempting what the governor has described as a "reset" on the outbreak, with closures extending to all restaurants and many other businesses.

Essential businesses such as grocery stores are still open but can have only a certain number of customers inside at a time — a restriction that has led to waiting lines at some stores.

The latest public health order will expire Monday, but the governor's office is not expecting any changes until then.

The state this week launched a new option for businesses in an attempt to avoid mandatory shutdowns when COVID-19 cases among workers reach certain levels. The business would be allowed to stay open if owners sign an agreement that calls for regular testing among employees and help with state contact tracing efforts.

The health department on Wednesday confirmed that Albertsons grocery stores are participating at all 34 locations in the state. Company officials said the agreement allows them to welcome back customers and workers to the stores that had been closed just in time for Thanksgiving.

New Mexico County Signs Contract For Deputy Body CamerasAssociated Press

Bernalillo County officials have signed a $3.8 million deal with a Georgia company to provide body and vehicle cameras for the sheriff's department.

The New Mexico county made the announcement Wednesday. The agreement calls for Utility Inc. to supply 363 body cameras for deputies while 148 vehicles will be equipped with front- and rear-facing cameras.

The service agreement includes installation, software, training and maintenance for five years.

Sheriff Manuel Gonzales had long dismissed body-worn cameras despite public pressure and the urging of the county commission.

In June, state lawmakers passed a bill mandating that all law enforcement agencies in the state use body-worn cameras.

The cameras will allow deputies to automatically begin recording when important events such as a high-speed pursuit occur. The technology includes in-vehicle communication hubs and video recorders to automatically offload recordings from both the vehicles and body-worn cameras.

County officials say delivery and installation of the cameras will begin Dec. 7.

Arizona Stops Some Transfers Of Patients From Other States - By Paul Davenport, Associated Press

With Arizona hospitals admitting increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients, state health officials have suspended some transfers of patients from other states.

The Department of Health Services said Wednesday that out-of-state hospitals can still transfer patients to Arizona through direct hospital-to-hospital requests, but the use of the interstate Arizona Surge Line system was suspended until hospital occupancy drops again.

The system was activated April 21 to expedite transfers of virus patients for higher levels of care, to efficiently use hospital beds and to equalize patient numbers among hospitals. Including all types of patients, intensive care beds reached 90% occupancy last weekend and remained at that level Tuesday.

While some Arizona hospitals have been treating patients transferred from other states during the pandemic, some Arizona patients have been transferred to hospitals in neighboring states, including Nevada and New Mexico.

121 Cases, 7 Deaths Added To COVID Tallies For Navajo NationAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation reported an additional 121 known COVID-19 cases and seven more deaths Tuesday night, increasing its totals to 15,374 cases and 638 deaths.

Navajo Nation officials continued to urge the public not to hold in-person gatherings with non-household members on Thanksgiving Day due to COVID-19 risks.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez said inviting guests and other relatives into homes creates substantial risks for families. He urged people to be diligent and to make good choices but he acknowledged that can be difficult.

The nation's sprawling reservation is under a three-week stay-home lockdown to curb spread of the coronavirus.

New Mexico Legislature Passes $330 Million Virus Relief Bill - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

New Mexico lawmakers on Tuesday passed a bipartisan coronavirus relief bill that will deliver a one-time $1,200 check to all types of unemployed workers and up to $50,000 for certain businesses.

The bill also provides smaller stimulus checks to immigrants without legal status in the country and dependents, as well as additional funds for food banks, virus testing and contact tracing efforts.

Republican lawmakers were unsuccessful in their efforts to provide aid for low-income essential workers. Democrats said federal guidelines would prevent such spending and they promised to find ways during the regular session in January to address the issue.

Most of the proposed spending will be made possible by federal relief funding previously assigned to New Mexico, including around $319 million in unspent funds that were expected to expire soon. An additional $10 million in state general funds were allocated for the testing and tracing efforts.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for the one-day special session as the state faces steep infection and death rates.

The bill allocates $100 million to support businesses with 100 or fewer employees. The New Mexico Finance Authority is tasked with distributing the grants, which can be up to $50,000, and has wide discretion about whom to choose. It's instructed to focus on the service industry.

Republican lawmakers welcomed language in the bill that instructs the Finance Authority to make sure recipients are spread out geographically and not concentrated in the Democrat-leaning cities of northern New Mexico. Still, they said more work needs to be done.

New Mexico Gives Businesses Testing Option To Avoid ClosureAssociated Press

New Mexico grocery stores and other essential businesses could avoid mandatory closures triggered by COVID-19 surges among employees if they agree to regularly test their workers and help with the state's contact tracing efforts.

The state health and environment departments announced the voluntary program Tuesday. A business would have to submit a plan that details surveillance testing and contact tracing efforts for each of its locations.

New Mexico on Tuesday reported an additional 2,107 COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to nearly 86,500 since the pandemic began. Another 28 deaths were reported and more than 870 people were hospitalized.

State officials already have acknowledged that the current rate of testing would have to more than double to effectively identify and track infections.

The state is currently averaging close to 12,000 tests a day as laboratories are working around the clock to keep up with demand and volunteers are being sought to help with the effort.

More Than 240K Navajos Apply For Tribal Virus Relief Funding Associated Press

About three-quarters of Navajos enrolled with the tribe have applied for financial assistance due to the coronavirus pandemic. The deadline to file an application is Monday.

Already, more than 240,000 Navajos have applied. The tribe has about 327,000 members, making it one of the largest of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. The Navajo Nation has about $90 million available for hardship assistance. The money comes from the tribe's share of a federal coronavirus relief package.

The average payment would be $454 for adults and $151 for minors, according to the controller's website. But the decision is expected to be made based on need, up to $1,500 for adults and $500 for children.

More money could be added to the fund next month if other projects fall through.

The Navajo Nation leadership announced Tuesday that a separate economic relief program specifically for entrepreneurs, businesses and artisans has awarded money from the federal act to more than 4,000 qualifying applicants.

Tribes across the country have until Dec. 30 to spend the money. Many turned to financial aid programs to disburse the funding quickly.

Canvassing Board Certifies Joe Biden's Win In New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The state canvassing board has certified Joe Biden's win in New Mexico, delivering the state's five electoral votes to the Democrat.

Approval came Tuesday as the board met remotely amid the surging pandemic. Biden's victory without a campaign visit to New Mexico extended a string of victories for his party in a state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by 14 percentage points.

However, Biden's margin of victory fell short of that margin because of significant Republican turnout in some parts of the state. New Mexico was one of several states due to certify the election on Tuesday.

Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a member of the canvassing board, said overall turnout and the number of absentee ballots cast marked records for the state.

Toulouse Oliver also touted the integrity of the election, saying there were multiple levels of checks and a review by an independent auditor to ensure accuracy.

The review turned up what she called "a small number of very minor findings," which included some hand counting errors and an unspecified voting system error. The secretary of state's office did not immediately provide details about which counties were affected.

The Republican Party of New Mexico announced last week that it was working with President Donald Trump's campaign and looking into what party officials described as irregularities.

The party during early voting had raised concerns about poll watchers not having access to the ballot verification process. Party officials also voiced concerns about the machines and software used by the state. But no legal challenges were filed in New Mexico in the weeks following the election.

The canvassing board on Tuesday also issued orders for automatic recounts in three close races, including a state House seat and a judicial post in southern New Mexico and the race for district attorney in a district that covers several central counties.

Audit Details Lack Of Oversight At New Mexico Spaceport - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

An audit performed as part of an investigation into the conduct of Spaceport America's former chief executive details what officials call a severe breakdown of internal controls that resulted in possible taxpayer funding waste and abuse.

The report was made public Tuesday by the state auditor's office after it was finalized in November by an independent forensic accounting firm.

Former Spaceport CEO Dan Hicks was placed on administrative leave earlier this year and later fired after he was accused of circumventing internal controls and accounting procedures.

He has declined to discuss the allegations. State officials say they're addressing the transparency and oversight concerns.

The state Economic Development Department paid the accounting firm to review procurement procedures and agreements governing the gross receipts tax and the use of revenue generated by the tax. The state auditor's office also reviewed financial aspects related to the spaceport.

The report is based on interviews with Hicks and spaceport staff along with emails, documents and other information gathered during the three-month investigation. It details improper procurement, excessive travel spending and a lack of financial oversight going back several years.

Scott McLaughlin, the spaceport's operations director and an aerospace engineer, has been serving as the interim head of Spaceport America since late June. He will continue to lead the spaceport until the board hires a permanent director.

The board is scheduled to meet next on Dec. 2.

Located in a remote stretch of southern New Mexico, Spaceport America is billed as the world's first installation built specifically for the burgeoning commercial space industry to ferry paying passengers to the lower fringes of space and launch other payloads into orbit.

The idea to build the desert outpost was first hatched years ago by British billionaire Richard Branson and former Gov. Bill Richardson.

While commercial flights have yet to begin, Virgin Galactic — the spaceport's anchor tenant — is preparing for its first space test flight from the facility.

The flight was planned for last week but public health restrictions prompted by the pandemic forced a delay.