WED: Lawmakers Seek To Curb Governor's Emergency Powers, + More

Feb 3, 2021

  

New Mexico Lawmakers Eye Curbing Governor's Power In Crisis - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report For America

 

Some New Mexico lawmakers are fed up with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's 11-month string of emergency health orders. They would like to put limits on health orders during the coronavirus pandemic and in future emergencies.

A Senate committee considered a measure Wednesday that would limit emergency health orders to two weeks unless legislative leaders agree to an extension.

A spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham says quick action using the emergency health orders have saved lives, that the pandemic is far from over.

In the House, a bill by Democratic and Republican lawmakers would limit emergency health orders to 90 days. After that, the governor would have to get legislative approval.

The proposals come amid Lujan Grisham's coronavirus-related emergency health order, which has been renewed multiple times over 11 months with no need for a vote by the House or Senate.

Several other states — including Arizona, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — are seeking to curb executive power on health orders because of pandemic-related restrictions.

Lujan Grisham's spokeswoman argued that New Mexico is one of many states that have saved lives due the ability to take quick action.

Lujan Grisham called two special sessions of the Legislature last year to pass funding bills related to the pandemic, once in June for about a week and again in November for one day.

New Mexico Health Officials Cite Results From Vaccine - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

State health officials sounded an optimistic note Wednesday about progress in containing the coronavirus pandemic amid a gradual increase in federal vaccine supplies to New Mexico and a downward statewide trend in infection rates, deaths and hospitalizations.

State Health Secretary Tracie Collins announced Wednesday that nearly 9,000 people are receiving immunization shots each day statewide. The state's federal allotment of vaccine doses is increasing from 56,000 this week to 59,500 next week.

State health officials say they are redoubling efforts to distribute vaccines in an equitable way to people at the greatest risk of severe health consequences.

New Mexico has expanded eligibility beyond initial categories such as medical personnel, nursing home residents and staff to include all people over the age of 75 and other adults at high risk of several health complications from the virus.

That opens up a huge eligible population of roughly 900,000 people, within a state of 2.1 million, who will take several months to vaccinate even as the supply chain expands.

About 67,000 state residents have been fully vaccinated — or about 3.2% of the population. An estimated 225,000 people have received just the first shot out of two.

Geographic disparities are emerging in vaccination rates, as the state publicly tracks doses in each of the state's 33 counties.

Republican state Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho raised concerns with the Department of Health that his constituents may be falling behind in Sandoval County, where 6 vaccine shots have been administered per 100,000 people — versus 24 in Santa Fe County, the seat of state government.

He wrote the Department of Health on Tuesday and received no immediate response.

In a news conference, Collins said those disparities largely are based on a combination of vaccine eligibility, the local capacity at clinics and hospitals to administer shots, and attitudes toward taking the vaccine.

Collins said her agency has convened a policy group regarding equitable vaccine distribution.

Some health care specialists are urging the state to conduct door-to-door outreach.

At the same time, Collins acknowledged that residents of New Mexico have been crossing state lines in search of vaccines in Texas, where individual clinics immunize thousands of people a day on a first-come, first-served basis.

The vaccine registration system in New Mexico occasionally alerts people on short notice if excess doses are available at a nearby clinic, to limit waste from spoilage. Those invitations also may be quickly rescinded.

Human Service Secretary Secretary David Scrase delved into sports metaphors to convey his optimism at declining average rates of infection and hospitalizations from the virus.

"We believe now enough people have been vaccinated, even though it's 10 percent, we're starting to see the benefit there," he said. "This feels like the beginning of a fourth-quarter comeback."

State health officials Wednesday reported 670 new COVID cases and 29 additional deaths.

Scrase said that state is exploring the possibility of financial incentives that encourage people to take the vaccine. He said public demand is likely to keep pace with supplies until the summer months.

The goal set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of inoculating anywhere between 70% and 85% of the population is aimed at achieving herd immunity to conquer the outbreak.

Collins confirmed that teachers are receiving no special eligibility for vaccination, as local school districts have permission to restart in-person teaching for all ages on Feb. 8. Reopening decisions are being left to individual school districts under detailed state safety guidelines.

 

New Mexico Latest Legislature To Question Emergency Powers - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

State legislators in New Mexico are putting forward bills to curb their governor's public health emergency powers.

On Wednesday, a Senate committee is considering a Republican proposal to limit emergency health orders to 14 days and bar unilateral renewals like those used by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during the pandemic.

Instead, renewals would have to be agreed upon by the legislature or, if it's not in session, three out of the four legislative leaders of the House and Senate.

In the House, a bill introduced by Democratic and Republican representatives would limit emergency health orders to 90 days. After that, the governor would have to convene a special session and get legislative approval.

The proposals follow 11 months of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's coronavirus-related emergency health order, which has been renewed multiple times with no vote by the House or Senate.

At least seven other states — Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Maryland, Kentucky, Indiana and Pennsylvania —are seeking to curb executive power on health orders because of pandemic-related restrictions.

Air Force Likely To Expand F-16 Air Space In New MexicoAssociated Press, Las Cruces Sun-News

The U.S. Air Force signaled that it would likely expand existing airspace to train F-16 fighter pilots rather than create new flying areas over the Rio Grande Valley and Gila wilderness.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported Tuesday that the Air Force would prefer to extend current operations over Eddy, Otero and Chaves counties for F-16 pilots taking off from Holloman Air Force Base.

The Air Force has said that more airspace is needed to adequately train pilots.

During public hearings in 2019, environmental and economic organizations said the Air Force had not provided data that supported claims that overflights and noise would have minimal impact on wildlife.

The local organizations also said that the Air Force did not properly address concerns about noise pollution and the risk of wildfires.

Kirtland Airman Convicted In 2019 Crash That Killed Woman – Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A 22-year-old Kirtland Air Force Base airman has been convicted of charges stemming from a 2019 car crash that killed an Albuquerque woman.

Calvin Cooper faced sentencing Wednesday after being convicted Tuesday of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide in the death of Angelica Baca, 39.

The Albuquerque Journal reported James Dallas Wicker, a brother of Baca, said Cooper's conviction doesn't bring his sister back but was "the start of a long healing process,"

A prosecutor, Capt. Andrew Trejo, said Baca was struck in a street median by Cooper's car as he drove 60 mph in a 35 mph zone.

Capt. Victoria Clark, one of Cooper's defense attorneys, said Baca was negligent by not using a crosswalk to cross a busy street.

New Mexico Seeks To Boost Health Insurance Subsidies - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is backing legislation that would expand subsidies to the state's health insurance exchange for residents who don't qualify for Medicaid.

A bill that would increase the state surtax on insurance premiums won its first committee endorsement Wednesday in the state House, with Republican legislators voting in opposition.

Proceeds would be used to pay down premiums and other out-of-pocket costs for individuals and families that obtain insurance through state's exchange.

State insurance regulators hope the measure might extend insurance coverage to 23,000 people who go without coverage.

A House legislative committee voted 7-3 along party lines, with Republicans in opposition to advance the surtax rate increase on health insurance premiums.

Supporters of the initiative include New Mexico Superintendent of Insurance Russell Toal, who says the subsidy should attract more insurance customers to the state marketplace and ultimately lower monthly insurance premium payments.

Advocates for small businesses voiced opposition, fearing the tax increase will put a greater financial burden on employer based health plans.

States including Colorado, Delaware and New Jersey have enacted a similar fee.

In New Mexico, it could increase state government revenues by an estimated $153 million annually. About $115 million would go toward lowering consumer costs for insurance, with the remainder transferred to the state general fund.

New Mexico completes the transition this year to its own self-contained marketplace for insurance. About 43,000 people relied on the exchange for insurance access last year.

President Joe Biden last week ordered government health insurance markets to reopen for a special 60-day sign-up window, offering uninsured Americans a haven amid the pandemic.

New Mexico residents have flocked to Medicaid health care, with 43% enrollment statewide as of November as the coronavirus wreaks economic havoc and shifts the way people receive health care.

Lawsuit Alleges Rodent Infestation At New Mexico Prison - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Two former inmates in New Mexico are suing state prison staff and a food-service contractor for cruelty and negligence, alleging they failed to resolve a yearslong rat and mouse infestation at the kitchen in a women's lockup. 

The inmates cited health risks including mouse-borne Hantavirus, though no infections were reported.

The federal court lawsuit announced Tuesday from Albuquerque-area residents Susie Zapata and Monica Garcia describes a "horrific and widespread" rodent infestation that included contact between food and rodent feces, urine and and even rodents that somehow plunged into stew and a batch of oatmeal. 

The Department of Corrections declined to comment on details of the lawsuit, citing pending litigation.

The lawsuit also takes aim at South Dakota-based contractor Summit Food Service that provides meal services the Western New Mexico Corrections Facility, a 390-bed prison in the city of Grants. Company representatives were unavailable.

The suit was filed by the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for improved prison conditions. The group was established last year and is led by attorney Matthew Coyte.

Zapata and Garcia attest to bouts of severe food poisoning during their incarceration that resulted in vomiting and diarrhea.

The suit says numerous complaints were filed by inmates without an adequate response. Inmates say they risked discipline by defying orders to serve contaminated food.

The lawsuit alleges violation of constitutional guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment and seeks punitive damages and attorney's fees.

New Mexico Trapping Ban Clears First Legislative Hurdle - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Legislation to prohibit traps, snares and wildlife poisons from being used on public lands across New Mexico has cleared its first legislative hurdle. 

Environmentalists and animal advocacy groups testified on behalf of the measure during a Senate committee meeting Tuesday. 

They argued that New Mexico needs to join neighboring states and ban what they described as a cruel and outdated practice. 

Rural residents and wildlife conservation officers said trapping remains an important tool for managing wildlife and protecting livestock. 

They pointed to changes made last year to the state's trapping rules, saying lawmakers should give the rules a chance to work before imposing a sweeping ban.

Under the rules, trappers have to complete an education course and restrictions were imposed on setting traps and snares around designated trailheads and on select tracts of public lands in New Mexico.

Designed largely to reduce the hazard of traps to hikers and their dogs, the prohibitions include mountainous areas east of Albuquerque, along with swaths of national forest along highways leading to ski areas near Santa Fe and Taos. In the southern part of the state, it includes the eastern portion of the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument.

The measure must be considered by another committee before reaching the full Senate for a vote.

New Mexico Fines Store Where Employee Died From COVID-19 - Associated Press

Workplace safety regulators are fining an auto parts store in southeastern New Mexico $243,000 amid accusations it allowed employees with coronavirus symptoms to continue working without properly screening them. 

The Environment Department announced the penalty Tuesday against O'Reilly Auto Parts in Lovington, where employees showing symptoms were allowed to work and ultimately tested positive for the virus. 

Three workers tested positive, including a 46-year-old woman who later died. 

A company representative had no immediate comment. 

Infection rates and daily deaths are trending downward in New Mexico. 

Testing at the state Capitol has identified one new infection as lawmakers grapple with pandemic safety. Legislative Council Service Director Raùl Burciaga said there was no close contact between the infected person and any lawmaker or legislative staff.

There have been six positive virus tests there since Jan. 15.

New Mexico Cannabis Rules Not Backed By Evidence, Judge SaysSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A New Mexico district judge has ruled directives written by the state Department of Health for oversight of a medical cannabis program were not supported by evidence.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports District Judge Bryan Biedscheid issued an order Friday repealing the regulations and ordering they must be rewritten.

The order says the department did not appear to have followed statute by consulting with the state Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, while medical cannabis testing rules were not supported by evidence.

The order was in response to a July complaint by New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health, the state's largest medical cannabis producer. The company claimed the department had provided "no rational connection" between facts and its rule-making process.

Ultra Health Chief Executive Officer Duke Rodriguez has sued the department multiple times to contest sanctions, gross receipts tax applicability and the definition of adequate supply.

Biedscheid wrote that he hoped his order would provide guidance for the health department to prevent the issue from returning to the court.

The department of health said in an email that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Biden's Pause On Oil Creates Uncertainty For New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are voicing concerns about U.S. President Joe Biden's pause on oil, saying recent actions by the administration will undoubtedly have long-term implications for the state's financial outlook.

Industry groups and state regulators testified Tuesday before a key Senate committee about potential production decreases and revenue losses.

New Mexico already has seen a decrease in drilling rigs and decisions by developers to shift multimillion-dollar investments elsewhere.

With oil and gas revenues accounting for a significant portion of New Mexico's budget, experts warned that lost revenue will have to be made up through either spending cuts or tax increases.

Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, told the finance committee that $1.5 billion in state revenue is at risk along with more than $12 billion in capital projects. He noted that more than half of production in the state comes from federal lands.

An analysis by the state Oil Conservation Division indicated that impacts over the short term would be minimal since more than 6,000 applications for drilling permits already have been approved.

However, the agency acknowledged that the federal orders create uncertainty for operators that already are dealing with infrastructure challenges and future production would likely drop off as there would be no new wells to replace those that are currently operating.

The agency is recommending the state prepare for a 10% reduction in production.

Legislative analysts reported that the cancellation of this year's federal lease sales would mean a direct loss of about $12 million for the state but that it's difficult to predict the total impact given uncertainty within the industry and questions about whether the orders could be extended or amended.

Analysts did note that current prices per barrel and production levels are higher than what was predicted in December's revenue forecast.

Ex-Navajo Nation President Dies Of Coronavirus Complications - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Albert Hale, who served as one of the first presidents of the Navajo Nation, died Tuesday. He was 70. 

Tribal officials say Hale died of complications from the coronavirus. 

Hale was Navajo Nation president shortly after the tribe restructured its government to create a balance of power in the early 1990s. He was key to that effort as a lawyer and also championed autonomy for Navajo communities or chapters. 

Hale later went on to serve in the Arizona Legislature for more than 10 years. 

His family says his contributions were immense and impacted many people's lives.

His daughter, April Hale, said the family is planning a drive-through memorial for their father but the details haven't been finalized.

Navajo Nation Reports 70 New COVID-19 Cases, 6 More DeathsAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Wednesday reported 70 new COVID-19 cases and six more deaths.

The latest numbers raised the totals to 28,544 cases and 1,038 known deaths since the pandemic began.

On Tuesday, tribal officials said they received word that U.S. President Joe Biden had signed a long-awaited major disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation.

It will provide more federal resources and prompts the release of federal funds for the reimbursement of emergency funds expended to address the COVID-19 pandemic on the Navajo Nation which covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The tribe has tribe extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Navajo Nation Reports 82 New COVID-19 Cases, 12 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Tuesday reported 82 new COVID-19 cases and 12 more deaths. 

The latest numbers raised the totals to 28,471 cases and 1,032 known deaths since the pandemic began. 

The tribe has extended its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19.  

The Navajo Department of Health has identified 56 communities with uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus, down from 75 communities in recent weeks. 

The Navajo Nation also is lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events. 

The actions in the latest public health emergency order will run through at least Feb. 15.

New Mexico Lawmakers Eye Curbing Governor's Power In Crisis - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report For America

Some New Mexico lawmakers are fed up with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's 11-month string of emergency health orders. They would like to put limits on health orders during the coronavirus pandemic and in future emergencies.

A Senate committee considered a measure Wednesday that would limit emergency health orders to two weeks unless legislative leaders agree to an extension.

A spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham says quick action using the emergency health orders have saved lives, that the pandemic is far from over.

In the House, a bill by Democratic and Republican lawmakers would limit emergency health orders to 90 days. After that, the governor would have to get legislative approval.

The proposals come amid Lujan Grisham's coronavirus-related emergency health order, which has been renewed multiple times over 11 months with no need for a vote by the House or Senate.

Several other states — including Arizona, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — are seeking to curb executive power on health orders because of pandemic-related restrictions.

Lujan Grisham's spokeswoman argued that New Mexico is one of many states that have saved lives due the ability to take quick action.

Lujan Grisham called two special sessions of the Legislature last year to pass funding bills related to the pandemic, once in June for about a week and again in November for one day.

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