WED: Most Counties See Virus Improvements, Cowboys For Trump Leader Seeks Jail Release, + More

Jan 27, 2021


Officials Say Most New Mexico Counties See Virus ImprovementsAssociated Press

New Mexico health officials say almost all of the state's 33 counties have shown improvements over the last two weeks when it comes to reducing daily case totals and test positivity rates.

The latest data released by the state Health Department shows seven counties have improved and moved into the yellow category, while sparsely populated Harding County remains green.

The rest of the counties — including those that span New Mexico's most populated areas — remain in the red zone due to higher risks.

However, state officials say more than two-thirds of counties are on the cusp of reaching the metrics required for yellow classification.

Under the state's county-by-county color-coded systems, those counties that meet certain benchmarks for test positivity rates and the per-capita daily incidence of new COVID-19 cases can begin to rollback some public health restrictions.

Over the past two weeks, 28 counties saw their per-capita new daily case rate improve, while 29 saw their test positivity rates get better.

Officials said Bernalillo, Doña Ana, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties were among those to see improvements.

Overall, daily case counts and hospitalizations have been trending downward in New Mexico.

Confirmed infections have topped 171,000 since the pandemic began, with nearly 27,000 cases being reported since Jan. 1.

That's a notable decrease from the number of cases reported during November and December when monthly totals surpassed 43,000 and 49,000 respectively.

New Mexico Senators, Advocates Back Biden Oil And Gas Plans - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Local officials and residents in New Mexico's oil patches are anxious as the Biden administration takes aim at the oil and natural gas industry with a series of new executive orders.

But the state's two U.S. senators, both Democrats, are supporting the actions, saying it's time to rethink the nation's energy policies.

Sen. Martin Heinrich said he would not support a permanent, unilateral ban on new oil and gas leases but he believes a pause is appropriate despite concerns from industry groups and others that doing so could have immediate implications for the state's bottom line.

Freshman U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Lujan argued that not addressing climate change is a threat to national security. He also said hearing from the public about safeguarding sacred places and building new economic opportunities will be important as the Biden administration reviews the oil and gas program.

President Joe Biden aims to cut oil and gas emissions and double energy production from offshore wind turbines. He's also directing agencies to focus investments on regions that face job losses as the U.S. begins to shift toward wind, solar and other resources.

The Biden administration last week also suspended for 60 days the regulatory authority of federal land managers in field offices across the country, meaning any decisions regarding leasing, permitting or other reviews and approvals have to be funneled to top officials with the U.S. Interior Department.

Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, whose district includes New Mexico's share of the Permian Basin, said the president's actions are hasty and could have dire consequences for state coffers and local communities given the industry's role in New Mexico's economy.

Herrell sent a letter this week to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, asking that she join with her to protect jobs and the state's interests. She noted that one-third of New Mexico's budget relies on oil and gas revenues, with more than $1 billion going toward public education.

Lujan Grisham's office has been analyzing the potential effects of the policies on New Mexico. However, there was no indication her office would consider seeking a waiver to insulate operations in the state.

The Democratic governor in her state of the state address this week doubled down on her commitment to renewable energy and emissions reductions, including enacting tough methane and air pollution rules for oil and gas operators. She said she wants to crack down on pollution in a way that is not punitive but innovative.

On Wednesday, she said she would work with the Biden administration to "ensure the development of a balanced national policy that acknowledges and incorporates the important lessons from an all-of-the-above energy state like ours" and takes into account the financial realities of states like New Mexico.

Cowboys For Trump Leader Seeks Release From Washington Jail - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Defense attorneys for jailed Cowboys for Trump leader Couy Griffin urged a federal judge Wednesday to release the New Mexico county commissioner and gun rights advocate as he awaits trial in Washington in connection with the siege on the U.S. Capitol.

Federal prosecutors want Griffin, a resident of Tularosa, held without bail in Washington — as a flight risk and danger to others — on charges that he knowingly entered the Capitol grounds with the intent to disrupt government business.

Prosecutors cite a history of threatening comments, racial invective, access to firearms and vows that Joe Biden would never be president.

In federal court filings, attorneys for Griffin said federal authorities have been misleading and selective in their characterization of Griffin's comments to FBI agents and in public, noting that he is a Christian pastor and "not a mafia member."

The filings also show that Griffin told FBI agents that he never went inside the Capitol. He did, however, post videos on social media showing himself on an exterior balcony of the Capitol amid throngs of Donald Trump supporters as a mob stormed the building.

He was arrested by U.S. Capitol Police on Jan. 17 after returning to Washington, vowing opposition to President Joe Biden's election victory and inauguration.

More than 150 people have been charged in federal court with crimes following the Jan. 6 riot.

Before returning to Washington, Griffin spoke at a meeting of the Otero County Commission at length about his presence at the U.S. Capitol as riots broke out and the building was breached and about his plans to return to Washington with guns in his vehicle.

Griffin's attorneys say the guns were a self-defense precaution in response to threats, saying Griffin explained in public and in interviews by the FBI that he was worried about online threats.

On the way to Washington, Griffin said he decided to leave his guns with friends in Pennsylvania and was arrested unarmed.

New Mexico Lawmakers Consider Hair Discrimination Bill - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

A bill to protect New Mexico residents from discrimination stemming from hairstyles or religious coverings is gaining traction in the state Legislature.

It cleared the House Education Committee on Wednesday. It would protect students and workers from discrimination against hairstyles and head coverings that express a person's religious, cultural or racial identity.

Black and Native American women told lawmakers stories of institutions treating them differently because of their hairstyles.

Others who testified talked about a 2018 case in which an Albuquerque teacher was accused of cutting a Native American student's hair during class on Halloween.

If the bill is passed and signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico would be the eighth state in the nation to protect students and workers against hair discrimination under what's known as a CROWN Act.

That stands for "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair," which is part of a national lobbying effort by Dove, the National Urban League, Color Of Change and Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Across the country, workers have been pressured to cut or chemically alter their hair to satisfy employer grooming codes.

The bill is sponsored by two Albuquerque Democrats, House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton and Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero.

The city of Albuquerque adopted a municipal version of the CROWN Act earlier this month.

Work To Begin On Route 66 Visitor Center In New MexicoAssociated Press

A construction contract worth nearly $10 million has been awarded to an Albuquerque-based company to build the Route 66 Visitors Center on the western edge of the city along the historic roadway.

Bernalillo County commissioners approved the contract with Enterprise Builders on Tuesday.

The visitors center is a collaborative effort between the county, the city of Albuquerque and local stakeholders. The project will include a museum, a tap room, office space and outdoor amphitheater.

Albuquerque is home to the longest urban stretch of Route 66. As home to some of the city's most prominent arts and culture attractions, officials have said it serves as a critical driver of small business and job creation.

One of the first roads in the U.S. highway system, Route 66 spanned more than 2,400 miles and ran through eight states.

Known as the "Mother Road," it was created in 1926 after the Bureau of Public Roads launched the nation's first federal highway system, bringing together existing local and state roads from Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles.

Small towns opened shops, motels and gas stations to pump revenue into local economies just as the nation's car culture took off.

County officials said the West Central Community Development Group is working on an exhibit masterplan for the visitor center to include museum quality artwork that will support the mission of education and outreach.

Beloved, Older Snow Leopard Dies At Albuquerque ZooAssociated Press

A zoo in Albuquerque has announced that its longtime resident snow leopard named Azeo has died.

The ABQ BioPark Zoo says the 19-year-old snow leopard was found dead in his outdoor exhibit space Thursday after spending more than 15 years at the zoo. Results from a necropsy are pending.

Snow leopards usually live up to 12 years in the wild and up to 15 years in captivity. Park officials say most snow leopards are elusive and solitary but that Azeo was gentle with the female leopards and interacted with zoo employees.

Azeo came to New Mexico from the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Canada in 2004 and has since sired 12 cubs with his first mate Kachina and two more cubs with his second mate Sarani.

Kachina died in 2017 at age 14 of an inoperable tumor in her neck and throat.

The zoo still has three snow leopards, including Sarani. An official said that the zoo anticipates getting more snow leopards. It was unclear when and how many.

Vaccines Among Last Hurdles To Open New Mexico Classrooms - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

New Mexico's teacher's unions say a slow vaccine rollout and the expiration of federal COVID-19 sick leave are the remaining hurdles to getting students in schools.

On Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that some of the power to reopen schools will be given back to local districts nearly a year after they closed their doors.

That decision came with the blessing of union officials and a promise to the state's teachers, who are among the oldest and therefore most vulnerable teaching population in the country.

"None of you — no educator, no school worker — should ever have to choose between your health and the students you serve," Lujan Grisham said in her "State of the State" address to the Legislature, which convenes this month for its annual session.

Earlier this month, the state began to vaccinate teachers.

In Santa Fe, a private school managed to get all 90 of its staff vaccinated, while the public school district had 100 shots for staff, out of some 2,000 employees.

The state's largest district, Albuquerque Public Schools, hasn't hosted a single vaccine clinic, spokeswoman Monica Armenta said Tuesday.

The announcement appeared to catch many school leaders off guard.

"There's a lot of excitement and truthfully some trepidation over the governor's announcement today," said APS Interim Superintendent Scott Elder.

In Las Cruces, school officials said they couldn't start before Feb. 22 even if a plan were approved because they promised weeks of notice to families and staff.

Union leaders were consulted in advance, but many of the details will be left to districts.

"The teachers still need to get vaccinated. They still need COVID leave," said Albuquerque American Federation of Teachers president Ellen Bernstein in an interview before the announcement.

But the state has largely protected teachers. And unlike in other states like Florida, it has no plans to mandate they return in-person or to pressure districts to open up. 

"The governor has done just about everything that a governor can do to keep citizens in this state safe. She has shut things down. She has required people to wear masks. She has fined people for not doing so," said NEA New Mexico teacher union president Mary Parr-Sanchez. 

She's also optimistic about vaccines. 

"The health department isn't the only one that is receiving vaccines and so there are other ways that districts can get large quantities of educators vaccinated. And, and that's what's been happening," Parr-Sanchez said.

In the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho, vaccination clinics were canceled by state officials citing miscommunication with districts and a general shortage of vaccine doses.

"We are disappointed that there was no information shared on the vaccination timeline for educators," said Rio Rancho Public School spokeswoman Bethany Pendergras.

Also in January, federal support for COVID-19 sick leave expired, meaning teachers who got sick after braving the virus would have to use sick leave or go unpaid during a quarantine.

Pendergrass says her district worked with the American Federation of Teachers union representing staff to offer 10 days of COVID-19 leave for illness or quarantine, with a significant caveat.

"If an employee voluntarily travels to any high-risk location out of state and is required to self-isolate or self-quarantine on return, that employee waives their right to these benefits and must use their own paid time off," Pendergras said.

Out of state staff vacations were one factor in curbing in-person learning programs in December.

For districts that can't afford additional teacher leave, Public Education Department officials are mulling their options.

"We do anticipate that we will as a state be able to do something with regard to COVID-19 sick leave for staff," said Education Secretary Ryan Stewart.

New Mexico Governor Says Schools Will Reopen In February - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says the state will soon reopen schools to students of all ages. The vast majority of New Mexico students have been consigned to distance learning during the pandemic, which has led to learning loss and failing grades.

The Democratic governor has pushed back the start of in-person learning since August, citing COVID-19 case numbers. The governor said Tuesday in her State of the State address that New Mexico will be ready by Feb. 8 with a plan for in-person learning.

It will include middle- and high-school students who until now have not been allowed to participate in any partial in-person programs.

That plan requires masking, cleaning and the spacing of students, It also requires teachers to participate in COVID-19 testing.

Schools with lots of positive tests in a short amount of time will have to close for 14 days.

Rules for air filters, initially so strict that they would require schools to replace their entire air systems, were loosened last year, removing one more barrier to schools opening up again.

The schools will need to install the highest quality filter possible, open windows and doors, and use fans to circulate more air.

Under the hybrid model that all schools can implement on Feb. 8, schools are allowed to bring 50% of students back at a time. Advocates for in-person learning believe that will give schools flexibility to offer more in-person time to those who need it.

Lujan Grisham's announcement followed growing pressure to reopen schools for students of all ages — including a bipartisan bill in the Legislature that would have given the power to reopen schools to local officials.

The legislative session, which began earlier this month and runs through March, will give state leaders an opportunity to resuscitate the battered public education system in the coming years.

The statewide green light from the governor is no guarantee that all students will have access to in-person learning immediately.

Some school districts such as Rio Rancho put in place hybrid plans after COVID-19 benchmarks were met. Other school boards are still hesitant to reopen. Santa Fe Public Schools tried a hybrid model last semester and then abandoned it as cases soared.

State health officials reported 602 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and 14 additional deaths, pushing the total number of deaths to 3,171.

State Relief Plans Take Shape At New Mexico Legislature - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An economic relief package is taking shape at the New Mexico Legislature as a Senate panel endorsed a $600 rebate to low-income workers and a separate bill that would waive licensing fees on liquor stores.

Residents of New Mexico who earned up to $31,200 during 2020 would be eligible for the $600 payout or credit against tax liabilities under a bill that also provides a temporary tax break for restaurants as they endure restrictions on indoor dining.

A panel of lawmakers unanimously advanced those proposals on Tuesday.

The concept of a rebate to low-income workers who labored through the pandemic at essential businesses was pioneered late last year by Republican lawmakers without approval.

Democrats have embraced the approach under a bill from Sens. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque and Siah Correa Hemphill of Silver City that also includes temporary tax breaks for restaurants and other food service businesses, from food trucks to craft breweries, for a four-month period starting March 1.

The income tax rebate alone could distribute an estimated $95 million in credits and rebates. The bill received unified praise from business associations and a progressive-leaning advocacy group for solutions to childhood poverty.

Governor Seeks New State Investments In Relief, EducationAssociated Press

New Mexico's governor urged legislators to approve increased spending on public schools, health care and aid to small businesses in her annual State of the State address.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced new details of her economic relief platform Tuesday and touted state achievements in coronavirus testing. She also set a Feb. 8 deadline for allowing school districts to reopen classrooms to students of all ages.

Ordinarily, Lujan Grisham would address a joint session of the Legislature with her Cabinet and the state Supreme Court in attendance. However, her speech was recorded at the state Capitol and transmitted via webcast and Facebook without a live audience as a precaution against the coronavirus.

She made no mention of proposed policing reforms or efforts to overturn the state's dormant ban on most abortion procedures, but rather focused on the toll the pandemic has taken on the state.

The first-term Democratic governor quoted inaugural poet Amanda Gorman and announced in her own words that "we will stand up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the climb."

Lujan Grisham says her approach to economic recovery from the pandemic will involve increased state spending and be a departure from the austerity-minded approach of her Republican predecessor, Gov. Susana Martinez.

Lujan Grisham has outlined a $7.3 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year starting on July 1, 2021 — an increase of 3.3% that emphasizes economic relief, public education and mental health services.

New Mexico can draw on $2.5 billion in financial reserves as it seeks to sustain vital public services in the midst of severe economic distress brought on by the pandemic and companion public health orders.

The governor urged the legislature to commit half of annual infrastructure spending — about $200 million — to high-speed internet infrastructure as school districts struggle with barriers to online learning, especially in remote, rural areas.

She also called on the Legislature to improve a small business loan program to unlock $200 million in aid and to make another $200 million available in rent relief to small businesses.

About $40 million in low-interest loans were allotted to small businesses last year in response to the economic downturn.

The governor used the speech to announce that "every school district in the state will be able to welcome all ages of students safely back to the classroom on Feb. 8."

The vast majority of students statewide are studying online only as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. Republican and Democratic legislators have introduced legislation that gives school districts greater autonomy to restart in-person learning.

With enrollment plunging at New Mexico's colleges and universities, the governor renewed her call for "opportunity scholarships" to cover the cost of tuition and fees for in-state undergraduate students.

She says an additional $22 million would allow 30,000 more New Mexico residents to access two years of college without financial strain.

Lujan Grisham renewed her call for legislators to broaden cannabis sales to recreational marijuana to create jobs and boost government income from taxes.

She also is asking the Legislature to steer more money toward local businesses by reforming the state procurement process. Newly proposed legislation backed by the governor and Democratic legislators aims to boost state contracting with businesses owned by women, Native Americans and other minority groups.

The governor is touting the job-creating potential of public investments in companies that monitor greenhouse gas emissions by the oil industry.

Lujan Grisham is promoting a bill that would increase state health care subsidies for families and individuals of moderate incomes earning too much to qualify for Medicaid.

The initiative is aimed at expanding health insurance coverage to an estimated 23,000 residents and reduce insurance premium payments for tens of thousands of additional people, the governor said.

The proposed budget from the executive branch also would increase spending on suicide prevention services.

New Mexico Seeing Downward Trends For Virus MetricsAssociated Press

New Mexico's weekly average for new confirmed COVID-19 cases is continuing its downward trend, as state health officials reported just over 600 additional cases Tuesday.

The death toll increased only slightly as 14 additional people succumbed to the virus, and hospitalizations due to the virus marked another decline.

Officials have said they're encouraged by the latest numbers and are hopeful that the federal government will begin distributing more vaccine doses soon.

New Mexico's allocation has remained steady, but with current supplies it could be weeks before more people become eligible.

So far, more than 90% of the 235,000 doses that have been delivered to New Mexico have been administered. State health officials say more than 750,000 people are eligible, and more than 522,000 people have registered online to get their shots.

New Mexico's nursing homes and assisted living facilities were part of the first phase of vaccinations, and officials announced Tuesday that all 309 such facilities in the state have had a vaccine clinic where the first dose was provided.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged in a statement that she knows people want the process to be faster and for vaccines to be accessible in more places.

State health officials said the nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are working with the Health Department and pharmacies to set up more clinics so that second doses can be provided and to give first shots to any residents or staff who missed the first round of clinics.

"It's important to remember that you are not fully protected until you have had both doses of the COVID vaccine," Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins. "We are very eager to see this vulnerable population fully vaccinated and better protected from COVID-19."

In all, more than 12,000 long-term care staff and residents were vaccinated during the first clinics.

New Mexico City To Invest $1M More In Homeless ShelterAssociated Press

Officials in New Mexico's largest city are investing more money in an existing homeless shelter west of Albuquerque as they continue looking at options for establishing a new, more accessible shelter.

The $1 million investment announced this week will pay for upgrades at the Westside Emergency Housing Center. It will include better ventilation to address COVID-19 concerns.

The city is using federal grant funds to pay for the work. The center served an average of about 4,760 people monthly in 2020. Officials say that number will likely increase as the pandemic continues.

Voters in 2019 approved a bond that included $14 million for a new shelter. Since then, the city has narrowed down the list of possible locations for a new shelter.

They acknowledge that many who could use the westside shelter's services shelter don't because it's too far away and transportation for busing people back and forth cost taxpayers about $1 million a year.

Bobby Sisneros, a planning manager with the city's Family and Community Services Department, said Monday that the city is still negotiating to acquire a former medical complex on the city's southeast side. The idea is that it would serve as the main component of Albuquerque's overall shelter system, with the westside center still playing a role.

The New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness this week is coordinating an effort in New Mexico to quantify homelessness. As part of the annual survey, volunteers are asking homeless people where they slept the night of Jan. 25.

The data is used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to track homelessness and determine where resources are needed. Local officials can use the information to advocate for more funding.

The 2019 count showed New Mexico with the highest percentage increase in homelessness in the nation, at 27%.

The count put the number of homeless people in Albuquerque at just over 1,500. But homeless shelter and meal program operators said the actual number was probably in the range of 4,000 to 4,500, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

That survey also showed that about 40% of the unsheltered people in New Mexico were Native American.

In addition to its westside shelter, Albuquerque and other partners have been using hotels to provide emergency housing during the pandemic.

Eighty-seven families with 186 children were being sheltered across that network as of this week.

Work To Begin On Route 66 Visitor Center In New Mexico - Associated Press

A construction contract worth nearly $10 million has been awarded to an Albuquerque-based company to build the Route 66 Visitors Center on the western edge of the city along the historic roadway. 

Bernalillo County commissioners approved the contract with Enterprise Builders on Tuesday. 

The visitors center is a collaborative effort between the county, the city of Albuquerque and local stakeholders. 

The project will include a museum, a tap room, office space and outdoor amphitheater. 

Albuquerque is home to the longest urban stretch of Route 66.

AP Sources: Biden To Pause Oil And Gas Sales On Public Lands - By Matthew Daly Associated Press

President Joe Biden is set to announce a wide-ranging moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on U.S. lands and waters, as his administration moves quickly to reverse Trump administration policies on energy and the environment and address climate change. 

Two people with knowledge of Biden's plans outlined the proposed moratorium, which will be announced Wednesday. 

The move follows a 60-day suspension of new drilling permits for U.S. lands and waters announced last week and follows Biden's campaign pledge to halt new drilling on federal lands and water as part of his plan to address climate change.

The moratorium is intended to allow time for officials to review the impact of oil and gas drilling on the environment and climate.

Environmental groups hailed the expected moratorium as the kind of bold, urgent action needed to slow climate change.

Oil industry groups slammed the move, saying Biden had already eliminated thousands of oil and gas jobs by killing the Keystone XL oil pipeline on his first day in office.

Under Trump, Interior officials approved almost 1,400 permits on federal lands, primarily in Wyoming and New Mexico, over a three-month period that included the election, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data. Those permits, which remain valid, will allow companies to continue drilling for years, potentially undercutting Biden's climate agenda.

The leasing moratorium could present a political dilemma for Biden in New Mexico, a Democratic-leaning state that has experienced a boom in oil production in recent years, much of it on federal land. 

Biden's choice to lead the Interior Department, which oversees oil and gas leasing on public lands, is New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American to lead the agency that oversees relations with nearly 600 federally-recognized tribes.

Haaland, whose confirmation hearing has been delayed until next month, already faces backlash from some Republicans who say expected cutbacks in oil production under Biden would hurt her home state.

Rob Black, president of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, said the expected moratorium would be "devastating" to his state, while failing to reduce carbon emissions in the Southwest.

The Biden administration has pledged to spend billions to assist in the transition away from fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal, and Biden has said creating thousands of clean-energy jobs is a top priority.