WED: New Mexico Adds Least-Restrictive COVID Tier, State House Endorses Liquor Reforms, + More

Feb 24, 2021


New Mexico Adds Least-Restrictive COVID-19 Tier - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico is revising its color-coded risk system by adding a new color that signifies when counties can ease even more pandemic-related restrictions.

The red-yellow-green system now includes turquoise. State health officials said Wednesday that counties reach that category by meeting certain health criteria for four consecutive weeks.

It allows for expanded indoor dining and the operation of entertainment venues like theaters, bars and clubs. All but four of the state's 33 counties already have seen test positivity and new case rates decline and have emerged from the strictest lockdowns — earning favorable yellow, green and now turquoise ratings on the color-coded map.

The Albuquerque Journal reported four counties achieved this turquoise status Wednesday – Catron, Harding, Sierra and Union.

State health officials and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have pointed to ongoing efforts to drive down transmission rates — mask-wearing and limiting social contact — along with vaccinations for the reasons New Mexico has seen its daily case numbers and spread rates decline in recent weeks. The governor on Wednesday called it "solid progress."

Republicans have been critical of the Democratic governor's handling of the pandemic, saying countless businesses have been forced to close and unemployment continues to climb as a result. State lawmakers are considering proposals that would provide economic aid amid the ongoing pandemic.

Senate Republicans sent a letter to the governor last week, urging her to revise the framework for reopening more of the state. They called the latest changes a small step in the right direction.

House Republican Whip Rod Montoya said Lujan Grisham still needs to do more: "It is time for the governor to stop playing with crayons, when she should be getting kids back into the classroom and New Mexicans get back to work."

Under the state's system, a color is assigned based on the risk level in a particular county. The risk is determined by two key metrics: a test positivity rate below 5% and a new per-capita case rate of fewer than 8 per 100,000.

A county that meets one of the benchmarks over a two-week period may operate at the yellow level. A county that meets both is considered green, while those that fall short of both are red.

The state also announced it was recategorizing businesses that had previously been considered close-contact recreational facilities and were closed no matter a county's color. Now, those businesses will be allowed to operate at limited capacities depending on their new category and the risk level of the county in which they operate.

For entertainment venues such as racetracks, concert halls, movie theaters and sports venues, they can operate at 33% capacity indoors and 75% outdoors under the turquoise level. Lower capacities would be allowed at the green and yellow levels.

Separate from the revised tier system, state parks, which had previously been open only for day-use for New Mexico residents, will now be open to all for camping with reservations and day-use.

New Mexico Legislators Push For More Spending, Business Aid - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The Democrat-led state House of Representatives has voted to increase state spending on public education, health care and relief to businesses in efforts to chart a financial path out of the coronavirus pandemic.

The House endorsed Wednesday a $7.39 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 on a 60-10 vote with some Republicans in opposition.

The budget bill would increase annual general fund spending by $332 million, or nearly 5% of current spending obligations. It now moves to the Senate for consideration and possible amendments.

State government income is surging on a rebound in oil prices and increased production.

The bill includes a 1.5% pay raise for public employees in state government, public schools and state colleges and universities.

Spending on public education would increase by 5.5% to nearly $3.4 billion annually. Many lawmakers in the Democrat-dominated Legislature also want to shore up state spending on Medicaid amid a surge in enrollment in the federally subsidized health care program for the needy.

The budget proposal is linked to a package of pandemic-related economic relief that would provide $200 million in grants to businesses for rent and mortgage obligations and provide a $600 tax rebate to low-wage workers.

The spending plan would provide four months of state taxation relief for restaurants and pay off $325 million in debt racked up by the state unemployment trust fund -- avoiding an increase in payroll taxes on businesses to make up the difference.

The budget proposal also takes aim at reducing a waiting list for services for youths with severe mental and physical disabilities.

It would dedicate more money to teen suicide prevention, and dedicate at least $20 million in new spending to college affordability programs.

Republican House minority leader Jim Townsend voted against the budget plan and said he was reluctant to endorse proposed base salary increases for public workers.

The Legislature has until March 20 to send a budget plan to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

Education Officials Seek Flexibility On Student Testing - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

Education officials in New Mexico want flexibility in federal testing requirements for students.

The U.S. Department of Education said it won't exempt states from testing students, as it did last spring. But it said it would consider allowing tests to be shorter, done remotely and carried out as late as the fall.

New Mexico's head of public education says he will likely ask to test fewer students in a representative sample that can be reliable for parents and policymakers.

Low-income and rural students have generally had the hardest time learning this year because of limited access to devices and the internet. School administrators fear those students also would be the hardest to assess remotely, skewing results and underestimating learning challenges from the pandemic year.

Addressing a public legislative forum Tuesday, Education Secretary Ryan Stewart

said his team will try to get results that capture all student experiences, even if not every student is assessed.

New Mexico school districts are currently working on plans for how to assess students. Albuquerque Public Schools have proposed no state testing for grades 3-8 and opt-in testing for older grades.

Manchin Says He'll Vote For Haaland For Interior Secretary - By Matthew Daly, Associated Press

Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin says he will vote in favor of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to serve as interior secretary, clearing the way for likely approval of her nomination as the first Native American to head a Cabinet agency.

Manchin is the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He had been publicly undecided through two days of hearings on Haaland's nomination by President Joe Biden.

Manchin caused a political uproar last week by announcing plans to oppose Biden's choice for budget director, Neera Tanden, a crucial defection that could sink her nomination in the evenly divided Senate.

By contrast, Manchin said Haaland had earned his vote, despite disagreements over drilling on federal lands and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Haaland's House colleagues on both sides of the aisle, including Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, praised Haaland's bipartisan accomplishments and "sincere willingness to work collaboratively on important issues,'' Manchin said.

Manchin also said he was pleased that Haaland, during hearings this week, said the Biden administration is committed to continuing to use fossil fuels "for years to come, even as we transition to a cleaner energy future through innovation, not elimination."

Manchin's announcement came as Republicans denounced Haaland, saying her opposition to fracking, Keystone XL 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.

New Mexico Republicans Ask To Remove Barriers Around CapitolSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Republican lawmakers in New Mexico have asked that the state remove protective barriers erected around the state Capitol following the Jan. 6 insurrection during which supporters of former President Donald Trump broke into the U.S. Capitol building.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Republicans in the New Mexico legislature asked the Legislative Council on Tuesday to remove the fences around the facility arguing that "the threat has not materialized."

Six Republican leaders in the state legislature sent a letter to the top Democratic lawmakers that said the fencing "creates the perception that our government leaders are afraid of the state's citizens and there is a division between those who govern and the general public."

Director of the Legislative Council Service Raul Burciaga says that he is reviewing the request and plans to meet with Democratic leaders to discuss the issue.

Since the legislative session began in January, state police officers and New Mexico National Guardsmen have patrolled the Capitol and checked ID for everyone entering the building.

The state Capitol is closed to the public due to health restrictions implemented due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Army Weapon Built In Albuquerque To Be Tested By 2024Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The Army has announced plans to conduct field-testing of a new microwave weapon designed to protect military bases from incoming drones as early as 2024.

The announcement came after an on-site demonstration at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that the system called the Tactical High Power Operational Responder provides protection against multiple targets that simultaneously threaten military installations.

Kelly Hammet heads the Air Force Research Laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate that built the system and says the Army intends to invest as a partner starting in October.

Field testing will start by 2024 and deployment is not expected until at least 2026.

The laboratory spent $15 million to build THOR in cooperation with Albuquerque-based engineering firm Verus Research and global firms BAE Systems plc and Leidos. It first demonstrated the system in 2019.

Program manager Amber Anderson previously said the system works like a flashlight, with a wave that spreads out to disable anything within its electromagnetic cone.

Navajo Nation Reports 20 New COVID-19 Cases, 7 More DeathsAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported 20 new confirmed COVID-19 cases with seven additional deaths.

The latest numbers released Tuesday night bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 29,576 since the pandemic began.

There have been 1,152 reported deaths that were related to COVID-19. The Navajo Department of Health on Monday identified 21 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Feb. 5-18.

That's an increase from last week's 15 communities, but down from 75 communities with uncontrolled coronavirus spread last month.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez said even those who have been fully vaccinated need to continue taking precautions to avoid spreading COVID-19.

The tribe has a nightly curfew in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to limit the spread of the virus.

Tribal health officials said more than 16,000 people have recovered from COVID-19 on the reservation and nearly 243,000 tests have been administered.

Interior Nominee Haaland Questioned On Drilling, Pipelines - By Matthew Daly, Associated Press

President Joe Biden's nominee to head the Interior Department  faced sharp questions from Republicans Tuesday over what several called her "radical" ideas that include opposition to fracking and the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Deb Haaland, a New Mexico congresswoman named to lead the Interior Department, tried to reassure GOP lawmakers, saying she is committed to "strike the right balance" as Interior manages oil drilling and other energy development while seeking to conserve public lands and address climate change.

If confirmed, Haaland, 60, would be the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

Native Americans see her nomination  as the best chance to move from consultation on tribal issues to consent and to put more land into the hands of tribal nations either outright or through stewardship agreements. The Interior Department has broad oversight over nearly 600 federally recognized tribes as well as energy development and other uses for the nation's sprawling federal lands.

"The historic nature of my confirmation is not lost on me, but I will say that it is not about me," Haaland testified. "Rather, I hope this nomination would be an inspiration for Americans — moving forward together as one nation and creating opportunities for all of us."

Haaland's hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was adjourned after nearly 2 1/2 hours and will resume Wednesday.

Under questioning from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the panel's chairman, Haaland said the U.S. will continue to rely on fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas even as it moves toward Biden's goal of net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. The transition to clean energy "is not going to happen overnight," she said.

Manchin, who is publicly undecided on Haaland's nomination, appeared relieved, saying he supports "innovation, not elimination" of fossil fuels.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., was less impressed. He displayed a large chart featuring a quote from last November, before Haaland was selected to lead Interior, in which she said: "If I had my way, it'd be great to stop all gas and oil leasing on federal and public lands."

If confirmed as Interior secretary, "you will get to have it your way,'' Daines told Haaland.

She replied that Biden's vision — not hers — will set the course for Interior. "It is President Biden's agenda, not my own agenda, that I will be moving forward,'' Haaland said, an answer she repeated several times.

While Biden imposed a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands — which doesn't apply to tribal lands — he has repeatedly said he does not oppose fracking. Biden rejected the long-pIanned Keystone XL  pipeline on his first day in office.

Haaland also faced questions over her appearance at protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota before she was elected to Congress in 2018.

Haaland said she went there in solidarity with Native American tribes and other "water protectors" who "felt they were not consulted in the best way'' before the multi-state oil pipeline was approved.

Asked by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., if she would oppose a renewal of the pipeline permit, Haaland said she would first ensure that tribes are properly consulted. She told Hoeven she also would "listen to you and consult with you.''

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the GOP questions over oil drilling and pipelines revealed a partisan divide in the committee.

"I almost feel like your nomination is this proxy fight about the future of fossil fuels," Cantwell said, adding that Haaland had made clear her intention to carry out Biden's clean-energy agenda. She and other Democrats "very much appreciate the fact that you're doing that, and that's what I think a president deserves with his nominee,'' Cantwell said.

In her opening statement, Haaland told lawmakers that as the daughter of a Pueblo woman, she learned early to value hard work. Her mother is a Navy veteran and worked for a quarter-century at the Bureau of Indian Education, an Interior Department agency. Her father was a Marine who served in Vietnam. He received the Silver Star and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

"As a military family, we moved every few years ... but no matter where we lived, my dad taught me and my siblings to appreciate nature, whether on a mountain trail or walking along the beach,'' Haaland said.

The future congresswoman spent summers with her grandparents in a Laguna Pueblo village. "It was in the cornfields with my grandfather where I learned the importance of water and protecting our resources and where I gained a deep respect for the Earth,'' she said.

Haaland pledged to lead the Interior Department with honor and integrity and said she will be "a fierce advocate for our public lands."

She promised to listen to and work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and ensure that decisions are based on science. She also vowed to "honor the sovereignty of tribal nations and recognize their part in America's story.''

Some Democrats and Native American advocates called the frequent description of Haaland as "radical" a loaded reference to her tribal status.

"That kind of language is sort of a dog whistle for certain folks that see somebody who is an Indigenous woman potentially being in a position of power," said Ta'jin Perez with the group Western Native Voice.

In an op-ed in USA Today, former Sens. Mark and Tom Udall said Haaland's record "is in line with mainstream conservation priorities. Thus, the exceptional criticism of Rep. Haaland and the threatened holds on her nomination must be motivated by something other than her record.''

Mark Udall is an ex-Colorado senator, while cousin Tom Udall just retired as a New Mexico senator. Tom Udall's father, Stewart, was Interior secretary in the 1960s.

Daines called the notion of racial overtones in his remarks outrageous.

"I would love to see a Native American serve in the Cabinet. That would be a proud moment for all of us in this country. But this is about her record and her views," he said in an interview.

National civil rights groups have joined forces with tribal leaders and environmental groups in supporting Haaland. A letter signed by nearly 500 national and regional organizations calls her "a proven leader and the right person to lead the charge against the existential threats of our time,'' including climate change and racial justice issues on federal lands.

New Mexico House Endorses Liquor Reforms - Associated Press

The state House of Representatives has endorsed a bill aimed at energizing the hospitality industry in rural New Mexico by relaxing state restriction on liquor sales. 

On a 41-27 vote, the House approved a bill that would expand tasting to distilleries and broaden restaurant liquor licenses to include not only beer and wine but also spirits with a 10 p.m. cutoff. 

Amid concerns about economic stagnation, legislators are wrestling with how to modernize a closely guarded monopoly on licenses for packaged liquor sales. 

The proposed legislation offers a $200,000 tax deduction over a four year period to liquor license holders and waives future annual license fees.

Lost state income from the tax deduction would be offset by a new 2% excise tax on individual drink sales.

Democratic state Rep. Moe Maestas, the bill's lead sponsor, said the changes are designed to revive small-town economic opportunities and that the value of liquor store licenses will endure.

"They have killed similar bills for 39 years," Maestas said. "We have to modernize."

New Mexico Begins Construction Of New State Crime LabAssociated Press

New Mexico is getting a new state crime lab.

The state Department of Public Safety announced Tuesday that construction of the new $21.9 million forensic laboratory has begun in Santa Fe and is expected to be completed by the fall of 2022.

The new facility will support New Mexico law enforcement and criminal justice agencies and court systems by analyzing forensic evidence collected at crime scenes and provide testimony in court.

The 44,000-square-foot lab is being built on a state-owned lot in northeast Santa Fe.

General Services Secretary Ken Ortiz said the replacement project has long been in the planning stages.

The new lab will be over four times the size as the current one, which is 50 years-old. Officials said the new facility will have new equipment and space for future growth.

Proposed Overhaul Of New Mexico Wildlife Agency Stalls - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Legislation that would have overhauled New Mexico's wildlife management agency has stalled in a Senate committee.

After a three-hour debate, the sweeping measure was tabled Tuesday after lawmakers raised questions about the changes proposed in the 241-page bill.

Among the concerns were potential economic impacts on hunting guides and outfitters. Opponents of the bill said many outfitters would likely go out of business if they no longer received a share of the state's hunting tags and that would mean lost jobs and revenues for rural communities.

The two Democratic lawmakers pushing the bill argued that it's time to modernize the state Game and Fish Department.

The measure also would have eliminated a provision in state law that allows farmers, ranchers and other landowners to kill wildlife that is damaging their crops, fencing or other property.

The bill would have required landowners to work with the Game and Fish Department on plans to mitigate such conflicts before any animals are killed.

The New Mexico Wildlife Federation, environmentalists and animal welfare advocates all voiced support for the legislation.

Other sportsmen groups and the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce were among those in opposition.

New Mexico County Vaccinates First Responders Under MandateLas Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

County officials in southern New Mexico have said most of the first responders in Doña Ana County, which includes Las Cruces, have received at least one of the two doses of coronavirus vaccine under a county mandate, despite questions about requiring the vaccination.

County Manager Fernando Macias told the Las Cruces Sun-News that 195 county employees of the 203 staff subject to the directive of the county detention center were at least partially vaccinated, while the remaining eight had registered or had an approved waiver.

County employees were told last month they were required to receive COVID-19 vaccines to continue working for the county, despite legal questions about requiring a vaccine only approved for emergency use.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in August that "vaccines are not allowed to be mandatory" while they only have emergency use authorization.

Officials said 140 employees at the Doña Ana sheriff's office had been vaccinated out of 156, and 26 out of the 31 county fire personnel.

Macias confirmed that employees were scheduled to receive COVID-19 vaccinations on Friday, and employees who were ordered to appear on their day off would be compensated, he said.

However, volunteer firefighters were "strongly encouraged" but not required to receive vaccination under the same directive. Macias said 29 out of 132 active volunteers were at least partly vaccinated as of Friday. Macias said volunteer firefighters were not included because of limited vaccine dosage supply.

Two labor unions representing first responders questioned the directive and asked the county to come to the bargaining table. The Communication Workers of America, representing county deputies, filed a former demand earlier this month with the county attorney's office, officials said.

However, Macias told the Sun-News that no such demand was pending.