WED: Officials Detect COVID-19 Variant In New Mexico, Alabama Selected For Space Command, + More

Jan 13, 2021


COVID-19 Variant Appears In New Mexico, Health Officials SayAssociated Press

New Mexico health officials say they have detected the first known case of a more contagious variant of COVID-19.

The state Health Department announced Wednesday that a man in his 60s who traveled to the United Kingdom in December has the variant. Officials described the man's illness as mild and said no hospitalization was required.

Meanwhile, hospitalizations related to the coronavirus have decreased. Health officials say some counties have seen improvements in the rate of spread and positive tests.

However, only Harding and Union counties are able to relax some public health requirements. The rest remain in the higher risk category.

Medical officials with some of the state's largest health care providers reported in a briefing Monday that hospitals are still busy but mostly with non-COVID-19 cases.

The total number of confirmed COVID-19 infections in New Mexico is approaching 160,000 with 1,151 new cases reported Wednesday. More than 2,800 deaths have been linked to the virus, including 13 additional deaths reported Wednesday.

US Space Command Site To Be Located In Huntsville, Alabama - By Kim Chandler, Associated Press

The U.S. Air Force announced Wednesday that the new U.S. Space Command headquarters will be in Huntsville, Alabama. The state was selected over five others competing for the project, including New Mexico.

Huntsville is known as Rocket City and has long been home to the Army's Redstone Arsenal and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. The role of the Space Command is to conduct operations such as enabling satellite-based navigation and troop communication.

That is different from the Space Force, which is a distinct military service. Space Command currently has a provisional headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and state officials there lambasted the move.

Other finalists for the site were Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, Port San Antonio in Texas and Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County, Florida. Those site will remain alternative locations until the final announcement.

Colorado officials lambasted the move, saying military officials had recommended to Trump that Space Command remain at the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, but they were "overruled for politically motivated reasons." They did not say what those alleged political reasons were.

Trump won Alabama in the November election and President-elect Joe Biden won Colorado.

New Mexico Governor Announces Priorities For LegislationAssociated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is enthusiastically backing recreational marijuana and hoping to crack down on predatory lending as she outlines a list of top priorities for 2021 legislative session.

The endorsements she made Wednesday include authorization and taxation of recreational cannabis and an effort to shore up abortion rights. Lujan Grisham also wants a proposed constitutional amendment to tap more money for education from a state trust.

The ouster of several conservative Democratic senators in 2020 elections increases chances for those initiatives during the legislative session that starts Tuesday.

For pandemic relief, the governor wants restaurant alcohol deliveries permitted and an overhaul of liquor license regulations.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, also called for adjustments to a small business loan fund that was created in the midst of the pandemic — and received a lukewarm reception from businesses.

The governor's proposal to expand tuition-free college is back with a proposed $22 million allocation to "opportunity scholarships" for in-state students. The Legislature last year downsized the initiative, paying tuition and fees for associate and two-year college degrees only.

On health care, the governor backs the creation of a health care affordability fund that would reduce insurance premiums for some people who buy policies on the federally subsidized exchange established under the Affordable Care Act.

Lujan Grisham also voiced support for a clean fuel standard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. The standard would apply to businesses that refine, blend, produce or import fuel — but not to retailers.


California Man Pleads Guilty To Assaulting Flight AttendantsAssociated Press

A California man has pleaded guilty to assaulting two flight attendants while he was a passenger on a 2019 flight to New Mexico.

Federal prosecutors say 43-year-old Alton James Johnson of Yuba City entered his plea Tuesday. Johnson will remain in custody pending sentencing and prosecutors say he's facing a six-month prison sentence.

The incident occurred on a Dec. 23, 2019 flight from San Diego to Albuquerque. Johnson was accused of repeatedly touching a female flight attendant up and down her legs.  After she told him to stop, Johnson then grabbed the flight attendant inappropriately.  

When a second flight attendant stepped in and asked Johnson not to touch any flight attendants, prosecutors say he forcefully grabbed the second flight attendant by the arm.

According to his plea agreement in the case, Johnson admitting to being under the influence of alcohol but conceded that he was in control of his actions when he committed the assaults.

Navajo Nation, New Mexico Reach Settlements Over Mine Spill - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico have settled with mining companies to resolve claims stemming from a 2015 spill that sent wastewater rushing downstream from the inactive Gold King Mine in southwestern Colorado.

Under the settlements announced Wednesday, Sunnyside Gold Corp. and its parent company will pay the tribe $10 million and the state $11 million.

State and tribal officials say they are now waiting on the federal government to take responsibility. A federal contracting crew triggered the spill while working at the site.

The spill released 3 million gallons of wastewater that fouled rivers in three Western states with a plume of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.

The wastewater made its way into the Animas River and eventually down to the San Juan River, setting off a major response by government agencies, the tribe and private groups.

Water utilities were forced to shut down intake valves, and farmers stopped drawing from the rivers as the plume moved downstream.

The tribe said the toxic water coursed through 200 miles of river on Navajo lands.

The tribe's claims against the EPA and its contractors remain pending. About 300 individual tribal members also have claims pending as part of a separate lawsuit.

New Mexico Land Purchase To Aid With Wildlife ProtectionAssociated Press

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation says the acquisition of nearly 1,200 acres of land near the New Mexico-Colorado border will go a long way to protect a migration corridor for elk and other animals.

The transfer was completed in recent weeks following three years of negotiations with land owners, the foundation and the Bureau of Land Management.

The agency paid nearly $800,000 for four private in-holdings located within the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument near Taos. The money came from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Police Say Boy Scout From New Mexico Dies Camping In ColoradoAssociated Press

Authorities in Colorado say a Boy Scout from New Mexico has died after a camping incident over the weekend near the New Mexico-Colorado state line.

The Conejos County sheriff's office said 17-year-old Josh Miko was camping with other troop members when a snow cave collapsed and left him trapped.

Sheriff Garth Crowther said deputies responded to a report from the New Mexico State Police on Saturday around 6:35 p.m. about an emergency incident seven miles north of the state line.

Scouts and adult supervisors dug him out, attempted to resuscitate him and transported him to a nearby hospital in Chama, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.

Miko was a junior at Los Alamos High School and was involved in Junior ROTC, choir and the German program. Principal Carter Payne described him as a "quiet leader" who had a large group of friends and peers.

High Court Delays Decision On Compensation For Business Restrictions - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court heard oral arguments as it weighs whether the state must compensate businesses for losses from temporary closures or other public health emergency restrictions.

The five-member court delayed a decision Wednesday until a later date with no firm deadline. A coalition of businesses says pandemic restrictions have effectively seized private property from businesses that might otherwise have taken their own precautions against the spread of COVID-19.

Their multiple lawsuits characterize the state's public health emergency orders as regulatory taking that merits compensation to businesses.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration says property rights come with limitations concerning the safety of others.

More than 2,800 people have died from the coronavirus statewide amid tight restrictions on public gatherings and nonessential business activities across most of the state.

Blair Dunn, an attorney for a coalition of small businesses ranging from an amusement park to a rural auction house, said it's important to allow district courts to review public health orders and decide whether they effectively seize private property without good reason.

State legislators are considering proposals for further economic relief to ailing small businesses and low-wage workers that have labored through the pandemic. A 60-day legislative session is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

High Court Weighs Compensation For Business Restrictions - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments as it weighs whether the state must compensate businesses for losses from temporary closures or other public health emergency restrictions. 

Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday before the five-member court. 

A coalition of businesses says pandemic restrictions have effectively seized private property from businesses that might otherwise have taken their own precautions against the spread of COVID-19. 

Their lawsuit characterizes the state's public health emergency orders as regulatory taking that merits compensation to businesses. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration says property rights come with limitations concerning the safety of others.

Several businesses that sued the state for compensation separately have been provided with grants and forgivable loans by the state and federal authorities in efforts to prop up employment and the economy.

The Supreme Court case is likely to decide the fate of more than a dozen lawsuits by businesses running the gamut from a family owned amusement park in Albuquerque to an auction house in rural Portales.

State legislators are considering proposals for further economic relief to ailing small businesses and low-wage workers that have labored through the pandemic. A 60-day legislative session is scheduled to begin on Tuesday.

New Mexico Legislature Seeks Greater Spending Amid Pandemic - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Leading New Mexico legislators are proposing a 4% increase in state general fund spending that would devote new resources to health care and public education amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The detailed budget proposal was announced Tuesday by Democratic and Republican members of a lead budget-writing committee.

Legislators are also proposing cost-of-living pay increases for state workers and public school employees and a bailout of the state's indebted unemployment trust fund to avoid future payroll tax increases.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is suggesting a 3.3% increase in spending without blanket pay raises. Economists are predicting a rebound in state government income on top of multibillion-dollar financial reserves.

Budget negotiations will begin in earnest with the start of the 60-day legislative session on Jan. 19. They are likely to include proposals for first-time economic relief to low-wage workers in the private sector who have labored through the pandemic.

The Legislature and governor are largely in agreement on the need for increased spending for the state Health Department, which oversees coronavirus testing, infection tracing and vaccinations.

Legislators want to devote $300 million to pay down ballooning debts to the federal government for unemployment insurance benefits that were paid to jobless New Mexico residents.

Democratic state Rep. Patty Lundstrom of Gallup, a lead budget negotiator in the House of Representatives, characterized the proposed state spending increases as cautious changes that would leave the state with financial reserves of $1.6 billion — equal to 22% of annual state spending obligations.

New Mexico Agency Settles With Oil Company In Well Case - Associated Press

An oil company operating in northwestern New Mexico has agreed to pay a $25,000 civil penalty as part of a settlement. 

The Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department said Tuesday that a notice of violation had been issued to San Juan Resources, Inc. for failing to report and perform a proper investigation of a well's potentially defective casing. 

While there were no associated leaks or damages identified at the well in question, state officials said the case highlighted the importance of well integrity and proper reporting. 

The state Oil Conservation Division also is requiring permanent fixes at the well site.

Division Director Adrienne Sandoval said in a statement that her office views a lack of reporting and failure to take appropriate actions serious violations because it undermines the regulatory process and the division's ability to mitigate potential risks to human health and the environment.

The division is in the middle of developing more rules aimed at the oil and gas industry to cut down on methane emissions. Reporting requirements will be a big part of the effort, state officials have said.

US High Court To Hear Case On Virus Relief For Tribes - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that centers on who gets a share of $8 billion in federal coronavirus relief allocated for tribes. 

Lower courts were split on whether Alaska Native corporations should be in the mix. 

The U.S. Treasury Department, tasked with doling out the money, sought review from the high court after a federal appeals court ruled that corporations aren't eligible. 

The Supreme Court included the case on its order list Friday. 

The key question is whether the corporations are considered "tribes" under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

The case has required judges, attorneys, Native American tribes and the Alaska corporations to pick apart language of the act, congressional intent and a 1975 federal law meant to strengthen tribes' ability to govern themselves.

More than a dozen Native American tribes sued the U.S. Treasury Department last year to try to keep the money out of the hands of the corporations. 

They argued it should go only to the 574 tribes that have a government-to-government relationship with the United States. 

Most of the money, except for about $530 million, has been distributed to Native American governments, according to court documents.

Tribes initially had until Dec. 30, 2020, to spend the money, but a bill that President Donald Trump recently signed extended the deadline for another year.

The case is being closely watched around Indian Country for its broader implications.

Recovered Midwestern Bird Soars Off Endangered Species List - By John Flesher AP Environmental Writer

Federal officials say a bird called the interior least tern is being dropped from the endangered species list. The small, fish-eating bird lives along rivers, lakes and wetlands in the Great Plains and Lower Mississippi Valley.

Its numbers plummeted in the late 19th century as its feathers became popular for women's hats. Later, it was harmed by dam construction and other river engineering. Conservation efforts have boosted the interior least tern's numbers in recent decades.

Environmental groups support the decision to remove federal protections. A number of states, including New Mexico, are all known to have colonies of the terns.

"We consider it an Endangered Species Act success story for sure," said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity.

But he cautioned that vigilance was needed to make sure the bird's river habitat remains secure.

"Scientists are warning that we're in danger of losing 1 million species to extinction," Greenwald said. "Efforts to manage rivers in a more natural way are the kinds of things we need to do to avoid the extinction crisis."