WED: Roundhouse Evacuated Amid Pro-Trump Protests, + More

Jan 6, 2021


New Mexico Evacuated Statehouse Amid Pro-Trump Protests - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The New Mexico Statehouse was largely evacuated on Wednesday as hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered peacefully outside the building and violence broke out in the nation's Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Democratic Speaker Brian Egolf said state police ordered the evacuation of the building that includes the governor´s office and secretary of state’s office, though some officials remained inside. He highlighted concerns about the violence in Washington.

A spokesman for the governor's office said there was no indication of threats and unrest. Caravans of Donald Trump supporters arrived at the building in cars, trucks and on horseback at midday.

State officials, including the Legislature's lead attorney, chose to remain the Statehouse to continue with a videoconference to decide on pandemic-related procedures for the start of a Jan. 19 legislative session.

Legislative Council director Raùl Burciaga noted that state police were on site and that leaving the building would mean walking through a throng of about 500 protesters.

¨It´s the first time in the history of the United States that the peaceful transfer of power has been slowed by an act of violence,¨ Egolf said. "It is a shameful moment and I hope that the Congress can recover soon."

Members of New Mexico´s congressional delegation in Washington indicated through social media that they were safe.

Official Says New Mexico Among Top States In Vaccine Rollout - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins says New Mexico is among the top states in the U.S. when it comes to vaccine distribution.

During a briefing Wednesday, she pointed to New Mexico's registration app, saying it has helped in the scheduling of shots for health care workers and others who are most at risk.

Collins said the state this week will release its plans for how other groups of people will be prioritized when more doses become available.

More than 106,500 doses have been delivered to New Mexico so far. While not all providers are reporting, the state estimates around 60% of those doses have been administered.

Collins said the state is working with providers to address barriers to reporting so the data is more accurate. Eventually, she said, the state plans to post a public dashboard online that would show how many vaccines have been delivered and how many have been administered.

Nearly 300,000 people in New Mexico have registered to be vaccinated.

The state has recorded nearly 150,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began, with an additional 1,496 cases reported Wednesday. Officials also have linked 2,641 deaths to the virus, with the 47 being reported Wednesday.

State Continues Crackdown On Businesses Violating Health OrderAssociated Press, Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico continues to crack down on businesses for violating the public health order.

Officials announced Tuesday that O'Reilly Automotive Stores Inc. has agreed to pay $79,200 in penalties after one of its auto parts stores in Santa Fe received two citations following multiple citizen complaints over the summer about mask wearing and a lack of signage.

The Albuquerque Journal reported it's believed to be the largest penalty related to coronavirus public health violations issued by the state Environment Department so far,

The Environment Department said it's currently investigating more than 200 workplace safety complaints related to COVID-19 and more than a dozen workplace-related COVID-19 deaths.


Trump Challenges To Election Reverberate In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's top elections official is urging a federal court to dismiss a challenge by President Donald Trump of absentee voting procedures for ballot drop boxes. She also wants Trump's campaign to be sanctioned for pursuing meritless litigation.

The response from Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver comes as Congress on Wednesday holds a join session to count electoral votes. The usually routine step in the path toward inauguration could drag on as some Republicans plan to challenge Biden’s victory in at least six states. Biden won New Mexico by a margin of roughly 11%.

In New Mexico, Trump's reelection campaign says state election regulators went beyond the Legislature's emergency pandemic-related election reforms in issuing guidelines for ballot drop boxes. 

The Trump campaign later added allegations of inaccuracies involving vote-counting equipment sold by Dominion Voting Systems — allegations that have been rejected as without evidence by the federal agency overseeing election security.

Toulouse Oliver urged the court to sanction the Trump campaign and its attorneys for filing a meritless lawsuit. She notes that concerns from the state Republican Party about drop box oversight in two new Mexico counties were resolved in October in state district court.

Despite all their defeats in court, Republicans prepared an unprecedented congressional challenge on Wednesday to Joe Biden's election win, citing Trump's repeated, baseless charges of widespread fraud. 

Newly elected U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico said he expects the challenge from Trump allies to "fail in a bipartisan way."

Legislators Eye Minimum Sick Leave, Anti-discrimination Law - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators unveiled initiatives on issues ranging from minimum sick-day requirements as a precaution against contagions in the workplace to halting discrimination based on hair styles and rights to clean air and water.

The year's first draft bills were posted Monday and Tuesday on the Legislature's website and hint at an ambitious agenda for New Mexico's annual legislative session that starts on Jan. 19. 

They included a highly anticipated initiative to funnel state trust funds toward early childhood education, under a proposed constitutional amendment from Democratic state Reps. Javier Martínez and Antonio Maestas of Albuquerque. 

Hundreds of bills, resolutions and proposed constitutional amendments are likely to be heard during the first full-length session since the outset of the pandemic.

A proposal from Democratic state Rep. Christine Chandler of Los Alamos would establish a minimum amount of sick leave that can be used to care for family members. 

The secretary of the Workforce Solutions Department would be responsible for enforcement.

Separately, Democratic state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque has drafted legislation that would outlaw schools from discrimination involving Black and Native American women's hairstyles — including braids, cornrows, bantu knots and Afros as well as headdresses.

California was the first state to ban workplace and school discrimination against Black people for wearing hairstyles such as braids, twists and locks.

Democratic lawmakers — who hold majorities in the state House and Senate — are still putting finishing touches on anticipated bills about abortion rights, internet access, policing reforms and recreational cannabis regulations.

Other newly unveiled initiatives would enshrine in the state constitution the right to a healthy environment. It would require that state government officials conserve and protect natural resources such as "waters, air, flora, fauna, climate and public lands."

Democratic State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez of Albuquerque says the proposed amendment builds on environmental guarantees approved by voters in 1972 to ensure that state officials treat a broad range of natural resources as a public trust.

New Mexico Cities Prepare For Vaccination DistributionAssociated Press

Las Cruces city officials will be creating a vaccination task force to help coordinate distribution when doses become more widely available.

In Albuquerque, officials say nearly 300 first responders with the city's fire and rescue department have received their first shots.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said Tuesday that the city is supporting the state Health Department's efforts to make sure all residents have access to both testing and the vaccine as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

State health officials on Tuesday reported an additional 1,201 confirmed COVID-19 cases, pushing the statewide total since the pandemic began closer to 150,000.

The death toll in New Mexico also neared 2,600 with an additional 20 fatalities reported Tuesday.

New Mexico Oil And Gas Royalty Audits Net $2.3M Associated Press

Officials with the New Mexico State Land Office say audits of oil and natural gas royalty collections turned up an additional $2.3 million for the state in 2020.

That marks a nearly 48% increase over the previous year. About 85% of all royalty revenue collected by the land management agency is audited every five years. Analysts look for mistakes and errors in reporting.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, all the audits initiated after March were done remotely rather than traveling to company offices out in the field.

Money generated by leases on state trust land helps support public schools.

Lawsuit Alleges Financial Exploitation Of Immigrant Teachers - Associated Press

New Mexico's attorney general is accusing a company that recruits immigrant teachers from the Philippines to work at public schools of charging exorbitant fees and using deceptive financial tactics. 

Announced on Tuesday, the lawsuit was filed in state district court against Total Teaching Solutions International and CEO Janice Bickert of Ruidoso, alleging exorbitant fees to place Filipino teachers in schools on work visas. 

The suit accuses the company and Bickert of violations under the state unfair practices act. It seeks a permanent restraining order against the company, financial restitution to immigrant teachers, fines and damages. 

Bickert and company officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Solar Carports Coming To 4 New Mexico Government Buildings - Associated Press

The construction of solar carports in the parking lots of four New Mexico government buildings begins later this month. 

It's part of the General Services Department's State Buildings Green Energy Project – an initiative to cut the energy consumption of 30 buildings in Santa Fe and reduce the state government's carbon footprint. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made reducing emissions of climate-warming gases a priority of her administration. 

The $32 million Green Energy Project began in 2019 and also includes construction of rooftop solar on 16 buildings. 

When the project is completed later this year, it is expected to reduce electric bills for the buildings by 50 percent and save the state more than $1 million annually.

Total cost of the carports at the Montoya, Simms, PERA and Chino buildings is $9.7 million.

Lawmakers Say New Mexico Energy Law Needs To Protect Customers - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Three Democratic state senators who initially supported New Mexico's landmark energy law say changes are needed to protect utility customers from significant rate hikes.

The 2019 Energy Transition Act allows Public Service Co. of New Mexico to recover from customers 100% of the costs of closing its coal-fired power plant.

The lawmakers are warning that a deregulation provision in the law could expose customers to potentially astronomical costs stemming from other power plant closures in the future.

That includes a nuclear plant in Arizona in which PNM holds a share. Some consumer advocates raised similar concerns when the law was being debated.

Aside from mandating more renewable energy, New Mexico's energy law includes a financing mechanism that supporters have said is necessary for the closure of the San Juan Generating Station near Farmington.

It allows PNM to recover investments in the plant by selling bonds that will be paid off by utility customers. The bonds will raise roughly $360 million to fund decommissioning costs, severance packages for displaced workers and job training programs.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and top Democrat lawmakers who helped shepherd the bill through the Legislature claimed in public statements and in court filings that the law didn't infringe on the Public Regulation Commission's authority.

The Democratic leaders, along with environmentalists, touted the bill as a way to shift the state toward more renewable energy.

The legislation proposed by the three senators would amend the energy law to reinstate the commission's oversight for utility plant closures. They described the changes as "surgical amendments."

Albuquerque City Council Approves Hair Discrimination BanKRQE-TV, Associated Press

City officials in New Mexico have voted in favor of an ordinance prohibiting race-based discrimination against hair texture and hairstyles in schools and the workplace.

KRQE-TV reported the Albuquerque City Council voted on Monday to amend its Human Rights Ordinance to adopt the Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, or CROWN Act, joining a national campaign.

Councilmember Lan Sena introduced the act after several states passed similar laws, including California, Colorado, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington.

The act prohibits workplace discrimination based on hairstyles as well as headdresses worn for cultural or religious reasons.

Xcel Energy Seeks Rate Increase To Recover Investments Associated Press

A major electric utility that serves customers throughout eastern New Mexico is asking state regulators to approve a rate increase.

Xcel Energy says the filing was prompted by the recent completion of the Sagamore Wind Project near Portales. The wind farm is part of more than $1 billion in investments made by the utility since 2019.

Improvements also have included new transmission lines and substations. Xcel officials say raising customer rates will allow the company to recover some of its investments.

It will likely be several months before utility regulators make a decision on the proposed rate hike.

If approved, Xcel said the new rates would not take effect until the fourth quarter. A typical residential customer could see an average increase of about $9.80 per month.

Navajo Nation Reports 118 New COVID-19 Cases, 15 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Tuesday reported 118 new COVID-19 cases and 15 more deaths. 

The latest figures increased the tribe's totals since the pandemic began to 23,978 cases and 837 known deaths. 

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. 

On Monday, the Navajo Department of Health on Monday identified 73 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 on the tribe's vast reservation that covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.