WED: State Supreme Court To Mediate Mail-In Ballot Dispute As COVID Cases Rise To 363, + More

Apr 1, 2020

State Supreme Court Will Mediate Mail-In Ballot Dispute - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico's Supreme Court says it will referee a dispute over how to proceed with the state's June 2 primary election without in-person voting to minimize public exposure to the coronavirus.

The New Mexico Republican Party is objecting to universal mail-in balloting procedures proposed by local election officials as a substitute for in-person voting.

The dispute erupted as a host of states rush to adopt alternatives to in-person voting amid the pandemic. Among health concerns is the safety of poll workers, who tend to be older and more vulnerable to severe effects of COVID-19.

New Mexico voters can request an absentee ballot for any reason, and about one in four votes in the 2018 general election was cast by absentee ballot.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says every state already allows some form of voting by mail, but only six Western states are set up to allow all-mail voting in every count.

Political parties are choosing nominees to compete in an open congressional race in northern New Mexico and to succeed U.S. Sen. Tom Udall as he retires. The entire Legislature is up for re-election.

Santa Fe County To Close Juvenile Detention CenterSanta Fe New Mexican

Santa Fe County plans to close the juvenile detention center and use the facility to house adult inmates who must be isolated or quarantined for the coronavirus.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the County Commission approved the plan Tuesday. The four juvenile inmates housed in the facility will be placed in the San Juan County facility near Farmington.

The Department of Health announced the number of COVID-19 cases in New Mexico rose Wednesday to 363. A woman in her 90s from Sandoval County died, bringing the total number of deaths from coronavirus to six.

Closing the juvenile detention facility is expected to save Santa Fe County $1.7 million annually. But county officials have said it would take more than $9 million to keep the facility running.

New Mexico Panel OKs Abandonment Of Coal-Fired Power Plant - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico regulators have green-lighted an application by the state's largest electric utility to abandon its interest in a major coal-fired power plant.

The Public Regulation Commission on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of letting Public Service Co. of New Mexico divest from the San Juan Generating Station.

The commission also approved an order allowing the utility to issue $360 million in bonds to fund decommissioning costs, severance packages for displaced workers and job training programs. The bonds will be paid off by utility customers.

The votes came after a delay in the online proceeding that resulted from an outburst by a group of young people that included epithet-laden chat messages and rap music.

The San Juan case has taken many twists and turns in recent months, ending up at one point before the New Mexico Supreme Court, which ordered regulators to apply the state's new energy transition law to their decision making.

Wednesday marked the last day the commission could vote on PNM's application to abandon the power plant. The decisions chart out how liability will be shouldered by PNM customers and utility shareholders.

There is an initiative by the city of Farmington and a private company to install carbon-capture technology and keep operating the plant. Commission staff confirmed the orders approved Wednesday would not affect those efforts.

New Mexico State Representative Removed From BallotAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

A New Mexico district judge has ruled that Democratic state Rep. Patricio Ruiloba did not follow procedure in collecting petition signatures required to quality for the ballot.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Tuesday that Judge Joshua Allison ordered Bernalillo County and the state election officials not to include Ruiloba on the June 2 ballot.

The state representative was disqualified because he did not include his district number on his paperwork. Allison says the state Supreme Court had previously ruled the district number is required to ensure voters signing the petition know whether they are qualified to sign.

Ruiloba has said he intends to file an appeal.

Coronavirus Death Toll Rising On Navajo NationAlbuquerque Journal, ABC News

Tribal leaders on the Navajo Nation said Tuesday two more people died from COVID-19, bringing the total number of dead to seven and total cases of coronavirus to 174.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the latest cases bring the rate of infection by the virus on the reservation to more than three times that of New Mexico, which reported 363 cases Wednesday among a little more than two million people.

Tribal leaders ordered residents on the sprawling reservation that stretches across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to stay home more than a week ago. Officials began a nightly curfew Monday to enforce those orders.

On Monday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told ABC News she warned President Donald Trump about spikes of coronavirus cases on the Navajo Nation. She warned the virus could wipe out some tribal nations.

Governor Says Man In 40s Becomes 5th Virus Death In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee and Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has increased to five, with the case of a Bernalillo County resident in their 40s.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the latest fatality Tuesday. She said the number of cases in the state has increased to at least 315. About two dozen people remain hospitalized.

Infections statewide are doubling roughly every 3.5 days — a slower rate than major urban hot-spots, health officials said.

Also on Tuesday, Alamogordo officials said the city was notified about the first positive coronavirus case at Holloman Air Force Base.

The governor said social distancing continues to be an important tool to keep more people from contracting the virus. 

However, the governor said she's still seeing images of packed big box stores and people congregating while shopping.

She warned that the restrictions will be in place at least through the end of April, possibly longer.

New Mexico Health Officials Say Hospital Bed Demand May Exceed Capacity - Associated Press

State health officials are acknowledging that the demand for hospital beds and intensive care resources for patients with COVID-19 may outstrip capacity as infections accelerate. 

Human Services Secretary and physician David Scrase said the demand for hospital beds could rise to nearly 3,500 under a severe infection scenario — exceeding the current statewide hospital bed capacity of 2,500. 

There are 365 beds equipped with ventilator breathing machines that can treat acute respiratory problems associated with the virus, while the demand under a severe forecast peaks at 630. 

Health officials hope to further expand hospital bed capacity while ratcheting down infection rates — depending on public cooperation with social-distancing advisories — to bridge the gap.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday the federal government has granted the state's request for a U.S. Army field hospital to be set up.

State Expands Testing As COVID-19 Cases Rise To 315 - KUNM News

State officials are expanding who can qualify for a COVID-19 test as the number of cases rose to 315 on Tuesday.

Gov. Michell Lujan Grisham said a fifth person had died from the coronavirus, a man in his 40s.

Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said the expanded testing will include people who do not show symptoms but have had close contacts or household members who tested positive.

Kunkel said the department will recommend asymptomatic people in nursing homes be tested and that anyone with fever and shortness of breath should be tested as well.

The secretary said there are now over 60 testing sites in New Mexico and 45 of those sites in 24 counties were open. 

DOH also removed any requirement for a referral to get a test. Kunkel said some private hospitals may still require them, but people can call local public health offices and request an appointment.

Lujan Grisham said it is likely orders to keep non-essential businesses closed and remain at home will likely be extended.

Republicans Favor Absentee Ballots By Request Amid Pandemic - Associated Press

The New Mexico Republican Party is objecting to universal mail-in balloting procedures proposed by local election officials in response to the coronavirus pandemic as a substitute for in-person voting. 

The dispute erupted Tuesday as a host of states rushed to adopt alternatives to in-person voting amid a national public health emergency and government directives to avoid public gatherings and human contact. 

The Republican Party and affiliated state legislators say the state's June 2 primary should be handled by absentee procedures in which currently registered voters submit an application for a ballot that can be mailed or hand delivered.


Police: Santa Fe Man Intentionally Coughed On Customers - Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A Santa Fe man is facing charges after police say he entered a store and intentionally coughed on several people. 

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports Edward Babcock was arrested last week following reports he was coughing on customers at a Big Lots store in Santa Fe.

According to a criminal complaint, the 40-year-old Babcock coughed on a woman and her 10-year-old daughter after telling the woman, "It's on, it's on." A witness told police Babcock was getting close to others and coughing on them, too. 

Police say the victims all felt Babcock was exposing them to COVID-19. He was charged with two counts of assault. It was not known if he had an attorney.

Liberal Groups Start Effort To Target 'Corporate' Democrats - Associated Press

A coalition of liberal groups has begun a campaign to target critical moderate New Mexico Senate Democrats who have blocked some liberal proposals.

The coalition calling itself the No Corporate Democrats community coalition said Monday it will work to unseat five Senate Democrats they say oppose more spending on early childhood education. 

The senators have stopped proposals aimed at dipping into the state's largest permanent fund to pay for the expansion of early childhood programs. 

The five Democrats also voted against an unsuccessful abortion rights measure in 2019. The bill would have repealed a 1969 anti-abortion law.

Albuquerque Police Say Man Fatally Shot During Welfare Check Associated Press

A man accused of beating his neighbor with a hammer and threatening to kill him just weeks ago is dead after being shot by Albuquerque police.

Authorities say the shooting occurred at a home Monday after officers attempted to make a welfare check on 52-year-old Valente Acosta-Busttillos. Police were contacted by his concerned employer, who had not heard from him in several days.

Officers discovered Acosta-Busttillos had a warrant for a violent felony related to the incident with his neighbor and attempted to arrest him. Authorities say officers tried less-lethal force but that's didn't work.

At least one officer fired his weapon, striking the Acost-Busttillos, who later died at a hospital.

Plans For Navajo Medicaid Entity Stall In Leadership DisputeAssociated Press

Plans for a Navajo Nation entity to manage Medicaid on parts of the reservation are up in the air over disagreements among tribal leaders.

A tribal corporation has been touting a plan that would incorporate traditional healing, food boxes and customer service in the Navajo language.

But it hit another snag last week when tribal President Jonathan Nez vetoed a resolution that he says unconscionably tried to capitalize on the spread of the coronavirus.

Nez says the resolution wasn't an emergency as written and the corporation wasn't set up to manage health care. Tribal lawmakers had approved the corporation's efforts to administer Medicaid on the New Mexico portion of the reservation. 

Southeastern New Mexico Airport Expansion Continues - Hobbs News-Sun, Associated Press

A southeastern airport in the heart of New Mexico's oil region is continuing its expansion despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and drop in gas prices. 

The Hobbs News-Sun reports officials say the expansion of Lea Regional Airport is on course and the completion of the airport terminal expansion Phase 1 should finish by the end of April. 

Designed to add about 9,000 square feet to the current 4,400-square-foot terminal, Phase 1 will triple the amount of space available for passengers. 

Phase 2, the reconstruction of the existing terminal, will start only after Phase 1 is completed. 

Phase 3 will double the phase 1 gate seating area.

Oilfield workers traveling by air to Hobbs are exempted from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's recent requirement to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Santa Fe Food Bank Gets Donation From 'Stranger Things' StarAssociated Press

"Stranger Things" star Millie Bobby Brown is channeling her power for good for a New Mexico food bank.

The actress posted on her Instagram on Sunday that she and her family have given an undisclosed amount to The Food Depot in Santa Fe to fund 20,000 meals.

Brown, who plays telekinetic teen Eleven, said in her post "Stranger Things" was set to film in Santa Fe before the coronavirus pandemic shut down production.

The Food Depot confirmed the actress' donation Monday. Officials say her contribution will mean several families struggling because of COVID-19 will have groceries. 

Those Without Broadband Struggle In A Stuck-At-Home Nation - By Tali Arbel and Michael Casey, Associated Press

The shutdowns of schools, workplaces and public institutions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the problems of the millions of people in the U.S. who can't easily get online.

While more people have been connected in recent years, tens of millions still lack access to high-speed internet because phone and cable companies hesitate to invest in far-flung rural areas.

The digital divide disproportionately affects rural areas, African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans on tribal lands.

On Navajo Nation, the country's largest Native American reservation, it's common to see people sitting in their vehicles at night outside local government centers, fast-food restaurants and grocery stores to connect to Wi-Fi. Diné College is lending laptops to students and asking internet providers to improve service.

Teachers and students worry about how they will keep up with schoolwork without reliable home internet. Small-business owners are at a loss. Local politicians are concerned about losing touch with their constituents.