Legislative session to start amid COVID surge

If you plan to attend this year’s 30-day legislative session at the state Capitol, here’s a piece of advice: Don’t forget a mask or proof of vaccination and a booster shot. The Roundhouse will be open to the public when the Legislature convenes Tuesday, but with safeguards designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as the threat of the virus continues to hang over New Mexico nearly two years after it arrived. The open doors stand in contrast to the tightly shuttered New Mexico Capitol during last year’s 60-day session, when both the pandemic and fears of violence erupting in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol prompted state lawmakers to increase security measures. Another change from most previous sessions: Weapons are prohibited, though small pocket knives will be permitted.

Legislation aims to limit executive emergency powers

Thirty-day legislative sessions in New Mexico are typically reserved for budget issues, along with any special issues the governor asks lawmakers to consider. This year, besides the budget, legislators are expected to debate and vote on bills regarding public safety and education. But two lawmakers are hoping that at least one of their two bills to limit emergency powers of the executive branch gains at least some traction this year. 

House Joint Resolution 3 and House Bill 40 both aim to limit the amount of time a governor can maintain emergency orders without a say from legislators. Both pieces of legislation are sponsored by Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, and Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell. One major difference between the two is that the joint resolution would not require Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s approval, as it is a proposed constitutional amendment. 

Ely and Nibert can usually be found on opposite sides of most issues, but in this case, they seem to have found common ground in wanting to give some power back to the Legislature.

Stansbury speaks in support of renewing the federal Child Tax Credit

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury called renewing the federal Child Tax Credit an equity issue during a press conference on Thursday. The federal Child Tax Credit, which provided $3,000 per child between ages 6 and 17 and $3,600 per child under 6 the last six months of 2021, was a measure within the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The average Child Tax Credit payment per household was $444 in December according to a U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee report. Democrats are now seeking to renew and extend the federal Child Tax Credit through the Build Back Better Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in Nov. by a vote of 220–213, along party lines, but the bill has stalled in the U.S. Senate which is more evenly divided.

Poll shows Hispanic families hit hard by pandemic

A poll of 1,000 New Mexico Hispanic families indicates that Hispanic families have struggled financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. BSP Research released a statewide survey Thursday done on behalf of several organizations detailing the economic hardships those polled said they faced. Some of the key findings include that the poll found that 28 percent of Hispanic families polled earn less than $20,000 in 2020 and 60 percent have $1,000 or less in savings. Marcela Diaz, executive director of Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said several nonprofit and grassroots organizations collected at the onset of the pandemic to form the Economic Relief Working Group to provide information between Latinos in the state, the immigrant and Spanish-speaking populations and policy makers and the government in Santa Fe. The Economic Relief Working Group commissioned BSP Research to conduct the poll and produce the survey based on it.

State to get COVID help from federal medical teams

New Mexico will get a boost in medical personnel from the federal government amid the ongoing COVID-19 surge. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged that New Mexico is one of a handful of states that will receive federal medical teams. New Mexico had a large increase in cases in December, before the rise of the Omicron variant, and case numbers have continued to increase to record levels in recent days. Hospitalizations have also remained at high levels for weeks in New Mexico, with 609 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday. “I am grateful to President Biden and our federal partners for their continued support in our ongoing battle against COVID-19,” Lujan Grisham said. “New Mexico health care workers are counting on each and every one of us to do our part to ease their burden – get vaccinated, get boosted, and mask up.”

The U.S. Department of Defense Medium Medical Team is expected to arrive in New Mexico within the next week and will provide help at the University of New Mexico Hospital for 30 days. 

This isn’t the first time the state received federal medical help.

Supreme Court weighs Biden’s workplace vaccine requirements

The Supreme Court on Friday took up one of the most contentious issues of the covid-19 pandemic, hearing a series of cases challenging the Biden administration’s authority to require workers to get a covid vaccine or be tested for the virus regularly. The issue in the cases, which challenge rules set in November by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, is not directly whether the rules are legal but whether they can take effect while the cases are heard in detail by courts of appeals. The arguments lasted more than 3½ hours. A decision by the justices is expected within days. The OSHA rule says that businesses with more than 100 employees must require their workers to either be vaccinated or wear masks and undergo weekly testing.

Amber Wallin replaces James Jimenez to lead New Mexico Voices for Children

Amber Wallin has replaced James Jimenez as Executive Director of New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonprofit children’s advocacy and research organization. NMVC announced the change this week. Jimenez retired at the first of the year but will continue to serve as executive director for New Mexico Pediatric Society, a role he acquired when the two organizations formed an alliance in 2017. He will also direct the NMVC Action Fund. Wallin, who began working for NMVC on tax policy issues about ten years ago, said that she intends to continue the work that is the core mission of the organization – advocating for policy that creates opportunities for children and families.

2021 Top Stories #2: COVID continues

See our entire countdown of 2021 top stories, to date, here. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout the country, one thing changed from 2020, when much of the world was first impacted, into 2021: Variants. Scientists kept close track of mutations made to COVID-19 and which variants were considered of concern. 

Some variants were more aggressive in infections than others, most notably the Delta variant, first designated as a variant of interest by the World Health Organization in early April. By May 11, it was called a variant of concern. The more contagious variant quickly became the dominant variant across the globe, including in New Mexico.

Called ‘a victory’ by advocates, FDA lifts restrictions on abortion medication

The Federal Drug Administration ruled on Thursday that it would permanently lift restrictions around abortion patients receiving medication abortion by mail. This means, for instance, that abortion patients who live in places such as rural New Mexico can receive mifepristone, the first of the two-drug abortion regime, by mail. The FDA has maintained a restriction on in-person pickup of mifepristone at a clinic since the agency approved the drug for abortion 21 years ago. Reproductive experts have said that was a political move as, after 21 years, there were clear indications that taking medication abortion up to 10 weeks of gestation is safe. Ellie Rushforth, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said by text message that the FDA’s decision is “good news” for patients but some restrictions for clinics still apply.

Legislature sends spending bill to Governor’s desk (Updated)

Updated: The House concurred on HB 2 as amended by the state Senate by a voice vote on Thursday. This sends the legislation to the Governor’s desk for signature. HB 2 appropriates $478 million of the ARPA funds into various projects, such as road work, broadband expansion and conservation projects. The Legislative Finance Committee staff put the spending bill together based on requests from state agencies made during interim legislative committee hearings. The spending for some of the money, such as $10 million for smaller airports around the state, has not been appropriated in specific terms and will be left up to the agencies, in this case the Department of Transportation, to make the final decisions on the best use of the funds.