virus outbreak New Mexico

A maintenance worker power-washes the state seal at an entrance of the New Mexico state capitol building on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Santa Fe. The building has been closed to the public since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Legislative meetings and gubernatorial addresses are broadcast online.


Governor aims for 5% reduction in annual state spending

SANTA FE — The administration of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is directing executive agencies to reduce annual spending obligations by 5% to help ease an anticipated budget deficit for the coming fiscal year.

Agency budget proposal were due Sept. 1 in an annual rite that provides time for legislators to outline a balanced budget before they reconvene in January.

A memo to state agencies obtained by The Associated Press calls for a 5% reduction in general fund spending levels for the fiscal year starting on July 1, 2021, compared with current-year obligations. That is in line with recommendation from the Legislature's budget and accountability office.

Some exceptions apply. The administration says it will consider additional funding to services such as Medicaid health insurance that may experience population increases and may support permanent programs that lack a permanent source of revenue.

Finance officials are suggesting that state agencies delete staff positions that have been vacant for more than two years.

New Mexico has so far steered away from furloughs that were instituted in the wake of the Great Recession.

In June, state economists warned of a possible $990 million shortfall in general fund revenues for the coming fiscal year, to meet spending annual spending obligations of $7.4 billion.

New Mexico state government has tapped $750 million in federal coronavirus relief funds and is rapidly drawing down financial reserves that stood at $1.5 billion in June.

Grocery stores told to stop taxing food on deliveries

SANTA FE — New Mexico state taxation authorities on Sept. 2 urged grocery stores to stop unnecessarily collecting sales taxes on food that is delivered during the coronavirus pandemic.

New Mexico remains under a stay-at-home order that discourages unnecessary outings and public gatherings. At the same time, online shoppers have discovered gross receipts tax charges on sales of home-delivered groceries that are tax-free when purchased in stores, undercutting the incentive to stay home.

State law provides a tax deduction for sales at a retail food establishment, and a memo from the tax agency outlines exact circumstances for waiving taxes on food.

Taxes are not due when "the customer orders the groceries from the retail food store online and pays the retail food store online with a credit card," the memo states. Taxes still are due on delivery service charges and prepared food from restaurants and stores.

New Mexico lawmakers removed the gross receipts tax from sales of most food items in 2004. Lost revenues to local governments are offset by state replacement payments each year in excess of $100 million.


Casinos join effort to boost census participation

CHURCH ROCK — Casinos on the Navajo Nation are teaming up with census officials for a series of events they hope will boost participation in the count.

Billions of dollars in federal funding are at stake along with congressional representation, and many Native American communities are historically undercounted.

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise will be hosting events in Arizona and New Mexico where people can either drive through or sit with a representative to complete the census questionnaire.

The Navajo Nation has joined a coalition of cities, counties and civil rights groups that are seeking a court order to keep the U.S. Census Bureau from winding down operations.

The coalition is asking a federal judge to make the Census Bureau restore its previous deadline for finishing the once-a-decade head count to the end of October, instead of using a revised schedule to end operations at the end of September.

The Navajo Nation was concerned because the tighter schedule would shorten the time for following up with those households that have yet to respond. Tribal officials say this phase is especially critical for the Navajo Nation and involves census enumerators going door-to-door.

Navajo government programs rely heavily on census data to ensure adequate funding for infrastructure, social services and for determining water rights. As of Sept. 1, tribal officials reported that only 18.4% of households on the Navajo Nation had responded to the census. During the 2010 census, the final response rate was just under 30%.


US gives 1st-ever OK for small commercial nuclear reactor

BOISE — U.S. officials have for the first time approved a design for a small commercial nuclear reactor, and a Utah energy cooperative wants to build 12 of them in Idaho.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Aug. 28 approved Portland-based NuScale Power's application for the small modular reactor that Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plans to build at a U.S. Department of Energy site in eastern Idaho.

The small reactors can produce about 60 megawatts of energy, or enough to power more than 50,000 homes. The proposed project includes 12 small modular reactors. The first would be built in 2029, with the rest in 2030.

NuScale says the reactors have advanced safety features, including self-cooling and automatic shutdown.

The energy cooperative has embarked on a plan called the Carbon Free Power Project that aims to supply carbon-free energy to its nearly 50 members, mostly municipalities, in six Western states. The company plans to buy the reactors from NuScale, then assemble them in Idaho. The company is also looking to bring on other utilities that would use the power generated by the reactors.

The modular reactors are light-water reactors, which are the vast majority of reactors now operating. But modular reactors are designed to use less water than traditional reactors and have a passive safety system so they shut down without human action should something go wrong.


GOP, Trump campaign sue over all-mail voting option

HELENA — President Donald Trump's reelection campaign and the Republican Party sued Montana on Sept. 2 after Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock gave counties the choice to conduct the November election entirely by mail amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit alleges Bullock's directive would dilute the integrity of Montana's election system.

The legal challenge is the latest attempt by Trump to block mail-in voting, which he has claimed without proof would lead to widespread fraud. His campaign and the Republican Party also sued last month over a new law in Nevada that will automatically send voters mail-in ballots for November, contending the plan would undermine the election's integrity.

"This template lawsuit appears to be part of a pattern of lawsuits across the country by Republican Party operatives to limit access to voting during the pandemic," Bullock said in a statement.

Bullock isn't running for governor again but is trying to unseat incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel accused Bullock of using the coronavirus as "a power grab to take control of Montana's elections in the name of 'health.'"

Montana allows for voting by mail but only at the request of the voter. Under Bullock's directive, which he issued after a request from county clerks statewide, counties have the option to have voting done entirely by mail for the November election.

Montana's June 2 primary election was held by mail following a similar directive from Bullock, which received support from the Republican leadership of the state Senate and House.

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