Oil and Gas plays big in elections, despite COVID-19

Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

The oil and gas industry may have cratered over the last few months due to a steep drop in consumer demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a major player in shaping New Mexico’s state Legislature. 

Oil companies have pumped $1.1 million dollars into 2020 New Mexico primary election campaigns since last October. The industry distributed $180,000 of that total since March 11, the date the first COVID-19 case was identified in New Mexico and the economy subsequently began rapidly shutting down. 

The industry contributes large amounts to New Mexico politicians every election cycle, and runs its own campaigns independently as well. Such political spending by the industry occurs whether the oil industry is in one of its notorious “bust” cycles, or booming. Over the last couple of years, the industry has been booming, fueling an injection of billions of dollars into the state budget. 

Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the sheer size of the industry, and its importance to the state budget, gives it a great deal of influence. 

“Most legislators seem to be very careful around the industry,” said Sabo, “it’s not partisan.” Sabo said efforts to regulate the industry can generate comments at the statehouse from both sides of the aisle about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Indeed, New Mexico In Depth found in 2019 that no regulatory bills targeting oil and gas were successful during the legislative session without the blessing of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, despite strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a new Democratic governor. 

Its influence goes beyond campaign contributions, Sabo said.

Fewer polling places present challenges for Native voters

As the state gradually reopens from its coronavirus closure, it’s not only nurseries, bike shops and clothing stores that must figure out how to do business while maintaining social distancing—county clerks across the state are conducting their first primary election during a pandemic. But the number of polling places has been slashed, mail service has been interrupted in some areas and voting advocates are concerned that there will be folks, especially in Native American communities, who could be left out. Indian country has been hit hard by COVID-19, as NMID reported in mid-May. Native Americans represent 58 percent of the state’s cases. As a result, many Pueblo and tribal governments have closed their lands to non-residents and established curfews in an effort to slow transmission of the virus.

Native Americans make up 50% of COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico

Half of the 200 people who had died as of yesterday in New Mexico from COVID-19 were Native Americans, a jarring number for a population that makes up 11% of the state’s population.It’s another grim statistic for the state’s 23 tribes who have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico. Nearly 60% of people identified to date through testing as infected with the virus are indigenous. Data about those who’ve died, provided to New Mexico In Depth by the New Mexico Department of Health, came in advance of Monday’s daily update from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office. That update included eight additional deaths, pushing the state’s death total to 208, four of which occurred in hard-hit McKinley County, where Native Americans make up almost 80% of the population. 

The 100 deaths attributed to Native Americans in New Mexico likely include Navajo people living in the state as well as Native Americans from the state’s more than 20 other tribes. 

Meanwhile, deaths attributed to white people in New Mexico–30%–exceed the 14% of identified positive cases attributed to that group, but still fall below their representation in the population as a whole.

Lujan Grisham administration says it will conduct wide-scale COVID-19 testing in NM prisons

New Mexico officials on Tuesday rolled out an ambitious plan to test for the new coronavirus in the state’s prisons. At a virtual news conference led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, state Health Department Secretary Kathy Kunkel said all prison guards and staff — more than 1,800 people — would be tested by May 13. Officials plan to test 25% of the state’s 6,500-plus inmates by then as well, Kunkel said. Additionally, all newly arriving inmates will be tested and quarantined for 14 days, she said. The announcement marks a sharp turn for Lujan Grisham’s administration.