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Lawmakers hear pitch for easing restaurant regulations


A proposal to grant the governor expanded emergency powers — including allowing the delivery of alcoholic drinks with food — failed to win approval in a special legislative session in June. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A top economics professor at New Mexico State University urged legislators Monday to reduce the regulatory burden on restaurants and other hard-hit businesses as the state and nation navigate an economic “crisis like no other.”

A restaurant and nightclub owner echoed that suggestion, arguing New Mexico should loosen restrictions that limit take-out and delivery options for beer and wine, among other steps to help an industry that runs on tight financial margins.

“If the Legislature doesn’t act quickly to save our industry from drowning, the rest of the state is going to sink with us,” Carri Phillis, owner of The Salt Yard in Albuquerque, told lawmakers.

The recommendations came in a meeting of the legislative Economic and Rural Development Committee. Lawmakers didn’t formally take up any particular proposal or act on the policy ideas.

Christopher Erickson – interim head of the Economics, Applied Statistics and International Business Department at NMSU – encouraged state and local officials to provide as much flexibility as they can to restaurants and similar businesses struggling to survive the coronavirus pandemic and public health restrictions.

The possibilities include making it easier for restaurants to offer outdoor seating, changing liquor license laws and granting the governor broader authority to lift some regulations in a health emergency.

Erickson also urged lawmakers to prioritize aid to local government to help them avoid layoffs that would worsen the economic damage in New Mexico. And don’t be afraid, he said, to spend down New Mexico’s financial reserves to just above zero.

Under a revised budget package approved in June, state reserves are expected to fall from about 21% this summer to about 12% in about a year, taking reserves from $1.5 billion to $850 million.

“We keep these for a rainy day,” Erickson said of reserves. “Well, it’s raining now.”

But he added that controlling the spread of COVID-19 is the first step to pulling out of the “deepest and sharpest recession in our lifetime.”

“Until the pandemic is brought to heel one way or another,” Erickson said, “there will be no recovery.”

Phillis offered first-handed testimony about the challenges facing restaurants and bars in New Mexico, where indoor dining is prohibited to limit the transmission of COVID-19.

Allowing “to go” sales of alcohol or delivery of drinks could be a lifeline for restaurants, Phillis said.

The state, she said, should also consider direct financial assistance to restaurants and bars while social distancing regulations are in effect.

A proposal to grant Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expanded emergency powers – including allowing the delivery of alcoholic drinks with food – failed to win approval in a special legislative session in June.

The next session is scheduled for January.

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