Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The demand for federal coronavirus relief funds is high across New Mexico, even though some local officials are unhappy with the criteria established by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration for doling out the dollars.
In scoring the grant applications, the state Department of Finance and Administration is using 10 criteria that include whether cities and counties have complied with the state’s public health orders issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some city and county officials around New Mexico have flouted the Lujan Grisham administration’s orders barring indoor restaurant dining and requiring face masks in public settings, which are aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh, whose city applied for roughly $12 million in relief funds, said much of the award money would benefit local restaurants.
He also said it’s unclear whether cities and counties have the legal authority to enforce the state’s public health orders.
“We’re not trying to pick a fight with the governor; we just see things from a different perspective,” Kintigh said Tuesday.
However, acting Finance and Administration Secretary Debbie Romero, the top budget official in Lujan Grisham’s administration, said local governments that have been complying with the public health orders have, in many cases, incurred higher expenses.
And the governor’s spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, said the state’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how the disease can quickly spread in settings where there is much person-to-person contact.
“There are not discrete entities where their decisions affect only themselves,” Stelnicki told the Journal.
Under the Lujan Grisham administration’s plan, local governments around the state can apply for a slice of $150 million in grants that are funded by the federal CARES Act, with an additional $28 million earmarked for tribal groups.
Of the $150 million in total grants, $50 million is earmarked for local businesses grants – they will be administered by cities and counties – that will be available for businesses with 50 or fewer full-time employees under separate criteria. In all, the state received applications for $107 million in business grants before a deadline last week – more than double the $50 million that’s available for that program.
As for the local government grants, cities and counties submitted applications seeking a combined $191 million in federal aid for virus-related expense reimbursements, Romero said in a Tuesday interview.
That means many of those cities and counties will not get their full requested amount.
“We’re going to have to shave these applications to get down to $100 million,” Romero said.
The distribution of the federal relief funds is being fast-tracked, Romero said, and applications are being reviewed and award amounts could be announced by next week.
She also said some local governments had submitted joint applications, adding that 53 municipalities and 29 counties had asked for a slice of the funding.
Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are not on that list, because both are excluded from the local government and small-business programs. That’s because the city and county were among the more populous communities nationwide that received direct funding from the federal CARES Act.
Meanwhile, the grant program is New Mexico’s latest attempt to address the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has caused hundreds of businesses to close and the state’s jobless rate to increase to 8.3%, as of June.
Lawmakers also approved legislation to make low-interest loans to help small businesses and local governments. Money from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund will fund the loans – up to $400 million for businesses and $50 million for governments.
In addition, the State Investment Council in April approved a separate program that made $100 million from the permanent fund available for short-term loans for mid- to large-sized businesses.
Along with other Republican lawmakers, House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, has questioned the governor’s authority to include compliance with the public health orders as a criterion for federal relief funds.
“For the governor to withhold needed federal dollars to New Mexico’s local governments simply to be vindictive in regards to her often arbitrary public health orders is unacceptable,” Townsend said in a recent statement.