Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Just two days before Thanksgiving, New Mexico lawmakers have a $330 million financial aid package on their plate – legislation aimed at providing financial relief to local businesses, workers and families hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
It will be the second special session at the Capitol – without in-person public participation – called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham since COVID-19 reached New Mexico in March.
The relief package is the only item on a special session proclamation issued Monday by Lujan Grisham, who sets the agenda for such sessions.
“The simple fact is New Mexicans need the absolute maximum support that government can provide right now,” Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said in a statement Monday. “We can do a lot of good when we work together and when our priorities align. In this moment of crisis, we will and we must forge ahead together for the good of the people of our great state.”
As currently drafted, the package would authorize about $194 million to provide an extra $1,200 in unemployment benefits for up to 160,000 New Mexico workers.
In addition, it would appropriate about $100 million for small business grants and about $15 million to help people struggling to pay their rent or mortgage.
Much of the package would be funded by New Mexico’s $1.25 billion share of federal pandemic relief dollars that would revert back to the U.S. treasury if they are not used, or at least obligated, this year.
The legislation also proposes extra funding for the court system, cash to help food banks and new spending to support the Department of Health in its efforts to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine and conduct contact tracing of those infected by the virus.
“The reason this special session is so urgent is we need to get this money out to people who need it, lest it revert to the federal government,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said during a briefing Monday with reporters.
Democrats hold sizeable majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Egolf said he hoped the legislation – contained in a single bill – can be approved in one day.
If signed by Lujan Grisham, the bill would take effect immediately. Funds could then start being distributed as soon as next week.
Republicans appear divided on the proposal.
Sen. Greg Baca, a Belen Republican elected minority floor leader last week, said he expects to support the proposal but that broader action is necessary to rehabilitate New Mexico’s economy.
“We’re happy to support relief for business and support for economic development,” Baca said. “However, we need to have a more focused approach. … Getting real wages back in people’s pocket is the ultimate goal.”
House Republicans said Friday that they were hopeful of reaching common ground with Democrats and the governor. But their leadership criticized the proposal Monday.
“The governor’s prescription for treating debilitating COVID-19 is to suggest Band-Aids and ineffective and too little, too late pain relievers,” House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said in a statement.
The proposal, he said, is aimed at problems that should have been addressed months ago.
“The people of this state have endured and continue to live under the nation’s strictest mandates and yet the spread is one of the highest in the country,” Townsend said.
Egolf, the speaker, said the legislation was a product of talks involving the House, Senate and governor. He said he had agreed to the requests from House Republicans as the bill was put together.
“I truly can’t explain their decision to walk away from the table,” Egolf said.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he expects to support the new spending, but with some reservations.
It will leave New Mexico, he said, with smaller financial reserves than expected and represents “piecemeal budgeting” without the usual transparency for spending decisions.
“Not everybody likes what’s in there,” Smith said, “which means it’s probably not that bad of a package.”
The governor already called lawmakers back to Santa Fe for a special session largely focused on the pandemic in June.
But after imposing a two-week lockdown order this month to try to slow rampant spread of the virus, Lujan Grisham said she would take the rare step of calling another special session to try to at least partially offset the economic pain caused by business restrictions.
New Mexico’s unemployment rate has declined in recent months – it was at 8.1% in October – but remains higher than the national average.
And the governor has acknowledged the two-week shutdown will likely exacerbate the financial challenges many New Mexicans are facing.
The special session comes as some lawmakers have argued the Legislature should be more involved in the state’s pandemic response.
“I think it’s time the Legislature got involved,” Townsend said in a recent interview.
In June, Lujan Grisham used her line-item veto authority to strike down some legislative budget language on federal pandemic relief spending, arguing it was the executive branch’s job – not the Legislature’s – to direct the spending of such funds.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Monday the Legislature was being called into special session to reallocate some of the federal CARES Act dollars, though she said the governor’s stance on the issue has not changed.
“It’s legally clear the governor has the authority to decide how federal funds are spent,” Sackett told the Journal.
Meanwhile, the Capitol will be closed to the public for the special session – as it was in June – though some members of the media and staff members will be allowed inside.
Lawmakers expect to handle some of their business through online or remote participation. Members of the public will be allowed to testify on the legislation through an online committee hearing.