Legislature passes COVID relief in 1-day session - Albuquerque Journal

Legislature passes COVID relief in 1-day session

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, argues from the House floor, which is almost empty of Democrats, against an amendment to add money for essential workers to an emergency relief bill. The proposal was impractical, couldn’t be handled administratively and would have left less money for unemployed workers, he said. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — An unusual, single-day special session ended Tuesday with New Mexico lawmakers approving a $330 million package intended to provide financial relief to workers and businesses harmed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called the special session and limited its agenda, said she will sign the bill, which authorizes $1,200 one-time payments to people who are unemployed and grants of up to $50,000 to small businesses. Some low-income households could also get up to $750 in cash assistance.

The legislation, House Bill 1, picked up bipartisan support in both chambers, clearing the House 59-11 and passing the Senate 33-5.

“Our constituents across this state needed help,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in an online news conference late Tuesday. “This was Step One. We’re going to need to do more.”

Lujan Grisham, speaking from the governor’s residence in Santa Fe, said it was critical to get “economic relief to New Mexicans who are hurting and not able to go to work.”

The special session got off to a brisk start Tuesday, but lengthy debates — including intense skirmishes in the House over parliamentary procedure — caused it to stretch into the evening.

Much of the debate centered on a proposed amendment to issue $600 hazard-pay bonuses to “essential” workers making less than $15 an hour who have been at the front lines of the pandemic working at grocery stores, hospitals and other businesses.

But critics said the amendment would pose logistical difficulties, while also reducing the amount of money available for expanded jobless benefits.

It would have also cut in half the proposed $1,200 in extra unemployment benefits for jobless New Mexicans who qualify.

“This cannot be done in the time frame we need to get the money out,” Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley told senators during Tuesday’s debate.

In response, backers of the proposed change insisted the Lujan Grisham administration could accomplish the task.

“It’s not that the executive can’t implement this; it’s that it doesn’t want to,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.

The amendment failed, but Lujan Grisham and legislative leaders said they want to do more for essential, front-line workers, perhaps with another emergency aid package in January, when the Legislature’s regular 60-day session is scheduled to begin.

The virus has killed 1,428 New Mexicans and led to widespread economic disruption.

Tuesday’s special session — the second called by Lujan Grisham amid the pandemic — was held through a mix of online and in-person participation. It lasted about eight hours altogether.

In the House, most Republican members appeared in person with masks on, while a majority of Democrats participated remotely.

The Capitol itself was closed to the public, and a few dozen protesters outside demanded to be let in. Members of the news media and legislative staff were allowed inside.

Some lawmakers cast votes and debated the bill from their places on the House floor, while others participated through a video link from their offices elsewhere in the building — a measure intended to limit the risk of disease transmission.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee accepted public testimony on the proposal through a videoconferencing program, while the Senate accepted only testimony sent by email.

CARES Act funds

In its final form, the aid package approved Tuesday would primarily reallocate about $319 million in federal CARES Act funds that will revert to the federal government if not spent, or obligated, by the end of the year.

Slightly more than $10 million more would come from the state’s general budget fund or legislative cash balances.

The largest line item is $194 million to cover one-time checks of $1,200 apiece to New Mexicans who qualify for unemployment benefits or pandemic aid programs. The cash could reach as many as 161,000 people, according to legislative documents.

Payments would start going out to those eligible by mid-December using a similar framework the state used previously to distribute stopgap funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, McCamley said.

The bill also would authorize $100 million for grants to local businesses and nonprofit groups that have 100 employees or fewer. Businesses in the hospitality and leisure industry — and businesses severely harmed financially by New Mexico’s public health orders — would get priority.

Marquita Russell, CEO of the New Mexico Finance Authority, said businesses could apply online for the money, which would then be distributed in phases.

“We don’t want to make 100% of it available on Day One, because that disadvantages some businesses,” Russell told senators.

Also included in the aid package is spending to help food banks and people struggling to pay their rent or mortgage.

Lilly Irvin-Vitela, president and executive director of New Mexico First, a nonpartisan advocacy group, urged the House appropriations committee to support the legislation’s $5 million in funding for food banks across the state.

“Families are still missing meals,” she said. “It’s been devastating.”

Under the proposal, low-income households that didn’t receive a federal stimulus check earlier in the year — because of immigration status or other factors — would be eligible for a disbursement of $750 or less.

“This is an unprecedented time of great challenges and difficulty,” House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, said as she urged her colleagues to support the bill.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chair of HAFC, appearing by webcast, answers questions from House Republicans during debate of HB1, an emergency relief bill, on the House Floor of the special session of the legislature in Santa Fe, Tuesday November 24, 2020. The House Democrats worked outside the House Chambers but most House Republicans were in the room. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Limited input

While lawmakers ultimately kept the pandemic relief bill largely intact before approving it, some legislators complained that they had a limited role in crafting the package.

“My biggest gripe on this bill is we’re waiting until the last minute” to spend the federal funds, said Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview. “I don’t appreciate the insult to the Legislature.”

Even some Democrats were lukewarm in their support of the bill, with Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, saying the Legislature needed to “think bigger” in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was one of four senators who ultimately recused themselves from the final vote on the legislation.

Meanwhile, House Republicans were split on the bill. Thirteen of the 24 GOP members of the House voted in favor of the measure.

But even those who supported it repeatedly slammed Lujan Grisham’s public health orders and restrictions on in-person business activity.

“We are trying to reach out and help many families across New Mexico that are hurting and hurting for a variety of reasons,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, an Artesia Republican who voted in favor of the legislation. “They’re hurting because of the effects of COVID and hurting because of measures the state has taken in addressing COVID.”

Before acting on the bill, both the House and Senate amended the proposal to expand the kinds of nonprofit groups that would be eligible for assistance to include fraternal societies, such as an Elks Lodge.

The amendment aimed at providing cash to essential workers triggered intense procedural debate in the House.

Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, initially held a vote on the bill without first allowing a vote on the amendment — a step he said was outlined under House rules after there was a motion to close debate.

But Republicans assailed the decision, and Egolf agreed to reconsider.

“There is a good faith disagreement about the rules,” he said.

The amendment, in any case, failed, and the bill as a whole subsequently passed.

Because it appropriates funds to the executive, judicial and legislative branches, the bill would take effect immediately upon being signed.

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