Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Help is on the way for thousands of unemployed New Mexicans and small businesses struggling amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a $330 million aid package Wednesday, making extra cash available to unemployed workers, local businesses and low-income families who didn’t get a stimulus check earlier.
The quick approval – the day after lawmakers concluded a special session – comes after a dramatic increase in new unemployment claims.
The number of initial claims last week grew at a faster rate in New Mexico than in any other state in the country, according to federal data.
The law signed Wednesday authorizes one-time checks of $1,200 to New Mexicans who qualify for unemployment or a federal pandemic aid program. The extra cash could reach unemployed workers by mid-December.
“I know this stimulus will mean so much to so many New Mexicans as we enter the holiday season,” Lujan Grisham said in a written statement.
The state, she said, will continue evaluating how to provide further help. Legislative leaders have suggested they will consider another package of emergency aid in January.
“The pandemic has never been more dangerous in our state,” Lujan Grisham said, “and the economic pain caused by the spread of the virus is felt in every corner of New Mexico.”
New Mexico’s unemployment rate was at 8.1% in October – higher than in all but six other states.
Before reaching the governor’s desk, the pandemic aid bill won bipartisan approval Tuesday during an unusual, one-day special session at the Capitol. Lujan Grisham set the session’s agenda, contending quick action was necessary to provide financial relief.
The legislation was introduced by three Democrats – House Speaker Brian Egolf of Santa Fe, House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairwoman Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup and Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming.
Latest health order
The state’s most recent health order, which required nonessential businesses across the state to cease in-person operations through Monday, may result in another uptick in unemployment, according to new federal data.
The number of new unemployment claims in New Mexico more than doubled in the first week the health order took effect, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Labor on Wednesday.
New Mexicans filed 13,293 initial unemployment claims during the week that ended Saturday, up from 5,256 the previous week.
The 153% increase in unemployment claims was the sharpest increase of any state or U.S. territory during that period, according to the Labor Department data.
Most funds federal
Federal funds will pay for the bulk of New Mexico’s new pandemic aid. House Bill 1 – approved 59-11 by the House and 33-5 in the Senate this week – allocates about $319 million available through the federal coronavirus relief act.
The distribution includes:
⋄ $194 million to pay for the one-time $1,200 checks to unemployed workers. About 160,000 people could get the money, but it isn’t clear what would happen if the number of claims exceeds the $194 million appropriated by lawmakers, according to legislative analysts.
⋄ $100 million for a new grant program targeting small, local businesses and nonprofit groups. It will authorize grants of up to $50,000, with help for the hospitality and leisure industry a priority. To qualify, a business must have 100 or fewer employees, and about 4,000 companies are expected to get grants.
⋄ $15 million to help homeless people and New Mexicans struggling to pay their rent or mortgage.
⋄ $5 million to provide checks of up to $750 to low-income households who – because of immigration status or some other factor – didn’t receive a federal stimulus check this year.
⋄ $5 million to food banks throughout the state.
Besides the federal money, the legislation also authorizes more than $10 million from the state general fund to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines when they’re available and cover increased costs in the court system for protective equipment and similar expenses.