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NM legislators seek quick action on new pandemic aid package

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Top-ranking Democratic lawmakers said last week that they plan to move fast on a new pandemic relief package once a 60-day legislative session gets underway this month.

Although it hasn’t been completed, the package will include bills intended to help New Mexico businesses and employees hit hard by the pandemic, said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, who has been nominated to serve as the next Senate president pro tem.

The package could include measures to expand a working families tax credit, improve the state’s broadband connectivity and give a tax break to commercial real estate owners who temporarily waive rent payments.

“We’re trying to help businesses, so they can help their employers,” Stewart said in an interview. “People are hurting and are struggling with serious issues, and we’re trying to deal with a bunch of those right upfront.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham indicated the governor would support the relief package, although she cautioned plans are still taking shape.

“New Mexicans have sacrificed greatly this year, and the pandemic has upended livelihoods all across our state; the state has stepped up and will continue to step up whenever and wherever it can to help workers and families,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said.

The pandemic has prompted the Lujan Grisham administration to impose business and travel restrictions and has led to elevated unemployment levels and the closing of many stores and restaurants.

Lawmakers approved a $330 million relief package during a single-day special session in November. The measures were intended to provide financial relief to workers and businesses.

Among other provisions, the special session package authorized $1,200 one-time payments to people who are unemployed and grants of up to $50,000 to small businesses. More than 1,500 low-income residents previously ineligible for stimulus checks also received $465 assistance payments.

While it’s unclear what the exact price tag of the new relief package might be, Stewart said most of the money to pay for it would come from the state’s cash reserves.

New Mexico is projected to finish the current budget year on June 30 with $2.4 billion in reserves – 33.4% of state spending – even after using reserves to help plug a budget shortfall.

However, changes such as an expansion of the working families tax credit, which currently provides a tax break for individuals who make $36,667 or less annually, would have a long-term impact if they’re made permanent.

Other ideas that could be included in the relief package include putting more money into a state economic development program and overhauling a small-business loan program, according to Stewart.

Issues with loan program

The loan program, approved by the Legislature during a special session last year, made up to $400 million available from a state permanent fund, but many businesses have had their applications for funding rejected.

“It’s too complicated, and we didn’t get the parameters right,” Stewart told the Journal.

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said the aid package should be targeted at helping front-line essential workers and bolstering the state’s largely depleted unemployment fund.

She also said she supports legislation that would give financial relief to businesses that have had to pay permits or fees even while they remaining closed during the pandemic.

“I just hope we use those incentives to help businesses survive,” said Dow, who urged majority Democrats to work with Republicans on crafting the relief measure.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said during a recent hearing that the Democratic-controlled Legislature could pass the pandemic relief bills in the session’s first two or three days.

That would allow them to move quickly to Lujan Grisham’s desk, and the bills could take effect immediately if they pass by at least a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers.

Fast start possible

It’s rare but not unprecedented for the Legislature to pass bills during a regular session’s opening days.

In 2019, Lujan Grisham signed 42 bills included in a “rocket docket” that were passed in the first three weeks of that year’s session. All of the measures were based on previous bills that had been vetoed by Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, former Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

And lawmakers also acted quickly during the 2017 session to pass a solvency package aimed at patching a gaping hole in the state’s budget.

This year’s 60-day session – set to begin Jan. 19 – is expected to be conducted largely remotely and without members of the public and lobbyists inside the Roundhouse, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 2,700 New Mexico residents.

While some lawmakers have pushed for the session to be delayed, leading lawmakers have maintained the session can be conducted safely as scheduled.

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