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Relief bill with $600 tax rebates advances

Billie Ahern, a waitress at Boxcar restaurant in Santa Fe, serves food to patrons dining in a heated patio on Tuesday. New Mexico restaurants and low-income workers would get financial relief under a new aid package being considered by state lawmakers. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – As New Mexico’s legislative session enters its second week, lawmakers are forging ahead with a new relief package aimed at helping essential workers, restaurants, bars and other small businesses through the final throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two relief bills were approved without dissent Tuesday by a Senate committee, while other measures could be voted on later this week.

One of the fast-tracked bills would give a $600 cash rebate to low-income New Mexico workers – or those earning $31,200 or less annually – and provide a four-month tax break for restaurants and breweries hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One thing we know for sure is the working poor who make less than $15 an hour … have by and large borne the brunt of this pandemic in a number of ways,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, a sponsor of the legislation.

He also said those receiving the cash assistance would likely reinject the money into New Mexico’s economy by paying it on bills, food or other necessities.

Meanwhile, a separate bill also endorsed Tuesday by the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee would direct a state agency to waive the fees for 2021 liquor licenses.

Bars around New Mexico had to pay liquor license fees last year, despite being closed for most of the year due to public health orders issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said funding for the relief package – an estimated $185 million for the rebates and restaurant tax breaks alone – would come from the state’s cash-flush reserves.

“This is exactly what we need to use that money for – to help working families and small businesses,” Wirth said in an interview.

He also said legislative leaders are hoping to send the bills to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for final approval by mid-February. The bills will take effect immediately upon being signed if they pass both legislative chambers with at least a two-thirds majority vote.

“The goal here is to have bipartisan support,” Wirth told the Journal. “This is a time when government can really help.”

In all, Wirth cited five bills as part of the relief package.

Only two of the five bills have been voted on, and measures dealing with alcohol home delivery and changes to a small-business loan program could be taken up in the coming days.

During Tuesday’s committee hearing, both relief measures passed on 10-0 votes and faced little criticism, though some GOP senators said business restrictions should be relaxed in addition to passing the aid measures.

“All these businesses really want to do is open their doors and let the customers back in,” said Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho.

2 previous packages

Already, New Mexico lawmakers have passed two separate pandemic relief packages – in June and November legislative special sessions last year.

The most recent package authorized the spending of $330 million in federal funds on expanded unemployment benefits, small-business grants and cash assistance payments, among other programs.

But the November package was approved over objections that it did not include 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.

Such workers would benefit from the new relief package, which would target the $600 rebates to New Mexicans who qualified for the state’s Working Families Tax Credit in 2020.

Meanwhile, restaurant and brewery sales from March through June would be exempted from the state’s gross receipts tax under the same bill.

Indoor restaurant dining is still off the table in most New Mexico counties – though limited patio dining is allowed – and Allison Smith of the New Mexico Restaurant Association said the measure would give eateries a “little breathing room” to survive the pandemic.

In addition, the state would offset any local government revenue losses caused by the relief bill, Wirth said.

Small businesses suffer

Many small businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, with their sales having dropped by about 40% as New Mexicans increasingly have turned to internet sales.

In addition, the state’s unemployment rate has surged – it was at 8.2% for December – and some state economists have projected it could take years for New Mexico employment to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Lujan Grisham has called for up to $475 million to be spent on one-time pandemic relief measures during this year’s 60-day session, although she has not stipulated to lawmakers which specific programs should be funded.

The session runs through March 20.

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