Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – In their second try at spending New Mexico’s latest round of federal stimulus dollars, New Mexico lawmakers have crafted a $462.5 million spending plan that would target money for road repairs, broadband expansion and a statewide nursing shortage.
The plan, which drew lengthy debate Tuesday in a House committee, would appropriate less than half of the $1.1 billion in money from the American Rescue Plan Act not yet allocated by the state, with the rest likely to be appropriated during a 30-day legislative session in January.
Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, the House Appropriations and Finance Committee’s vice chairman, said the spending package, House Bill 2, would provide dollars for existing programs that are the “most ready and most ripe.”
“This is a first strong step but there is so much need out there,” Small told the Journal after the first public vetting of the plan during a special session focused on redistricting that began Monday.
While a vote is not expected to be taken until today, the committee hearing drew comments from about 30 lobbyists and advocates, with some individuals testifying in-person at the Roundhouse and others speaking to the panel remotely via an online video platform.
Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Nurses Association and other groups, lauded the inclusion of $15 million in the spending package to expand nursing programs at New Mexico colleges and universities.
“We have a nursing crisis here in New Mexico,” said Siegle, adding it could take several years for the state to make a dent in the workforce shortage that she described as being 6,600 nurses short of full staffing levels.
Meanwhile, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, the committee’s chairwoman, called the public feedback important after a recent legal dispute over spending authority for the federal stimulus funds that was resolved in the Legislature’s favor.
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers – Senate GOP floor leader Greg Baca of Belen and Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque Democrat-turned-independent – filed a petition with the Supreme Court in September seeking to bar Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham from spending more of the roughly $1.7 billion in federal funds that New Mexico got under the latest congressional relief package.
The state’s highest court sided with the legislators in a ruling last month, prompting the Democratic governor to add spending of the federal dollars to the agenda of the special session that’s expected to last for about two weeks.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett did not cite any misgivings with the Legislature’s spending plan on Tuesday, but also didn’t say specifically whether the governor would sign the bill in its current form.
“There’s certainly no shortage of projects and programs to put funding towards – we’re glad to see the Legislature begin to take action and fully expect them to allocate funds guided by meaningfully supporting and benefiting New Mexicans,” Sackett told the Journal.
The federal American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in March allows for spending in four different areas – pandemic-related public health and economic impact, premium pay for essential workers, revenue replacement, and infrastructure improvements.
The spending plan unveiled this week at the Roundhouse would appropriate the federal funds under the revenue replacement category, a top legislative budget official said. That would give the state until June 2025 to spend the money without it being reverted to the federal government.
Specifically, the plan calls for $142.5 million to be spent on major statewide road projects in all parts of New Mexico, including improvements to Interstate 25 in Albuquerque.
It would also provide $10 million for highway cleanup efforts, as state Department of Transportation officials have struggled to keep up with rising amounts of roadside litter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We just can’t keep up,” said Rick Padilla, DOT’s executive director for highway operations, during Tuesday’s committee hearing.
Improving New Mexico’s broadband connectivity would be another priority under the spending plan, which would appropriate a total of $159.1 million to build out broadband, including in tribal libraries, and expand access to high-speed internet through the use of satellites.
Of that amount, $133.5 million would come from a separate capital fund under the federal stimulus program, meaning $735 million in general relief dollars would still be available for spending next year.
However, Rep. Cathrynn Brown, R-Carlsbad, voiced concern Tuesday the huge infusion of federal dollars could make it difficult for the state to meet reporting requirements. She also expressed concern about global supply chain issues.
“We’re talking about a lot of money here,” Brown said. “I wonder if we’re putting money in areas we just can’t spend it.”
Some of New Mexico’s federal pandemic relief funds have already been spent.
Lujan Grisham announced in June – after the U.S. Treasury Department issued spending guidance for the relief funds – that her administration would target more than $656 million of the federal money to replenish a state unemployment fund that was all but drained by a flood of pandemic-related claims for jobless benefits.
The governor also earmarked smaller amounts of the state’s share of federal dollars for COVID-19 vaccine incentives and a temporary wage supplement for individuals working in New Mexico’s chile fields.
However, those spending decisions came after Lujan Grisham used her line-item veto authority in April to strike down legislative earmarks for more than $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars from a state budget bill.
The vetoed earmarks included funding for the unemployment fund, a popular college scholarship program and highway repairs.