Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the status of federal relief funding for damages associated with the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire.
SANTA FE — A bill aimed at helping fire-ravaged parts of northern New Mexico rebuild local roads, culverts and acequias — without having to wait for federal relief funds to arrive — is headed to the full Senate.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 10-0 on Wednesday to approve the measure, Senate Bill 6, which is backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and would provide up to $100 million in state funds for zero-interest loans to towns, villages and counties in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon burn scar.
While the bill won bipartisan support after being retooled to clarify how the money would be spent, several senators criticized the pace of the federal government’s response to the fire that scorched more than 340,000 acres — or about twice the size of Chicago — and subsequent flooding.
“We’re doing this because you guys … can’t get the money out quickly enough to rebuild,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, referring to the federal government.
Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, was even more blunt, saying, “The federal government has been burning down our state for decades.”
He also proposed an amendment that would have increased the authorized dollar amount of the bill to $150 million and expanded it to apply to all fires on federal land, but ultimately withdrew that amendment after a state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department official explained that only the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire would qualify for federal reimbursement.
The fire, technically two separate fires that merged together, started last April after a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn during dry, windy conditions blew out of control. It ultimately became the largest wildfire in modern New Mexico history and burned more than 900 structures, including hundreds of homes.
While Congress has approved nearly $4 billion in relief funds — in two separate packages — for victims of the wildfire, some lawmakers say the distribution of money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been slow to arrive.
A FEMA spokeswoman recently said no funding has been distributed yet, but said the agency has set a March target date to open a claims office for those impacted by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire.
While the legislation received no opposition Wednesday, some lawmakers said similar aid should be provided to New Mexicans affected by other wildfires last year.
“There are three big fires that happened in New Mexico, and this bill is only addressing one of them,” said Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte.
Meanwhile, the funds authorized by the bill would have to be spent on public infrastructure — not the rebuilding of personal property — due to a constitutional provision that prohibits state funds from being transferred directly to people or businesses.