Legislators OK push to accelerate funding for New Mexico wildfire recovery - Albuquerque Journal

Legislators OK push to accelerate funding for New Mexico wildfire recovery

The Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire left damage — as shown in May — along New Mexico 65 in Gallinas Canyon, an area critical to the water supply for Las Vegas. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Racing to beat the spring runoff, New Mexico lawmakers passed emergency legislation Tuesday authorizing $100 million to repair roads, culverts and other public works damaged by last year’s massive wildfires and flooding in northern New Mexico.

The bill will head next to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose administration backed the quick action.

In debate Tuesday, Democratic state Reps. Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde and Ambrose Castellano of Las Vegas urged their colleagues to adopt the legislation as part of a strategy to get cash to municipalities and other local governments quickly so they can put it to use now — before melting snow adds to the damage in fire-scarred areas.

The state money will serve as a no-interest loan until the federal government delivers its own funding.

“This is a bridge-way to get that money to them quicker,” Sanchez said.

The proposal won House approval 66-0, just six days after Senate passage.

It’s designed to help repair or replace public roads, culverts, acequias and similar infrastructure — but not private property — damaged by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire or the flooding that followed the fire.

The fires began as prescribed burns by the U.S. Forest Service and eventually grew out of control, merging into one wildfire, the largest in New Mexico’s recorded history.

Rep. Jack Chatfield, R-Mosquero, said he visited the area to see the devastation first hand.

Hundreds of homes burned as flames scorched 340,000 acres of national forest, Pecos Wilderness and private land, or 534 square miles. Tens of thousand of residents were forced to flee the area, and subsequent flooding washed out roads and inflicted other damage.

“It’s not a pretty sight in many of these areas,” Chatfield said. “It’s a long road back.”

In a statement to legislators, the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said many communities have exhausted their financial resources responding to the fire.

“It would not be an overstatement,” the department said, “to say that without the availability of these funds, some of New Mexico’s towns and communities may not be able to have any longterm recovery options.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 6, has an emergency clause, meaning it would go into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature.

Lujan Grisham thanked legislators for the quick passage.

“These communities faced unimaginable losses last summer,” she said in a written statement, “and I am proud that our state is standing up for these communities to jump-start public infrastructure projects.”

In an interview, Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said the bill would be an enormous benefit to local governments dealing with the aftermath of the fire and flooding.

“This is an excellent piece of legislation,” he said.

Passage of the bill comes as victims of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire have visited the Roundhouse to share their stories of hardship.

Congress last year passed legislation to make almost $4 billion in relief available to victims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it was targeting March to open a claims office.

The bill adopted by state lawmakers Tuesday is jointly sponsored by Castellano and Sanchez and Sens. Pete Campos of Las Vegas and Liz Stefanics of Cerrillos, all Democrats.

“The people of this region are grateful for the state’s quick response,” Campos said, “and together, we’re focused on recovery.”

The state loans would go to governments already in line to receive federal assistance, and the state would be repaid once the federal funding comes through.

The goal is to get public funds to local agencies who need them now rather than forcing them to wait months — perhaps more than a year — for the federal cash. Much of the repayment, for example, may take place in the fiscal year beginning in mid-2024 and stretching into 2025.

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