New Mexico Legislature passes $330 million virus relief bill

Politics - Government

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico lawmakers on Tuesday passed a bipartisan coronavirus relief bill that will deliver a one-time $1,200 check to all types of unemployed workers and up to $50,000 for certain businesses. The more than $300 million relief plan is now headed to the governor’s desk. After she signs it, that money will be given out to New Mexicans and local businesses hit hardest by the pandemic.

It was a long day in Santa Fe with lawmakers debating some of the proposed amendments to this bill for hours on end. Eventually, it was pushed through with bipartisan support. “I think there is a lot of hope on the horizon,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.

During Tuesday’s special session, the house and senate both passed the more than $300 million bill. About one-third of the money will go towards small business relief efforts which would give up to $50,000 for each small business grant. There will also be a one-time $1,200 payment to qualifying New Mexicans on unemployment. “I have had clients and friends that this would make a huge deal for them and put food on the table in this window between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Sen. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said.

The bill also gives millions for emergency housing and food banks across the state. Some lawmakers said they would have liked to see more included. “All of this makes me wonder why we aren’t talking about getting New Mexicans back to work and getting students back to school,” Rep. Phelps Anderson of Roswell said.

During house debates, some lawmakers said the session was rushed through and were critical that they didn’t have more time to consider amendments that were ultimately shot down. One of which would have given half of the unemployment money to essential workers making less than $15 an hour. “I am frustrated because I want to offer essential workers more than my thoughts and prayers,” Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque said.

The governor said she supports getting assistance to essential workers, adding that there is still plenty more work to do for COVID relief in January’s regular session. “Making sure we come back together in January with any number of proposals that keep us safe, keep us healthy and provide better opportunities for education for our students and our families,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said.

House Republicans said while the bill isn’t perfect, they were pleased at what they call the rare instance of bipartisanship at this session. The governor said that they hope to get the $1,200 payments out to people by mid-December or sooner.

The bill also provides smaller stimulus checks to immigrants without legal status in the country and dependents. $10 million of money from the general fund would be used to improve contact tracing, COVID testing and vaccine implementation in New Mexico.

Most of the proposed spending will be made possible by federal relief funding previously assigned to New Mexico, including around $319 million in unspent funds that were expected to expire soon.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for the one-day special session as the state faces steep infection and death rates.

“Our actions today, Mr. Speaker, are to address and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable constituents,” said Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton (D- Albuquerque).

The bill allocates $100 million to support businesses with 100 or fewer employees. The New Mexico Finance Authority is tasked with distributing the grants, which can be up to $50,000, and has wide discretion about whom to choose. It’s instructed to focus on the service industry.

Republican lawmakers welcomed language in the bill that instructs the Finance Authority to make sure recipients are spread out geographically, and not concentrated in the tourism and Democrat-heavy cities of northern New Mexico.

Republicans were unsuccessful in their efforts to provide aid for low-income essential workers. Democrats said federal guidelines would prevent such spending and they vowed to find ways during the upcoming session in January to address the issue. Some lawmakers say the bill as it stands would only provide a temporary fix and would’ve liked to discuss other options for pandemic relief efforts.

“You know what really frustrates me is we’re coming to Santa Fe to give away a month’s worth of unemployment to pay people more than they make with their regular take-home pay in some cases,” said Rep. Phelps Anderson (R- Roswell). We’re coming to grant money to businesses who are impacted but you especially get to the front of the line if you’re in the hospitality or leisure business and all of this makes me wonder why aren’t we talking about getting New Mexicans back to work and getting students back to school.”

Outside the state Capitol, two dozen people gathered in opposition to the relief bill, and the health orders from the governor that have closed many businesses and mandated mask-wearing. One brought a sign that said “my body, my face, my choice.”

The building is normally open to the public and buzzing with lobbyists during a legislative session but has been closed since the onset of the pandemic.

New Mexico finds itself with 130,000 people still on the unemployment rolls, the vast majority of schools closed to in-person learning, and a high unemployment rate as the global recession tamps down demand for work in oil fields and as the virus has hit the state’s other large industry — tourism.

The $1,200 relief checks will also go to the 1,515 people who have exhausted all of their state and federal unemployment benefits, according to the Department of Workforce Solutions. The checks comprised the largest portion of the budget, coming in at $194 million.

An additional $5 million will be distributed in the form of a $750 payment to residents who were ineligible for the federal stimulus sent to most American citizens and permanent residents earlier this year. Those eligible include dependents like children and the elderly, as well as immigrants in the country without legal permission.

The statewide unemployment rate was 8.1% in October, well above the 6.9% national rate. New Mexico depleted its unemployment insurance fund in September and has begun borrowing money from the federal government to fulfill claims.

The state already owes the federal government $124 million, and that number is expected to grow to $400-500 million by next summer. Tuesday’s bill would divert any leftover federal coronavirus relief from the spring to pay down that unemployment debt.

That looming financial disaster weighs heavily on the Department of Workforce Solutions secretary, who says he gets constant phone calls, emails and pleas on social media.

“I hear all the stories, all the stories about how am I going to take care of my kids? How am I gonna afford my rent? How am I gonna afford my truck payment?” said Bill McCamley, a former state legislator who advised on the bill.

___

Staff writer Morgan Lee contributed reporting.

Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

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