Home News COVID-19 Situation Morales discusses pandemic response, budget

Morales discusses pandemic response, budget

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Daily Record File Photo New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales addresses an audience of incoming cadets in Pearson Auditorium at the New Mexico Military Institute back in August. Morales recently spoke to the Roswell Daily Record about the state’s response to the COVID-19 global pandemic and an upcoming special session to deal with a state budget crisis.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales earlier this month gave the state high marks for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of Thursday the New Mexico Department of Health reported 5,503 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 242 deaths from the pandemic in New Mexico.

Morales said in an interview last week with the Roswell Daily Record that the number of cases had been less than initially forecast and the state had made progress in flattening the curve. “Predictions were that we were going to be at a much higher rate,” Morales said.

When asked to assign a grade to the state’s response to the pandemic, Morales, a former educator, said he thinks the state has earned a “B.”

The interview was conducted before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Wednesday a new modified public health order would go into effect starting Saturday, and would among other things allow all retail stores to reopen and operate at 25% capacity as determined by the fire code.

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Aggressive social distancing measures combined with people adhering to the governor’s stay-at-home instruction and limits on public gatherings, Morales said, lessened opportunities for the virus to be spread. He also credited Lujan Grisham with successfully lobbying the U.S. Department of Defense to locate an Army field hospital in Albuquerque to strengthen the state’s treatment capacity.

Early fears that the state’s healthcare system would be flooded by an influx of patients did not come to fruition, he said.

From the very beginning, Morales said, the state has taken quick actions and been proactive in dealing with the pandemic. He cited early moves such as closing schools, acquiring tests, increasing testing capacity and ensuring an adequate supply of PPE, personal protective equipment, as examples.

Morales though was less positive about the federal government’s response to the pandemic, accusing the federal government of lacking a national strategy and making it harder to ensure states had access to needed testing and PPE.

Economy

With New Mexico, the nation and much of the world saddled with soaring unemployment and economic fallout, the conversation has shifted in recent weeks to how quickly to go about rolling back public health orders.

Morales cautions the virus is still a threat and plans to reopen businesses must balance the need to restore the economy with the necessity of minimizing the risk to people’s lives.

“I believe and I know that the governor believes that the surest way and the most efficient way to reopen our economy is to effectively combat and ultimately defeat the virus,” Morales said.

In April, Lujan Grisham established an Economic Recovery Council consisting of 15 members from different industries and regions in New Mexico to make recommendations for a phased reopening of the state’s economy.

The Council, Morales said, meets frequently and works with input from local governments.

“I think that is really helpful because it helps us find what is going to be that middle ground to open up but ensure we do not do it in a way that is irresponsible,” he said.

Reopening the economy too quickly, Morales said, could potentially lead to more deaths and confirmed cases if not done properly, and reverse many of the gains New Mexico has made.

“We don’t want to risk that at this point, especially with the direction New Mexico has taken in flattening the curve,” Morales said.

Special session

State lawmakers must also reckon with a steep budget shortfall caused by the economic effects of the pandemic and a steep drop in the price of oil.

The $7.6 billion FY2021 budget set to take effect July 1 is estimated to have a budget hole of between $1.8 and $2.4 billion, according to state economists. That budget was approved by legislators in February and based on a forecast of $52 a barrel oil.

No hard date has yet been set for a special session to remedy the shortfall, but Morales said it will likely be mid to late June, when the state and lawmakers have a clearer picture of the state’s budget situation.

“We have to make sure that when we go into special session that we do it in a way that is safe, first of all, and secondly we need to make sure that we have all the moving parts and as much information as possible to do that,” he said.

The size of the hit local governments will take from a fall-off in gross receipts taxes — and whether Congress will include aid to local and state governments to help them shore up budgets affected by the pandemic — are two things the state is waiting to learn, and that will likely be available sometime in June.

“So I think to see that whole picture, that June timeframe works best,” Morales said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and some other Republicans in Congress have voiced opposition to providing financial assistance to state and local governments. Morales though said aid to state and local governments will help restore the economy, especially in areas such as agriculture. He noted that previous rounds of stimulus had been provided to industries to help blunt the damage from the pandemic.

“So there has been some relief there, so we have to recognize that strong local governments will make strong state governments, who will in turn make a strong federal government,” he said.

To meet the state’s obligation of not spending more than the state collects in revenue, legislators will have to weigh potential tax hikes and/or spending cuts. Morales said no specific tax increases or spending cuts have been identified, but that legislators will consider all available options.

A recent state budget surplus, Morales said, has allowed the state to have more money to be put away in reserves that could possibly be used to fix the budget.

Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and state Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, a member of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, have cautioned using up those reserves during a special session will leave them with no reserves left to help fill additional budget gaps when the state convenes in January for its regular session.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.