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Townsend: GOP caucus wants more details on aid proposal

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The lead Republican in the New Mexico House of Representatives said Thursday that members of his caucus were waiting to hear more about the specifics of a proposed $300 million aid package that will be the subject of next week’s special legislative session before deciding whether or not to support it.

“The devil is in the details,” House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said Thursday hours after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for a special legislative session to convene next Tuesday.

The session comes as the state is dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths, as well as a shelter-in-place order by Lujan Grisham that went into effect Nov. 16 and will remain in place until at least Nov. 30. The new order is part of what Lujan Grisham has deemed a “reset” designed to curb transmission of the virus.

On Tuesday, the Legislature will convene in Santa Fe in what will be its second special legislative session of 2020. In June, state lawmakers met to pass a budget fix.

Following Lujan Grisham’s public call Thursday for the session, New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Democrat from Santa Fe, said the relief package that will originate in the House will be funded with the state’s last remaining $300 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money.

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It will include money that would provide individuals on unemployment an extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits for a month; funding for rental assistance; and grants to small businesses impacted by the governor’s latest two-week emergency public health order restricting the operation of businesses deemed non-essential.

General fund money could also be appropriated to the New Mexico Department of Health to receive, store and deploy an eventual vaccine, Egolf said.

Such a bill, Townsend said, sounds like it is something that is heading in the right direction, but he and other Republicans want to hear more and have some input.

“It will be a very big bill; it will be 200 or 300 pages long. And so, we’re going to have to work really hard to get that bill drafted, vetted, get our analysts to look at it and then be ready,” he said.

Townsend added that the caucus realizes New Mexicans are incurring hard financial times amid the health order put in place and the lingering pandemic. However, they also want to spend money in the best way possible to help contain the pandemic and assist New Mexicans financially.

“There is quite a bit of concern in the caucus that we keep addressing symptoms of problems and not fixing the problem itself,” he said.

Long wait times for people to get their tests back, he said, is a problem. Townsend added that if people don’t self-quarantine while awaiting those results, they could be spreading the virus, something that effects efforts at contact tracing.

Republican caucus members, he said, are consulting with some individuals in the medical community to find the best way possible to spend that money in a way that can halt the pandemic.

He said that could include money to get an eventual vaccine ready to be deployed to first responders and healthcare workers, the elderly and other vulnerable populations.

At his news conference Thursday, Egolf also said that the appropriation of additional money to the New Mexico Department of Health to ensure the state is prepared to receive, deploy and store an eventual vaccine is a possibility.

Egolf also said that he wants the session to be quick to limit transmission of the virus among legislators and legislative staff at the Roundhouse.

He predicted that the process of convening and passing a bill should take no more than six to eight hours.

Townsend though said that is possible, but that it could take longer.

“We need a good bill, we don’t need to hurry and get a bad bill like that and we are dedicated to working hard to do what we can to get it out in the form that best fits and helps our constituents,” he said.

As was the case during the special session in June, members of the public will not be allowed to enter the Roundhouse because of the need to limit virus spread.

To keep members safe, Egolf said, he will attempt to get a rule change passed, similar to the one adopted in the June special session, which allowed legislators to participate and vote in remote locations rather than in person and on the House floor.

Should that rule not pass, Egolf said, he will likely call House members onto the floor 10 at a time to cast their votes and take the needed action.

Egolf also indicated that rather then send the bill to House committees for consideration he hopes to get the support of some Republicans to bring the bill before the whole House, or what is called the Committee of the House, to be heard and debated, rather then have it go towards a regular legislative committee, a process that will take longer.

Republicans criticized the heavy reliance on using virtual means during the June special session, which was characterized by frequent glitches.

Townsend thinks allowing members to cast the votes virtually is something that Republicans could support in general terms; however, they want to ensure that things are transparent.

“The caucus is very concerned about the public being excluded and not included in the process. So, you will see considerable pushback to make sure the public is allowed to access, comment and participate in the legislative process,” he said.

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