Home News COVID-19 Situation Local lawmakers split on COVID relief bill

Local lawmakers split on COVID relief bill

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People protesting the health orders of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stand outside the state Capitol on Tuesday in Santa Fe. The Capitol, which houses the offices of the governor and the Legislature, was closed to the public at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo)

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Against the backdrop of a surge in COVID-19 cases, tightened public health orders and a looming deadline to spend millions in unspent federal funds, Chaves County’s legislative delegation split over whether to approve a state economic relief package.

In a rare showing of bipartisan support, the relief package was shepherded through both the New Mexico House of Representatives and Senate following seven and a half hours of debate, discussion and some proposed amendments. The bill passed the House 59 to 11 and the Senate 33 to 5.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the $330 million package into law Wednesday, according to a statement released by her office.

The bill is mainly funded through $319 million in federal payments to New Mexico from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and included a one-time boost in unemployment benefits as well as emergency housing assistance and aid to small businesses and food banks, according to the text of the legislation.

Lujan Grisham last week had called a special session to pass the package, with the unspent federal money scheduled to revert back to the federal government if not spent by late December.

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Proponents of the bill acknowledged that it did have its flaws, but that it will also provide an economic lifeline to individuals whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the pandemic and businesses teetering on the brink of collapse.

“It probably needs some tweaks, but down the road we need to help some people coming into a Christmas season where parents have been out of work and kids sequestered at home,” state Sen. Bill Burt, R-Alamogordo, said Tuesday during conversation about the bill on the Senate floor.

Burt and state Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, voted for the bill, but fellow Sens. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, and Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs — whose Senate districts both include Chaves County — were among the five Senate Republicans to oppose it.

The sentiment voiced by Burt was also echoed in the House, where Republicans — such as state Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell — expressed tepid approval for the package.

In a statement following the vote, Ezzell said it was “by no means perfect” but that New Mexicans now face hardships through no fault of their own.

“And they do not have food in their refrigerator or their pantries,” she said. Local representatives Greg Nibert, a Republican from Roswell, and House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, also voted in support of the bill. State Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, opposed it.

The item in the bill with the largest price tag was $194 million to provide more than 100,000 New Mexicans either on unemployment or whose unemployment benefits have been exhausted a one-time $1,200 supplemental payment.

Other elements of the package were $100 million in small business grants for businesses with 100 or fewer employees, with priority given to businesses in the leisure and hospitality industry that have incurred steep economic losses during the pandemic.

The New Mexico Department of Human Services under the legislation will also receive money for emergency housing assistance; for $750 in direct payments to low-income households that did not receive a federal stimulus check in the spring; and assistance to New Mexico food banks.

Lawmakers also appropriated $10 million from the state’s general fund for contact tracing, testing and vaccine implementation, while an additional $200,000 will go to the Administrative Courts for costs associated with compliance with the public health orders.

Pirtle said Wednesday he thought the session and the bill were rushed, with limited opportunity afforded for debate.

Pirtle said he had several problems with the legislation. He introduced an amendment, which was ultimately voted down, that would insert language requiring money for emergency housing assistance be in the form of vouchers to landlords or lien holders of a property.

Opponents during debate on the amendment said the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration already provides its housing payments in the form of vouchers, and so the amendment was unnecessary.

Pirtle also said he had misgivings about the $750 for low-income families who had not been eligible for stimulus checks in the spring.

One category of people who were not qualified to receive a federal relief check in the spring, Pirtle said, were undocumented residents.

“So I have some concern over how and what are some of those requirements going to be that they be residents of New Mexico,” he said.

In both the House and Senate, amendments were proposed that would cut in half to $600 the one-time payments to those on unemployment. Under the proposals, remaining money would be distributed to essential workers making $15 or less an hour who have not received any assistance during the pandemic.

The amendments were defeated in both chambers. Opponents of the amendments said such payments would require establishing a whole new program to distribute the money. However, they expressed a willingness to explore such a proposal during the regular January session.

Nibert and other lawmakers said the payments to essential workers should have been included.

“It really saddens me that we could not help the New Mexicans who have worked hard through this pandemic and have gone to work day in and day out, yet we are ignoring them in this legislation,” he said.

Debate over the legislation was also used by some as an occasion to criticize the state’s handling of the pandemic.

Townsend, speaking on the floor, said the relief package was important because many people in New Mexico are hurting both as a result of the virus and the impact that Lujan Grisham’s public health orders are having on the economy.

He accused the executive branch of basing the state’s emergency health orders on “arbitrary rules with little science” and lamented that people who are tested for COVID-19 are having to wait seven to 12 days to get test results back.

“I would tell you that we really need to look at what we are doing and how we are doing it and quit imposing pain,” he said.

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

To keep up with local coverage of the coronavirus, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.

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