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State lawmakers discuss business recovery efforts

New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) said some legislators will look to modify existing state programs to provide business assistance in 2021. State Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell (R-Roswell) also listens during a November "job creation listening tour" visit Egolf coordinated with local officials and business representatives on the campus of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. (Daily Record File Photo)

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New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf has said that changes in the state Job Training Incentive Program and the Local Economic Development Act are likely to be considered during the upcoming legislative session as a way to help New Mexico businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

The District 47 representative from Santa Fe was one of the legislators to talk during the Monday launch of the “Virtual Roundhouse” sponsored by the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

“The No. 1 issue going into the session is recovery, recovery, recovery,” Egolf said about the 60-day session starting Monday. “And it is recovery when it comes to health, when it comes to the economy and when it comes to education.”

The state will continue its efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations, especially to health care workers, he said. He added that he thinks the federal government will do more to speed up vaccine distributions in February after the presidential transition.

He also said that he thinks legislators will make it a top priority to evaluate ways to reopen public schools in New Mexico in a safe manner because distance learning is not working for many students. Some also will push for additional funding for primary and secondary public schools.

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Egolf added that many legislators will seek to pass a resolution asking state voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would permit an annual distribution of 1% more from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to increase funds available for early childhood and public education.

“Because of our responsible budgeting, right now we are forecast to have somewhere in the neighborhood of 35% reserves when our fiscal year ends June 30,” he said. “Our revenues did not take near the size of hit that we thought was going to come, so we should have additional revenues to allocate in the budget while still maintaining top reserves.”

Oil industry activity is also recovering, Egolf said, which could increase business revenues and taxes in the state.

The Legislative Finance Committee issued a report Tuesday that indicates recurring revenues for the current fiscal year of about $7 billion, a decrease of $857 million from the fiscal year 2020. With non-recurring revenue, total revenues are estimated at $7.77 billion this year. New revenues for fiscal year 2022 above recurring revenues are projected to bring a $169 million increase. General reserves for the current year are at $1.59 billion.

Egolf noted that the Legislature provided about a billion dollars of small business relief and unemployment aid during its two special sessions in March and November and will look for additional ways to provide aid in 2021.

“We would like to see use of state programs that already exist in New Mexico,” he said. “We do not need to reinvent the wheel.”

Some legislators are looking to expand the use of Local Economic Development Act grants — typically used to fund business relocations or start-ups in New Mexico that create additional jobs — to help restaurants or leisure-related businesses with rent, mortgage, equipment costs or other such business expenses.

The state Job Training Incentive Program also could be changed, he said, to fund job retention in companies operating in hard-hit sectors.

“We know that we want these businesses — especially restaurants, tourism and leisure-related businesses — we want to make sure that they will still be there when get through this pandemic,” he said.

He also thinks that additional direct aid to the unemployed — similar to the $1,200 to the unemployed provided by the state in November — would help boost consumer spending, thereby increasing business revenues. He said he also expects more federal relief checks for individuals.

“Those direct cash payments make a huge difference in an economy like New Mexico’s,” he said. “You can see from aggregated economic data from earlier in the year (that) last spring the federal stimulus payments and especially the increase in unemployment benefits of $600 a week — you could see consumer spending crashing and then as soon as those checks started to hit, it came right back up. That in a lot of ways saved the economy of New Mexico and the economy of a lot of states because consumer spending did not take nearly the hit that was forecasted.”

Another legislator speaking was District 54 State Rep. James Townsend, a Republican from Artesia who serves as the House minority leader.

Speaking before Egolf, he agreed about the need to reopen schools and said he anticipates that one of the pieces of legislation he will support will propose a program to recruit businesses into the state and create career-track jobs.

But he said additional spending should not come from increased taxes, but through business growth.

He said the state “has no choice” but to reopen the economy, even though he acknowledges that COVID is a reality, given that he and his wife have had COVID and he has had family members and friends who have died with COVID.

“Now is not the time to be raising taxes and fees on New Mexicans and ask them to do more with less,” he said. “We have to be bigger than that. We have to make sure that we have the platform set for this state to get back on its feet, and the better way to do that is to let the ingenuity of New Mexicans thrive.”

He added that he is against a proposal that would indiscriminately limit the number of bills introduced by each legislator, saying some legislators represent portions of many different counties and a limit would cause them to have to choose among their constituencies.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.