New Mexico looks ahead to more economic relief amid pandemic

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M (AP) – The flurry to pass a $330 million relief package aimed at helping out-of-work New Mexicans and certain businesses hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic is done, but Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican lawmakers say the hardest work is yet to come as they look for more permanent ways to rebuild a shattered economy.

Republicans and some Democratic lawmakers voiced concerns during Tuesday’s one-day special session that the relief bill left behind low-income essential workers.

They were unsuccessful in their efforts to expand payments to those workers, with Democratic leaders arguing that logistical challenges would make it impossible to distribute the money quickly.

The governor signed the bill Wednesday, but some lawmakers have said the relief is too little and too late as small businesses across the state have been forced to close. Also, the state’s unemployment insurance fund is in the red, lines are forming outside grocery stores due to public health restrictions, students remain stuck at home learning online and hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez said his daughter has been working around the clock at the hospital in Grants, risking her life daily as she tends to patients. He talked about the emotional toll and the effects on the family, saying it’s just one example of the real experiences New Mexicans are facing.

“Everybody is essential out there. Everybody is trying to do their part to protect, to save lives,” the Democrat said, “but we’ve got a very serious virus that has no boundaries, no boundaries whether you put a curfew at 10 o’clock or where you shut down for days. It has no boundaries. It continues and continues.”

For Jacob Candelaria, a Democratic senator from Albuquerque, the virus has infected his family – all essential employees who had no choice but to go to work. He was among those pushing to expand economic aid to more New Mexicans.

“If we’re willing to push the envelope for certain groups of people in New Mexico, why not for the pobres (Spanish for the poor) who clean all of our homes, who clean the groceries stores, who work at the grocery stores. Why not them?” Candelaria said. “If we’re going to push the envelope for somebody, why don’t we finally do it for working people?”

The governor said she would support lawmakers approving an immediate relief package after they convene in January for a 60-day session.

Whether it’s considered hazard pay or hero pay, she said the entire country needs to recognize the contributions of essential workers.

In signing the aid package, she said the economic pain caused by pandemic has hit every corner of New Mexico.

“We must continue to evaluate how we can get more assistance to more New Mexicans who need it in this time of crisis,” she said. “I’m grateful to the Legislature, both chambers and both parties, for their work yesterday. New Mexico will always step up, even when the federal government won’t.”

Lujan Grisham and others were hopeful that Congress will provide some clarity on what states can expect in terms of future federal relief funding. She also said the state will continue to look for places to trim spending while making investments that result in new economic opportunities. She specifically mentioned legalizing marijuana.

Under the measure signed Wednesday, $100 million in grants are being made available for small businesses and unemployed workers will receive one-time $1,200 payments. Smaller stimulus checks will go to immigrants without legal status in the country and dependents.

Money also will be funneled toward emergency housing aid and food banks.

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

An additional $10 million in state general funds were allocated for COVID-19 testing and tracing efforts.

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