SANTA FE, New Mexico (AP) — New Mexico lawmakers on Tuesday passed a bipartisan coronavirus relief bill that will deliver a one-time $1,200 check to all types of unemployed workers and up to $50,000 for certain businesses.
The bill also provides smaller stimulus checks to immigrants without legal status in the country and dependents. $10 million of money from the general fund would be used to improve contact tracing, COVID testing and vaccine implementation in New Mexico.
Most of the proposed spending will be made possible by federal relief funding previously assigned to New Mexico, including around $319 million in unspent funds that were expected to expire soon.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for the one-day special session as the state faces steep infection and death rates.
“Our actions today, Mr. Speaker, are to address and respond to the needs of the most vulnerable constituents,” said Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton (D-Albuquerque).
The bill allocates $100 million to support businesses with 100 or fewer employees. The New Mexico Finance Authority is tasked with distributing the grants, which can be up to $50,000, and has wide discretion about whom to choose. It’s instructed to focus on the service industry.
Republican lawmakers welcomed language in the bill that instructs the Finance Authority to make sure recipients are spread out geographically, and not concentrated in the tourism and Democrat-heavy cities of northern New Mexico.
Republicans were unsuccessful in their efforts to provide aid for low-income essential workers. Democrats said federal guidelines would prevent such spending and they vowed to find ways during the upcoming session in January to address the issue. Some lawmakers say the bill as it stands would only provide a temporary fix and would’ve liked to discuss other options for pandemic relief efforts.
“You know what really frustrates me is we’re coming to Santa Fe to give away a month’s worth of unemployment to pay people more than they make with their regular take home pay in some cases,” said Rep. Phelps Anderson (R- Roswell). We’re coming to grant money to businesses who are impacted but you especially get to the front of the line if you’re in the hospitality or leisure business and all of this makes me wonder why aren’t we talking abut getting New Mexicans back to work and getting students back to school.”
Outside the state Capitol, two dozen people gathered in opposition to the relief bill, and the health orders from the governor that have closed many businesses and mandated mask wearing. One brought a sign that said “my body, my face, my choice.”
The building is normally open to the public and buzzing with lobbyists during a legislative session but has been closed since the onset of the pandemic.
New Mexico finds itself with 130,000 people still on the unemployment rolls, the vast majority of schools closed to in-person learning, and a high unemployment rate as the global recession tamps down demand for work in oil fields and as the virus has hit the state’s other large industry — tourism.
The $1,200 relief checks will also go to the 1,515 people who have exhausted all of their state and federal unemployment benefits, according to the Department of Workforce Solutions. The checks comprised the largest portion of the budget, coming in at $194 million.
An additional $5 million will be distributed in the form of a $750 payment to residents who were ineligible for the federal stimulus sent to most American citizens and permanent residents earlier this year. Those eligible include dependents like children and the elderly, as well as immigrants in the country without legal permission.
The statewide unemployment rate was 8.1% in October, well above the 6.9% national rate. New Mexico depleted its unemployment insurance fund in September and has begun borrowing money from the federal government to fulfill claims.
The state already owes the federal government $124 million, and that number is expected to grow to $400-500 million by next summer. Tuesday’s bill would divert any leftover federal coronavirus relief from the spring to pay down that unemployment debt.
That looming financial disaster weighs heavily on the Department of Workforce Solutions secretary, who says he gets constant phone calls, emails and pleas on social media.
“I hear all the stories, all the stories about how am I going to take care of my kids? How am I gonna afford my rent? How am I gonna afford my truck payment?” said Bill McCamley, a former state legislator who advised on the bill.
Staff writer Morgan Lee contributed reporting.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.