A line of public speakers formed at a legislative hearing where lawmakers are trying to spend nearly half a billion dollars of federal money. About a dozen more waited patiently on Zoom.
The speakers, all lobbyists or members of different public service groups, made pitches Tuesday afternoon to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee about why legislators should allocate more federal funding to their programs. They often cited the toll of the pandemic and the mounting need among the people they serve.
See how lawmakers so far propose spending about $500 million in federal money
New Mexico food banks will be out of food in February without more aid, speakers told the representatives. The committee also heard how patients are at risk due to the dire nursing shortage, how housing is becoming unaffordable across the state, and how the assisted living facility industry is struggling to recover after hundreds of residents and employees died of the virus.
About $470 million is available for lawmakers to spend from the federal American Rescue Plan Act before the end of the month. It’s the first big bucket of money lawmakers have access to this year, thanks to more than $1 billion in federal aid and projections of record state tax revenues. Lawmakers could have up to $9 billion in state money to spend over the next couple months.
Lawmakers, in consultation with Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham, decided to allocate the rest of the American Rescue Plan money, about $600 million, in January during the regular legislative session. The money being divvied up this month will be diverted primarily to existing programs that don’t require much new legislation to deliver, according to House officials.
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That means the bulk of this money is going to broadband and infrastructure projects, as well as various other small programs like tourism marketing, remediating orphan oil and gas wells and cleaning up litter on state roads.
Patty Lundstrom (D-Gallup), the chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, announced Tuesday that the lawmakers would not vote on the measure that’s been introduced yet, allowing lawmakers to tweak bill and potentially add new spending, including on farmworker wages during the red chile harvest.
After the spending bill is approved in committee, it will head to the House floor for a vote, then to the Senate and then the governor’s desk.
Lundstrom also said the public input heard Tuesday shows the benefit of having the Legislature allocate the money. She’s referencing a November Supreme Court ruling in November that wrested the federal money from the governor and gave it to the Legislature to spend.
“I thought this was an excellent hearing,” she said. “We got over 30-some people involved.”
Three groups seeking a greater federal funding allocation:
Allison Smith, lobbyist for the New Mexico Association of Food Banks and the state’s restaurant association, was first in line. She said food banks across New Mexico have seen a steep drop in federal aid. Meanwhile, food and shipping prices are rising.
“Most of our food banks will find themselves out of food by February at the rate that this is going,” she said.
The House bill contains $5 million for food banks, but Smith said that is not nearly enough. The federal aid to state food banks dropped by 65% this year, she said.
She asked lawmakers for a minimum of $15 million as quickly as possible. The timing of new aid is “critical,” she said, because it takes three months for food to be delivered after it is purchased.
Brie Sillery, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, said she was grateful for the $20 million proposed for affordable housing and to tackle homelessness, but she asked lawmakers to attach fewer strings.
Homelessness was already increasing steadily before the pandemic, and the state is now in the midst of a worsening housing affordability crisis.
The bill considered by the House would give the Department of Finance and Administration $20 million to “provide housing assistance for homeless persons and affordable housing assistance.”
However, the money comes with a requirement that a local government that receives the money match it by 100% with its own funds.
Sillery said this might be a big ask in rural parts of the state that are nonetheless suffering the effects of homelessness and lack of affordable housing.
“I would like to request that the 100% match will be reduced — especially in rural communities or communities that may struggle to meet this match — to allow for recipients that may have a highest need for assistance to have better access to these funds,” she said.
Vicente Vargas, executive director of the New Mexico Center for Assisted Living, said 600 residents died during the pandemic, in addition to numerous employees, and the industry lost $140 million due to less revenue and increased expenses.
“I just like to emphasize, as you probably all know, there was no industry harder hit than the nursing home and long-term-care industry,” he said.
The bill as written does not include money for assisted-living facilities. Vargas is asking the state for $50 million.