Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Roundhouse one step away from giving millions for Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire recovery

Fixing the only road into town. Repairing aquifer systems so families aren’t worried about the water they drink or use for cattle or farming.

That’s the kind of work that northern New Mexico counties could finally pay for if the state House passes the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Recovery Funds bill.

Monday, the House Appropriations and Finance unanimously passed Senate Bill 6.

It now heads for a debate on the House floor, and awaits signature by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham who made this legislation a priority in her State of the State speech.

If signed into law, $100 million in zero-interest loans will be available for local counties and governments that are approved for federal relief dollars to fund projects to fix damage from the massive 2022 fire and subsequent flooding. 

Any local government that takes from this pot will have to repay the state once they receive federal dollars.

“This is not free money,” Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) said. “These are resources to go in to help right now.”

Sen. Pete Campos (right) and Rep. Ambrose Castellano answer questions about Senate Bill 6 during the House Appropriations and Finance Committee meeting on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Smaller rural areas are unable to cover costs to quickly rebuild after the disasters tore through the region last year.

Ali Rye, deputy secretary for the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said there are around 72 entities that could be eligible for state loans, such as Mora County or the City of Las Vegas.

Rep. Meredith Dixon (D-Albuquerque) asked the sponsors if they considered making the legislation a long-term, revolving fund to be used for future disasters. Rye said there were a few discussions but nothing concrete. She added that something like that would be beneficial for the state.

“We weren’t ready in the state for a disaster like this,” Rep. Ambrose Castellano (D-Serrafina) said. “And I think if we could make this recurring, I think it’s something that could protect our state for years to come.”

Rep. Joseph Sanchez (D-Alcalde), another one of the bill’s sponsors, said lawmakers are trying to get this legislation through the Capitol as quickly as possible. It has an emergency clause that would allow Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to sign it immediately so it could go into effect right away.

An area that kept flooding in front of a Mora County resident’s house. Pictured on Sept. 14, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

That’s why Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-Carlsbad) didn’t try to minorly amend the bill during Monday’s committee. If the legislation changed at this point, it would have to go back to the Senate for approval.

Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces) is the chair of House Appropriations and Finance. He said it’s rare for the committee to hear legislation this early before working out the budget, “However, we recognize the importance.”

Las Vegas city councilor David Romero said it’s difficult for the city to afford all the necessary recovery projects without money like this being available now. 

Billions in federal relief earmarked by Congress could take years to make its way to northern New Mexico. 

“This is going to help us in the interim because that type of money, we can’t afford it,” he said.

Last week, Las Vegas received $2.6 million to pay for pre-engineering assessments as part of more than $140 million it expects to get to build a new water treatment facility. And that project could take at least five years to finish, Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said.

FEMA cuts first check for Las Vegas, NM water supply restoration

A few lawmakers voiced concerns that this legislation is only helping public bodies, and not communities directly.

Rep. Harry Garcia (D-Grants) questioned why the state has to front any money, arguing the responsibility is completely with the federal government since the U.S. Forest Service started the prescribed burns that led to the largest wildfire in state history.

“I support this bill. I really do,” he said. “But they need more money than this.”

Sanchez said New Mexico can’t afford to hand out as much money allocated by Congress, so in the meantime, he said, the state is trying to help while communities wait for payments.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap,” he said.

The state’s federal delegation visited the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Monday, too. U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Gabe Vasquez thanked the lawmakers for the recovery legislation.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández stands at a lectern to speak to the N.M. senators and representatives that sit in front of her. U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández talks to the N.M. Senate and House of Representatives at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Leger Fernández also said there are opportunities to reshape recovering communities.

She suggested building energy-efficient, fireproof homes or creating small businesses while the forest regrows. She added that an economic center could help guide those kinds of projects, and encouraged lawmakers to fund these initiatives.

“I want us to think creatively about what the phoenix rising from those ashes can look like,” Leger Fernández said.

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