ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation on Wednesday pointed to the estimated $9 billion that New Mexico is expected to receive from the massive federal pandemic relief package as an unprecedented opportunity to lift the state out of poverty.
Beyond the vaccine rollout and grants for small businesses, they said the funding will go toward everything from direct payments for individuals to investments in broadband and clean water projects, debt relief for Hispanic and Native American farmers and an expansion of the child tax credit.
Tribal communities and public schools will see over $1 billion each, while the state and local governments will share about $2 billion.
The Democrats billed the federal aid package as an answer to poverty, saying it will address inequities that were brought to light during the pandemic by creating universal benefits and lifelong assistance. Lujan Grisham made the bold claim that about one-quarter of New Mexico families would immediately be “lifted out of poverty” due to the economic assistance and tax credits included in the legislation.
“There are no words to describe the impact that has on a state that has long had extreme and persistent poverty,” she said during a virtual news conference. “This is exactly the investment that we have always deserved and that we need now more than ever.”
The Democrat-led Legislature took immediate steps Wednesday to pull $1.63 billion in federal relief into its budget plan for the coming fiscal year that starts on July 1. The state Senate’s lead budget writing committee tentatively assigned $600 million to pay off debts to the state unemployment fund, a move that would prevent a spike in payroll taxes on businesses.
Other likely relief expenditures include economic development grants and roadway infrastructure, with about $440 million still unassigned.
The Legislature has until March 20 to send the spending plan to the governor, who can veto measures line by line.
Fellow Democratic U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández also touted the package, saying they’re still crunching the numbers to see what overall effects it will have on the state. They also pointed to provisions that will boost vaccination efforts around the country along with testing, contact tracing and scientific research.
“So in a very real way, I believe that today is the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” Heinrich said.
But Republicans have been critical of the expansive relief package, arguing that Democrats have been misleading the public.
U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, New Mexico’s sole Republican member of Congress, said in a statement that less than 9% of the $1.9 trillion bill goes to combatting the virus while $12 billion goes overseas and more than $500 billion goes to bailout states and cities that imposed lockdowns.
“With the end of this difficult time now in sight, we should be focused on reopening our communities and getting our children back in school as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this bill does nothing to make either happen any faster,” Herrell said.
New Mexico state government income already is rebounding on a surge in oil prices and production.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz said the state expects to finish the coming fiscal year with a $1.8 billion surplus, or nearly 24% of annual spending obligations - not including the newly assigned federal relief funds.
While many New Mexico schools already are working toward resuming in-person classes next month, the Democrats said 95% of the $1.2 billion earmarked for public schools in the state will help pay for things like sick leave, technology, air filtration upgrades and outdoor classrooms.
The relief bill comes as more New Mexico counties have seen their spread rates and the number of new daily per-capita cases decline. On Wednesday, state officials announced 14 counties had reached the top two tiers of its color-coded system, meaning they can ease more restrictions on commercial and day-to-day activities.
However, more than half of the state’s 33 counties remained in the yellow category. Mora, Taos and Torrance counties were among those that slipped from green back to yellow over the last two weeks. Guadalupe County in a rural part of east-central New Mexico was the only one classified as red.
New Mexico has reported more than 187,000 coronavirus cases since the pandemic began a year ago, while the statewide death toll has topped 3,830.
One in four New Mexicans has received at least their first shot, while the latest state data shows about 15% have been fully vaccinated.
While the federal spending bill includes $20 billion for the national vaccination program, Lujan Grisham said it’s too early to say exactly how that money will trickle down to New Mexico. She said she’s hoping for more supplies and expanded distribution.
Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed from Santa Fe.
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