Legislature’s Second Special Session Adapts to Pandemic, Promises Relief

By Lance Chilton

Through the sometimes frustrating crackle of a video of a Zoom and floor meeting, the second Special Session of the New Mexico legislature took place a week ago today.  Through seven hours of separate debate in the House and the Senate, legislators expressed both hope that the stimulus money would keep families and businesses whole in the pandemic, and also frustration that they could not do more.

In the end, legislators realized the limitations of the federal stimulus money they were allotting, made the allotments and spoke of returning to the issue of further bolstering those families and small businesses when they return to Santa Fe (or zoomed Santa Fe) in January.  Among the often wistful comments of those on the Senate floor, the desire to reward and honor essential workers, especially low-paid ones, was evident.  However, senators heard Secretary of Workforce Solutions (and former state representative) Bill McCamley state that his department could not identify essential workers, however defined, and get stimulus checks to them in time to meet the federal deadline for use of the funds.

In the end, the bill, House Bill 1, that was passed, looked very much like that which Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham had submitted to the Legislature.  Passed by large bi-partisan majorities in each house, it used the soon-to-expire federal CARES Act funds to make the following allotments:

  • $194 million for single checks of $1,200 apiece from the Department of Workforce Solutions to New Mexicans who qualify for unemployment benefits or pandemic aid programs, which would likely reach about 160,000 New Mexicans. 
  • $100 million for grants through the New Mexico Finance Authority to small local businesses and nonprofit groups. Businesses financially injured by shutdowns caused by the virus, especially those in the hospitality and leisure industries, would be placed first in line.
  • $5 million, through the Human Services Department for $750 checks to families ineligible for other federal stimulus funds, including undocumented immigrants
  • $15 million, through the Department of Finance and Administration, for assistance to people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
  • $5 million for food banks serving the hungry.

In addition, $10 million from state funds were appropriated to the Department of Health for its important work in quelling the coronavirus pandemic, as well as $200,000 was appropriated to New Mexico courts to cover expenses of adjudicating disputes over public health orders.

House Bill 1 was signed immediately by the Governor, and payments will soon become available.  This bill was the only legislation passed in the short session; Republicans’ measures to examine the Governor’s COVID-related actions and the limit her authority to make emergency-related orders went nowhere.

Speaking with state representative Deborah Armstrong after the session, I heard relief that the technology-enabled but also technology-limited session had been able to do the best it could for New Mexico households and businesses in a very short time.