The state Senate talks through spending millions in federal recovery money on Tuesday, Dec. 14. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)
New Mexico is inching closer to spending nearly half of the roughly $1.1 billion in remaining federal relief money given to the state under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
The state Senate on Tuesday afternoon approved $478 million to be distributed to state agencies, covering housing services, upgrades to state parks, pre-trial services monitoring and a new rural hospital.
The Senate passed the bill 36-4, and two senators were absent. The measure heads back to the House, where representatives crafted the bill and passed it nearly unanimously 65-1.
Money will be distributed shortly after it is signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She also has the option of vetoing it.
Despite the bill passing with broad, bipartisan support, senators first raised concerns during floor debate about whether it was prudent to spend so much money so fast.
The Senate made one significant change, decreasing the budget the House sent over by removing $26 million for the Department of Information Technology, according to Senate documents. That alteration means the measure will be sent back to the House for “concurrence” before the governor reviews it. Still, the tech agency would receive more than $123 million for broadband projects with this version of the spending bill.
Another $10 million is slated for upgrading tribal libraries and their Internet infrastructure through the Public Education Department.
Beyond broadband efforts, the Department of Transportation is the biggest winner, receiving $142.5 million for road construction efforts and another $10 million to clean up roadways.
Senators preserved the $50 million appropriation that was added by a House committee to build an “acute care hospital” in a county with less than 100,000 residents. This money will be available for the majority of New Mexico, as 28 out of the 33 counties in the state have populations under 100,000, according to 2020 census numbers. Valencia County could be a strong contender for the funding, lawmakers said.
The Senate bill also preserves $2 million for the Higher Education Department to repay teachers who take loans for professional development.
Housing services will see millions through the Department of Finance and Administration, including $10 million toward assistance for homeless people that is contingent on a 100% match by the communities seeking that money. Another $15 million is meant to cover costs of energy-efficient affordable homes.
It’s unclear when the House will take up the spending bill. Members are in recess waiting for the Senate to reconvene, according to the House Majority Office. The Senate is also still in caucus figuring out Senate voting district maps.
State Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) began the floor hearing by pressing Sen. George Muñoz, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, on where exactly the money would be going. On the affordable housing spending, for example, Cervantes asked where the new homes would be built. He had similar questions about roadway and broadband spending.
“I’m not really sure we’re doing it in the best way we can,” Cervantes said before Senators voted. “I believe the reason that we’re not doing it the best we can is because we’re rushing.”
Lawmakers were pressed to spend the money because of a last-minute proclamation by Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham, who announced just days before the special redistricting session began that lawmakers would also have to use the time to agree on how to divvy up millions.
Legislators sued the governor this year, and a state Supreme Court ruling removed Lujan Grisham’s ability to spend the $1.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds without legislative approval. By the time the Legislature got its hands on the money, around $1.1 billion remained.
In consultation with the governor, state lawmakers later pushed off spending about half of that funding into the regular 30-day session, opting to allocate money this week on what they described as programs or projects that were already identified and did not need additional administrative legislation.
Lawmakers previously expressed concerns about the quick turnaround on spending the money. In a previous Senate committee hearing, $15 million was incorrectly allocated to two agencies that had no use for it. Those errors were corrected, but leaders attributed them to the quick pace.
Cervantes on Tuesday asked his fellow senators to take their time in allocating the money despite the governor’s proclamation, saying they should focus right now on using the funds for health care matters, like addressing COVID or responding to mental health concerns exacerbated by the pandemic.
Without more specifics, he said, where the money is spent will be left up to the agencies in the executive branch, which undermines the whole point of having the Legislature be part of the process.
Is this the transformative use of a billion dollars in response to COVID? Or are we simply responding to a tune that's been played for us, and we're doing the dance? We're dancing to the tune of the proclamation.
– State Sen. Joseph Cervanes (D-Las Cruces)
Muñoz responded by saying the Legislature was prioritizing valuable projects that were “transformative” despite the rush, like $50 million toward a county hospital, millions toward improving state roads and money to help pre-trial services monitor defendants. And, in a news release later Tuesday touting the bill’s passage, he set his sights on the money still left to be spent in January.
The bill’s allocations “represent an effective way for us to put some of the federal aid into vetted, one-time projects that are ready to go, getting money out the door and continuing our pandemic recovery efforts,” Muñoz said. “ … But there is still more to do, and during the regular session in January, we will be looking at making even more bold, transformational investments.”
Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces ended up being one of four senators who voted against the bill, and the only Democrat who did. Republicans who voted against it included Mark Moores of Albuquerque, Greg Schmedes of Tijeras and David Gallegos of Eunice. Two senators were absent, including Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, who just changed his party from Democrat to “decline to state” at the start of the special session, and Democrat Roberto Gonzales of Ranchos de Taos.
Next: The Senate plans to reconvene Wednesday at 2 p.m. The House plans to meet again Thursday.
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