NM legislators gear up to fight for federal wildfire reimbursement

Lawmakers urge state to follow up on Biden’s promise to pay

By: - July 20, 2022 5:15 pm

Thick smoke from wildfire in the mountains merges with the clouds near Guadalupita, N.M., on June 13, 2022. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

As the state continues fronting costs to fight and recover from the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, legislators are questioning whether the federal government will really pay it all back in full, and when exactly that will happen.

Deputy Secretary Kelly Hamilton with the N.M. Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management updated lawmakers on Tuesday about the biggest fires of 2022, prompting questions about the responsibility of the federal government to help New Mexico recover since the U.S. Forest Service was at fault for starting both the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires.

There isn’t yet a total estimate for how much rebuilding and recovery will cost the state, Hamilton said, but expenses are piling up. Last month, President Joe Biden came to New Mexico and personally promised that the federal government will pay the costs back 100% for the first 90 days from the his disaster declaration.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has allocated $59.3 million in wildfire emergency response funds so far since April.

At a Legislative Finance Committee meeting, Sen. Nancy Rodriguez (D-Santa Fe) questioned whether there will really be no caveats and if the state will get every single penny back. Hamilton said it’s a valid point to raise, but he can’t guarantee full federal reimbursement.

Getting any money back could be a years long fight, Hamilton said, with both approvals and denials. “Every expense that we incur as a state, we are going to aggressively ask for back from the federal government,” he said.

LFC Vice Chair Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) said New Mexico shouldn’t be asking for reimbursements but rather telling the federal government what is due. The executive may need to file a lawsuit against the feds for not complying, he said, which would pile on top of the personal lawsuits that have already been submitted.

“Unless we force somebody to do something at this point, they’re not going to do it,” Muñoz said.

Many legislators expressed frustration at the state’s hand in the slow process of recovery. “We’re still talking about planning after months of planning,” Muñoz said, “and we’re not getting people back to where they should be.” 

Rep. Jack Chatfield (R-Mosquero) said it’s time for New Mexico to start definitively laying out how much recovery will cost, even if the state has to fight with the U.S. government to get those reimbursement funds.

“It’s going to be a fight, and I think we ought to start fighting now,” Chatfield said. “I think we need to push forward to restore this (Las Vegas) watershed, and I think we need to push forward for the federal government to keep their word to us as a state.”

There are still a lot of unknowns around state costs, Rep. Patricia Lundstrom (D-Gallup) pointed out. 

“If we get millions of dollars from the feds, it’s still state land,” she said. “It’s still a state responsibility at some point.”

Rodriguez wondered if the Legislature will see funding requests in January for wildfire recovery efforts. 

Hamilton didn’t have a definitive answer but said millions in federal mitigation funds will help with rebuilding projects. He suggested that this is an opportunity for the state to build infrastructure back even better. 

But who will foot that bill? Rep. Gail Armstrong (R-Magdalena) volleyed. “We say build back better. Well, what is the cost of building that back?” she said.

Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) said the state needs to work as a whole rather than through separate agencies to recover from the fire’s damage and pull down federal reimbursement.

“We still don’t have a state plan that is going to be, if you will, the charge from all of us,” Campos said, “not only to the federal government but also to our delegation, so that we’re in unity when it comes to what we’re finally going to be justly owed for the damage that has been done.”

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Correction

This story was updated on Thursday, July 21, at noon to correctly reflect that when it comes to the feds temporarily covering all of the costs associated with the fire, the 90-day countdown began when Biden first declared it a major disaster.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.

MORE FROM AUTHOR