Sen. Ben Ray Luján: Billions for northern NM fire victims still up in the air in DC

By: - December 13, 2022 4:41 am
Sen. Ben Ray Luján speaks at the Congreso de las Acequias

El Senador de EE.UU. Ben Ray Luján se dirige a los administradores de acequias en el Congreso anual de las Acequias en Las Vegas, N.M. el sábado. (Foto de Patrick Lohmann / Source NM)

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján said negotiations are fluctuating daily on a congressional spending bill that includes almost $3 billion more for victims of the biggest fire in New Mexico history. This funding would come in addition to the $2.5 billion Congress voted to send to the state earlier this year.

Luján, a Democrat, told Source New Mexico that Congress has to agree on two big spending bills before the end of the year, including a catch-all spending bill by Dec. 16 and the National Defense Authorization Act. The catch-all bill is the best way he sees for additional money to reach fire victims here, he said. 

President Biden asks for almost $3 billion more for northern New Mexico wildfire victims

There’s back and forth with Senate Republicans about whether to pass an omnibus measure that funds a variety of programs, he said, “and it fluctuates day by day.”

“I believe most members, Democratic and Republican senators, want to see an omnibus. But there must be an effort to coalesce to get it done,” he said Saturday after speaking to a group of acequia stewards in Las Vegas, N.M. 

President Joe Biden has asked Congress to approve $37 billion to help communities across the country recover from a year of damaging floods and other natural disasters. That request includes $2.9 billion to pay claims to victims of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which began with two botched prescribed burns by the United States Forest Service and scorched more than 530 square miles north of Las Vegas. 

Biden is also asking Congress to include additional money for COVID relief and Ukraine in the spending bill it passes before the year is up. Beginning in January, a new Republican-majority House of Representatives will convene, making it harder for Biden to get his priorities funded. 

Congress already approved $2.5 billion in late September for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to spend on victims of the fire in a bill that aimed to fully compensate them for their losses and cover administrative costs. 

But a report from Biden’s Office of Management and Budget states that claims for victims could reach $5.4 billion, hence the additional request. 

FEMA hosting job fairs to help it run $2.5B claims office for NM fire victims

According to the OMB, the $2.9 billion would be spent over the next five years, with $1 billion spent on claims in 2024, $1.3 billion in 2025, $616 million 2026 and $3 million in 2027. The office did not respond to a Source NM question about how it arrived at those figures. 

FEMA is gearing up to establish a claims office to spend the money it has so far. It is holding job fairs to hire locals to help run the program and is accepting public comment on the rules for how the program will operate. 

Luján said he is cautiously optimistic that his colleagues in the Senate and the House are prepared to come to an agreement before the end of the year. He said he’s seeing them change their travel schedules to stay in Washington, D.C., until Dec. 23. 

“That tells me that it’s more likely that something comes together for them to coalesce around,” he said. “But right now, there just has to be agreement from Senate Republicans to say ‘Let’s get this done. Let’s move forward.’”


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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.