Disaster relief legislation has less than two weeks to make it through the Roundhouse

Sen. Crystal Diamond says Black Fire relief bill will let the state help wildfire victims when feds won’t

By: - March 7, 2023 4:35 am
Snowy cliffsides full of baren trees.

The Gila National Forest in February 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

It seems like it could be smooth sailing for legislation that would get relief funds to wildfire disaster victims.

Bipartisan support is showing up in committees for legislation that would aid New Mexico counties and local communities struggling to recover from devastating fires and floods that happened in 2022.

It can take a while for bills to get on committee schedules and move along. With less than two weeks left in the 2023 60-day legislative session, lawmakers are watching the clock.

Bills can take weeks to be heard by a single committee, and then sponsors have to wait for the next committee chair to schedule the bill. With 11 days left at the Roundhouse, lots of legislation will die before it even reaches the point for debate, let alone make it to the other chamber where it has to undergo the same process again.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed three bills since lawmakers made their way to Santa Fe in January: the Feed Bill that covers operational costs to keep the session running, the Legislative Stationary Prohibitions bills that lays out legislative capacity and the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire Recovery Funds bill that set aside $100 million in loans for repairs in northern New Mexico

Gov signs $100M bill for disaster recovery and must figure out how to get millions to northern NM

The northern relief bill is the furthest any of the wildfire disaster recovery legislation has made it through the Roundhouse.

All bills must get through the entire House side of the Legislature in less than two weeks now. This legislative session ends at noon on Saturday, March 18.

The full Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 334 and Senate Bill 430 on Monday, which would send $3 million to Black Fire victims around the Gila National Forest, and over $18 million to Lincoln County and the Village of Ruidoso for repairs following the McBride Fire.

“We had fires throughout the entire state this last year, and it was devastating to every community,” said Sen. Liz Stefanics (D-Cerrillos), a co-sponsor of the McBride Fire relief bill.

Other relief bills are just now making their way past a second committee, like Senate Bill 176. This legislation, also known as Acequia Fund for Disaster Response, passed Senate Finance unanimously on Monday.

SB 176 would allow the state acequia and community ditch infrastructure fund to be used for disaster relief purposes. It would also ensure that acequias don’t have to meet cost-share requirements and allow dollars from this fund to be used as a state or federal financial match for projects.

“It would help us and support, if you will, to use these resources for disaster response recovery and hazard mitigation,” bill sponsor Sen. Pete Campos (D-Las Vegas) said.

Campos said the acequias need the resources as soon as possible.

Cracked concrete lays on the side of a river.
Floods after the Black Fire cracked concrete and washed out a fish ladder along an acequia diversion in Mimbres, N.M. Pictured on Feb. 21, 2023. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

A previous version of the bill would’ve doubled the amount in the acequia and community ditch infrastructure fund, but the committee approved an amendment on Monday to strike that, leaving the pot standing at $2.5 million annually, like it has been.

Paula Garcia is the executive director of the New Mexico Acequia Association. Speaking as an expert on the bill, she said there are close to 700 acequias across 23 counties in New Mexico.

“This is even more important now that there have been so many disasters in the state,” she said. “We had numerous acequias damaged from different fires and subsequent flooding last year.”

Other more general disaster recovery bills that have yet to be heard in a second committee include the Wildfire Recovery Act and the Rural Infrastructure Crisis Response Act.

The feds aren’t helping so it’s up to the state

Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) is sponsoring the Black Fire Recovery bill. She represents Sierra and Hidalgo counties, some of the areas dealing with fire and flooding damage. She told the full Senate on Monday that the reason the state has to step in to help with these disasters is because there’s no federal aid coming through.

Gov signs $100M bill for disaster recovery and must figure out how to get millions to northern NM

The feds took responsibility for the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire that was started by prescribed burns conducted by the U.S. Forest Service. The cause for the Black Fire is still under investigation.

“Although the U.S. Forest Service didn’t claim ownership for that fire responsibility, it is because of decades of overgrown grass. Our forest lands are not grazed. There’s dense forests,” Diamond said. “This wildfire started in the wilderness and has really devastated much of the Gila.”

Sen. William Burt (R-Alamogordo) is sponsoring the McBride Fire Recovery bill. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been “slow to react” to the disaster..

“That’s what we’re asking for,” Burt said, “is simply the funds to recover from this devastating fire.”

After the McBride Fire, Burt said, there’s damage to water and sewer systems and a need to replace four bridges.

The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the state’s Office of the Attorney General have concerns that these bills could be too vague and don’t lay out specific recovery efforts, according to the legislative fiscal impact reports.

Diamond said Black Fire recovery projects were vetted during the interim legislative session, when many people from affected counties presented to lawmakers about their issues. 

She said what’s been discussed by everyone in the southern part of the state impacted by the Black Fire. Repair work needs to start now on bridges, dams, acequias and ditches.

“Our communities are seeking assistance, much-needed assistance,” Diamond said.


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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.