The Gila National Forest after the Black Fire in July 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
While New Mexicans recovering from last year’s disasters try to keep up their livelihoods, afford food for dinner or get running water, it’s up to the governor now to determine how much recovery funds should be sent to victims and struggling communities.
Lawmakers approved two budget bills on Wednesday, sending both over to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Senators passed the capital outlay project funds bill by a vote of 27-13, and representatives concurred with changes made to the General Appropriations Act of 2023.
Once signed, the state will be working with a record-breaking $9.57 billion budget.
Tucked into both pieces of budget legislation are measures to help communities hit by disasters in 2022.
Southern New Mexico experienced the second-largest wildfire in state history and disastrous flooding afterward. It tore apart communities in and around the Gila National Forest, areas that are still attempting to recover. Grant and Sierra counties have been slogging through a long process to get state financial assistance for months.
Sens. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) and Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) represent the affected communities, and introduced legislation last month that would send $3 million to those disaster victims.
The 2023 budget passed by lawmakers knocked that down to $2 million.
Diamond pointed out at a Senate Finance meeting on Saturday that the budget would also set aside $1 million for a telescope at the University of New Mexico. She questioned why that’s going through when nobody even introduced legislation for that, and her disaster funds are being cut by $1 million.
“So there wasn’t a bill request to put the million dollar telescope in, but there was a bill that was passing through it for the Black Fire, and that was reduced from $3 million to $2 million,” she said.
During Wednesday’s Senate floor debate, Diamond said there are also priority issues in the capital outlay project bill. She said Truth or Consequences has a water infrastructure crisis ongoing in the city, and a $20 million request to alleviate the situation isn’t going through.
The only funding in House Bill 505 specified for Truth or Consequences would go toward an animal shelter and senior center. There’s no funding set aside for the water issues Diamond mentioned.
“We have certainly ignored critical water infrastructure needs in some of more remote counties,” Diamond said.
A few hundred miles east of Diamond’s district, other counties are also trying to come back from disaster. The McBride Fire hit Ruidoso in Lincoln County last year, too, and lawmakers wanted to get over $18 million in recovery funds to their struggling counties.
The general appropriations bill took that down to $5 million.
The county would also get $1.8 million to repair flood-damaged roads, bridges and infrastructure, including sewer systems, under the capital outlay bill.
That capital outlay legislation doesn’t set aside anything similar for Black Fire-affected counties, although there would be around $15 million for flood mitigation and control in other parts of the state.
Northern counties recovering from the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state, already have state dollars set aside for them. The governor signed legislation into law back in February, allocating $100 million for local governments and counties to repair damage. That money is a loan the state expects to be repaid by billions in federal relief aid.
That legislation was unique because it didn’t directly tie into the budget bills, like a majority of other measures do. It was one of the first bills Lujan Grisham signed this year.
There are still some holes.
That money can only go to political subdivisions, which leaves some unanswered questions on how acequias can afford to fully recover.
Without those systems to irrigate crops, farmers and ranchers in southern and northern New Mexico are largely left without a source of income.
There could be some relief in the capital outlay bill for those disaster-wrecked systems.
The capital outlay legislation lays out general funds for acequia and irrigation associations across the state, including those that are still trying to recover from last year’s massive fires and floods.
Funding ranges from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars for specific acequia associations. One water project in Las Vegas has over $1 million allocated.
There’s also just over $5 million set aside for acequias statewide.
In that bill, there is only specific disaster recovery repair language for one acequia association in the budget — Madre de Holman in Mora County. The language in the bill specifies that work can be done “to plan, design and construct improvements to the acequia Madre de Holman, including disaster recovery repair.”
Other acequias aren’t singled out with that explicit language, but dollars allocated could potentially also go toward similar disaster work.
When lawmakers have discussed the budget bills over the past week in committee and on the House and Senate floors, there have been very few discussions about how the state dollars will help disaster-affected communities.
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