March 19, 2020

Guv says preparation, COVID-19 focus needed before special session

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signaled in a letter to legislative leaders Thursday that there will be a special session to deal with the budget situation from plunging oil and gas prices and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But first, Lujan Grisham said she wants new revenue projections, including a sense of what sort of federal aid will be provided to states as the country is gripped and increasingly shut down by the virus.

House Republican leadership sent a letter to the governor on Thursday calling for a special session to adjust the budget. And Senate Finance Committee chairman John Arthur Smith told the Albuquerque Journal the state could be facing a billion dollar loss in revenue because of oil and gas prices.

But Lujan Grisham said in a letter that her focus is currently on stemming the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they need more time to fully assess the economic impacts.

“My entire administration recognizes that we are in the midst of an unprecedented and critical public health crisis,” she wrote. “As you would expect, our attention is focused, first and foremost, on addressing the public health aspects of the emergency.”

She mentioned that she is in “daily communication with hospitals and other providers” in anticipation of a surge in hospitalizations related to COVID-19, as has occurred in other states and countries that have been hard-hit by the disease, caused by a coronavirus.

In their letter to the governor, Republicans said a special session is necessary because of the state’s budget situation.

“The double-edged sword of the actions taken to protect New Mexicans from COVID-19 and rapidly declining oil prices are increasing economic uncertainty across our state; not to mention the devastating impact on state government as revenues are plummeting,” the Republican leadership wrote. 

Oil and gas prices are plummeting worldwide for a number of reasons, including the reduction in worldwide demand because of COVID-19 and an increase in supply from Saudi Arabia, which can still be more profitable with lower prices than production in the Permian Basin.

The Republicans’ letter said they believed that options “on the table” for a special session should include keeping spending at 2020 levels “until new revenue estimates can be established,” rolling back funds and programs that didn’t exist in previous budgets and allowing tax filers ninety extra days to pay state taxes without penalty or interest.

Lujan Grisham said she has also been in contact with legislative leadership and staff to discuss  how they might be able to hold a special session without having “simultaneous, in person participation of every member.” 

The governor has banned gatherings of more than ten people in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Already, 35 people have tested positive for the disease in the state.