December 12, 2021

Senate committee tables bill to appropriate $335 million in relief funds on public health

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

The Senate Finance Committee tabled a bill request to spend $335 million of the $1.1 billion in America Rescue Plan Act money to the state on public health issues on a 6 to 1 vote, but committee members advised the bill sponsors to bring the bill back to the regular session.

Sponsored by state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the bill, SB 9, would establish a school of public health at the University of New Mexico by appropriating $50 million to the UNM Board of Regents to build a school of public health facility at the UNM Health Sciences Center on campus.

State Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, who is a co-sponsor, said a “center of excellence” school of public health would attract top researchers who would bring grant money with them and that, with student enrollment, would largely enable the school to pay for itself.

Other money would go to pay for equipment to help with cancer treatment; expand behavioral health services statewide, expand nursing faculty and pay for the salaries and operational budget of the projected school of public health.

An additional $10 million would go to the Department of Health to work with UNM on providing obstetric care in Las Vegas and Gallup. Another $10 million would provide perinatal care across the state.

Ortiz y Pino said he wanted to see a more “transformative” use of the one-time ARPA funding.

“We had hoped this opportunity to ARPA money might be an opportunity to make some major innovations in the state,” he said.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said that when the legislative body saw HB 2, which appropriates some ARPA funds to agencies for immediate expenditure, “we were all a little disappointed.”

“HB 2 looks like a typical capital outlay vetted by the LFC. I’m not critical of their assessment. We’re taking this one time opportunity for transformative levels of money and do road projects and other projects we’re accustomed to seemed like a potentially squandered opportunity,” Cervantes said.

Several of the committee members spoke at length about the need for supporting public health in the state, but some expressed concern about the timing of the bill and suggested the sponsors bring it back in the regular session.

Other concerns raised included that so much of the appropriation would go to the University of New Mexico and not to New Mexico State University or that the appropriation would not be disbursed more broadly across the state.

Dr. Tracie Collins, former Department of Health Secretary and a dean of the UNM Population Health, said the bill “does include NMSU.” 

Hickey said the larger idea behind the bill was that UNM would collaborate with NMSU and Eastern New Mexico University and Western New Mexico University. But, Hickey said he had not had the chance to reach out to either ENMU or WNMU about the idea. He did not make it clear if NMSU had been approached.

State Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said he’d like to know if the UNM Board of Regents were asking for this program.

“I think this is a little premature. I don’t think we have to act on this right now. You gave us a good idea. I can’t support it at this time. I think we need to bring it forward a little more,” he said.

State Sens. Jacob Candelaria, of Albuquerque, Robert Gonzales, of Ranchos de Taos, Siah Correa Hemphill, of Silver City, all Democrats, and state Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, were absent. State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, was the only no vote.