Debates among New Mexico lawmakers over the best way to use federal relief funds is likely far from over. Last week, the state’s Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) learned that the estimated number of New Mexicans to receive a one time bump in their unemployment benefits will likely be anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 fewer than expected.
During the second special legislative session this year, which took place during the week of Thanksgiving, lawmakers passed a COVID-19 relief bill, allowing the state to use additional federal funds from the CARES Act.
Part of the package that state lawmakers passed allocated $194 million to the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions in order to add a one time supplemental payment of $1,200 to those who qualify for unemployment benefits. Workforce Solutions originally estimated that 140,000 people would qualify for that extra payment. But according to an LFC activity report sent to committee members last week, the department now estimates that 110,000 to 140,000 will qualify for the payment.
Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said his department based the original estimation on how many people qualified for unemployment benefits in June.
“We were saying, ‘Okay, if we have X amount of people get in that match where we were at our height, what would that be? And let’s make sure we have that amount in there,” McCamley said.
Albuquerque resident Iman Andrade got worried when the pandemic began in mid-March. She delivered pizzas for a living earlier this year and the staff making and delivering the pizzas make minimum wage. They came in sick because they had to, she said. “My experience as a worker, as a driver, you don’t get paid enough to get to call into work sick. In the middle of the pandemic, it’s dangerous.
The New Mexico State Legislature passed a COVID-19 relief bill that would provide over $300 million in relief provided by the federal CARES Act in a very short special session that lasted less than eight hours. The bill included $194 million to provide $1,200 for those who qualify for unemployment and lost work because of the pandemic. It also would provide $100 million in grants to local small businesses and nonprofits, with smaller amounts to provide aid for rent and mortgage payments, money for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and vaccine rollout and money for households that did not receive federal stimulus money earlier this year. Update: Lujan Grisham signs COVID-19 relief package into law
The bill ultimately passed with widespread majorities in both the House and Senate, though many legislators voiced concern about the proposal and said they wished they had more input. Only one amendment to the introduced legislation passed, one that would include 501(c)8 organizations to be eligible for funds.
During a weekly news conference with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about COVID-19, the governor covered the usual topics and encouraged people to stay home and wear masks.
But likely the biggest news was that Lujan Grisham has a date planned for a special legislative session.
“I’m happy to announce right now that the special session I will call, will be called for this coming Tuesday right before Thanksgiving,” Lujan Grisham said. “We’ve spent the last several days working with legislators, both chambers, both sides of the aisle, to work on those details.”
Lujan Grisham’s office announced last week that she planned on calling on legislators to meet and arrange for extra financial support for New Mexicans.
During this week’s news conference, Lujan Grisham said she wants to see $300 million from the New Mexico CARES Act go to unemployment benefits, housing grants and grants for small businesses that have been impacted by the public health order.
“We want to get this relief out to New Mexicans. They need unemployment, they need housing assistance and businesses need grants,” Lujan Grisham said. That gives us a day to get the processes well underway on that Wednesday before Thanksgiving so that the Monday when we get back we’re pushing money out the door. It’s critical that we do that.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, New Mexico is also seeing a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases and related deaths.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew like the one now in effect in El Paso could be on the horizon for Albuquerque if the city doesn’t get the coronavirus spread under control. Keller and Dr. Mark DiMenna, a deputy director for the city’s Environmental Health Department, spoke Wednesday during a live teleconference about the increasing rate of virus transmission and actions the city is taking to try to reduce the spread and help local businesses survive. “What we’re seeing in El Paso is what Albuquerque could look like in the next few weeks or months if we don’t get it under control,” Keller said. “Curfews could be on the horizon.”
DiMenna said Albuquerque is seeing new cases “increasing at a faster and faster rate.”
Last week the city had a 4.7 percent positivity rate. This week the city’s positivity rate went up to 8.7 percent, he said.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation on the U.S. Supreme Court Monday creates uncertainty for mixed status and undocumented families, according to experts. Felipe Rodriguez, campaign manager for nonprofit group New Mexico Dream Team, told NM Political Report that Barrett’s confirmation concerned him. Rodriguez pointed to the recent Supreme Court decision in late June which upheld DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and ruled against President Donald Trump. While a victory for migrants and mixed status families, the Trump administration lost by a thin 5-4 margin. Related: SCOTUS DACA decision will help 5,800 New Mexico DACA recipients
“We still have Trump trying to end this program,” Rodriguez said.
The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening the progress the state started to make towards ending its long-time position as 50th in the nation for child well being, according to child advocacy organization New Mexico Voices for Children. Emily Wildau, research and policy analyst for New Mexico Voices for Children’s annual Kids Count data book, said the U.S. census polled Americans using both text and computers from the end of April to the end of July to generate early data on how the nation was faring under the pandemic. Some of that data was available at the state level, she said. New Mexico ranked as the lowest in the nation for child well-being in 2020, according to the Kids Count data book, and has done so for years. Recent policy changes and the increased revenue from the oil boom in the Permian Basin last year brought hope for many child advocates of an improved future, especially for children of color and low-income children in New Mexico.
But according to New Mexico Voices for Children, 51 percent of adults in households with children in New Mexico have lost employment since March.
With classes just a few weeks away, the thousands of students heading to New Mexico’s smaller universities will enter a fall semester like no other. Students will have options – to study remotely from home or inside their dormitory room or, for some, classes in a classroom. Many will be able to do both, mixing both remote learning with some brick-and-mortar instruction. If the students are in a classroom, they will have to wear masks, as will their instructors. The desks will be spaced six feet apart.
A recent survey of 480 Hispanics in the state found that close to half have $1,000 or less in savings and nearly a quarter have $100 or less. The survey from Latino Decisions, in partnership with several other nonprofit organizations, found that 49 percent of Hispanics surveyed have $1,000 or less set aside for emergencies and 24 percent have $100 or less in savings. In addition, 48 percent have had their hours or pay cut since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of 45 elected officials, including some from the state’s three largest cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces as well as other cities and counties around the state, signed a letter sent to New Mexico’s congressional leadership Tuesday asking that all residents, regardless of immigration status, be included in the next federal relief bill. Migrants and refugees who lack social security numbers were left out of the federal relief CARES Act in late March.
Just as the New Mexico Legislature passes a new budget that will cut 0.6 percent out of the school budget for the next fiscal year, a newly released report shows that New Mexico is, again, at the bottom for child well being. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropic organization focused on children, released its annual report this week on child well being and ranked New Mexico as 50th in the nation. James Jimenez, executive director for the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, said New Mexico has ranked near the bottom for “a very long time,” but came to the lowest ranking in 2013 and has been there “for a few years.”
“It’s a reflection of the fact that despite what people say, that kids are our most precious asset, it’s not true in the way we invest our money in state and local government,” Jimenez said. Last week the state passed a revised state budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 that will cut 0.6 percent from the school budget despite cries from some school superintendents and advocates that this will be detrimental and will put the state in a position where it cannot live up to the requirements of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, which said the state did not provide adequate education for students. Related: Superintendents: Proposed cuts to education will worsen racial and economic inequity
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to sign the solvency budget, though she can veto by line-item.