January 27, 2023

From Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

A bill that would provide interest-free loans to counties, cities and townships struggling to pay for damage caused during the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire is scheduled to have its first hearing Tuesday.

Senate Bill 6 would provide $100 million in credit — money that one of its sponsors says is badly needed while expected federal funds make their way into the fire zone.

With the prospect of renewed flooding when the winter snows melt this spring, there is an especially urgent need to channel state funds to counties and small towns, said Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, co-sponsor of the bill.

“We’re going to have a drain in the spring — that needs to be addressed,” Campos said in an interview. “We will do our best to provide these facilities with resources as soon as possible.”

Campos said while the Federal Emergency Management Agency — tasked with managing nearly $4 billion in federal assistance to fire-charred New Mexico communities — is doing its best to get its claims offices on the ground in New Mexico up and running bring, he noted that it was unlikely that federal funds would be available “in a timely manner.”

The goal, he said, is to get immediate government aid to local communities to help them in the meantime.

The bipartite bill requires the state Treasury and Administration Department to run the program and distribute the money to applicants. The legislation says the money can be used for infrastructure “damaged by fire, flood or debris flows”.

The funds are aimed solely at infrastructure needs, Campos said. He gave possible examples: $5 million for a water treatment plant in Mora County, $10 million for roads, bridges and fences in Las Vegas.

Campos said state funding would go to projects that FEMA has indicated will fall under federal guidelines.

As such, he said it’s possible that FEMA funds eventually approved for some of the state-funded infrastructure projects could be used to pay back the loans, freeing local communities from having to foot the bill.

The money will not be used for salaries, including overtime, for government employees or contractors who worked on disaster relief efforts in the fire area, Campos said.

He said the bill could be amended and replaced during the session as lawmakers continue to “work it out.”

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon fire, the largest in New Mexico history, burned more than 341,000 acres in the mountains northwest of Las Vegas, NM as well as the floods in summer.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in her state of the state address last week that she wants to get $100 million to these communities as soon as possible.

Campos said that if the bill passes both the House and Senate during the 60-day legislative session, it would go into effect 60 days after Lujan Grisham signed it. The allocation of funds would be good for fiscal years 2023 and 2024.

Rep. Joseph Sanchez, D-Alcalde, said the people and regions affected by the blaze were grappling with its aftermath.

“For me, we need immediate help. It’s way too late,” said Sanchez, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

Another co-sponsor, Rep. Ambrose Castellano, D-Las Vegas, said the loans could give communities “a foothold to begin restoring what has been lost.”

The bill does not provide details on how the loan applications would be reviewed or approved. It also does not contain any other conditions, including a schedule, for repayment.

Campos said the state must be flexible when it comes to repayment procedures based on the needs of the community in question.

While the loans aren’t available to the public — the individual rancher, farmer or landowner who has lost structures, material assets, livestock or forestry — Campos said he and other lawmakers are looking at ways to help them directly, even ahead of the session ends in mid-March.

The Senate Conservation Committee, scheduled to meet at 9:00 a.m. Tuesday, plans to consider SB 6. In that regard, the committee also plans to hear Senate Bill 21, introduced by Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, which would ban mandatory cremations by government agencies between March 1 and May 31 — typically a dry, windy season in New Zealand Mexico before the summer monsoon.

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