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New Mexico governor calls for $1,200 payment to unemployed

 (AP) — New Mexico’s governor is calling for $1,200 cash payments to workers who have qualified for unemployment since the pandemic began.

New Mexico lawmakers were drafting legislation Monday aimed at providing about $300 million in direct economic aid for the unemployed, small businesses, and emergency housing subsidies. They’re set to meet Tuesday in a special session in hopes of delivering an emergency aid package before Thanksgiving.

“I am grateful for the Legislature’s willingness to take up this urgently needed relief package on behalf of all New Mexicans,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “And I am optimistic lawmakers will come together in a bipartisan fashion to expeditiously approve these assistance programs.”

The proposals, which include everything from providing $5 million to food banks to $15 million in emergency housing aid, are aimed at providing a jolt of relief to a state economy reeling from a surge in pandemic infections and deaths. A renewed stay-at-home order has halted in-person activity at nonessential businesses through at least Nov. 30 and limits capacity at grocery stores, drug stores, and hardware stores.

The statewide unemployment rate was 8.1% in October, well above the 6.9% national rate. New Mexico depleted its unemployment insurance fund in September and has begun borrowing money from the federal government to fulfill claims to residents who have lost their jobs.

The proposed one-time $1,200, equal to the amount distributed by the federal government earlier this year, would go to a broad swath of workers put out of work by the pandemic this year. Under the governor’s proposal, it would be given to those currently on unemployment as well as workers whose unemployment has run out since applying in March.

If approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Lujan Grisham, the stimulus checks could be sent out by the end of the year, says Department of Workforce Solutions spokeswoman Stacy Johnson.

“It would be probably closer to mid to late December when they would actually see that payment,” Johnson said.

Around 130,000 workers are on some form of federal or state unemployment right now, with many set to lose benefits in December. The number of people who have already lost benefits was not immediately available.

The governor is also calling for $100 million in direct grants to small businesses that would not have to be repaid. Low-interest loans were offered to businesses during the legislative session after lawmakers concluded that they couldn’t legally give out direct payments.

Lawmakers say the proposed spending will be made possible by federal relief previously assigned to New Mexico. But ambitious relief efforts could have implications for state financial reserves, which may be needed later to prop up spending on basic services from public education to prisons during the economic downturn.

At least $10 million in proposed funding for expanded COVID-19 testing and contact tracing would not come from CARES Act funding, because spending would occur after a year-end deadline.

The Statehouse will be closed to the public as a precaution against virus transmission, with some lawmakers participating remotely. Webcasts are scheduled for floor debates and possible committee hearings in the Democratic-led Legislature.

“There is no way to have members of the public safety in the Capitol building,” Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said. “It is impossible at this point.”

Lawmakers are considering approving spending on vaccine storage and distribution infrastructure. Republicans in the House minority also are interested in approving spending to shore up testing capacity and speed up test results.

New Mexico is among four states selected by drugmaker Pfizer for a pilot program to refine its plans for deploying a COVID-19 vaccine before it receives authorization from federal regulators.

More than $1 billion in federal relief funds have shored up New Mexico’s finances, with $750 million assigned to the state general fund during a June special session.

Lujan Grisham’s administration allocated $178 million to city, county, and tribal governments and related small-business grants. Local governments are racing against a Dec. 30 deadline to get the money into their communities.

“Unless local governments are more effective in using these funds before the deadline, the state will have to revert the unused money back to the federal government,” said Henry Valdez, a spokesman for the Finance and Administration Department. “The federal government can then redistribute New Mexico’s funds to other states, and many New Mexico communities, businesses, and individuals will miss out on much-needed aid during this pandemic.”

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.