A panel of lawmakers has endorsed 17 bills that include proposals meant to improve access to health care in rural New Mexico and make it easier for medical students to pay off debt if they agree to practice in less populated areas.

The interim Health and Human Services Committee voted to endorse the laundry list of bills this week at the end of a daylong committee meeting.

The bills still have to go through the entire legislative process if they are to become law. That includes passing through House and Senate committees, passing the full House and Senate and then a signature from the governor.

But an endorsement from the interim panel means the proposals can hit the ground running when the Legislature meets in January, and are some of the earliest pieces of legislation to surface ahead of the 2021 session.

Taken together, the committee endorsed legislation that asks for more than $2.9 million in cumulative direct appropriations from the state’s general fund.

That could be a heavy lift at a time when the state is eying a $991 million deficit because of declining oil and gas revenues and less income from gross receipts tax and tourism due to the pandemic.

The $2.9 million figure also is only a tally of direct expenditures from the general fund endorsed by the committee.

It does not include various tax credit proposals for health care professionals and the proposed loan repayment program — measures that were endorsed this week by the interim committee but have not yet been through a 2021 legislative fiscal analysis, so the total cost is unknown.

Those proposals could receive heavy scrutiny from House Appropriations and Finance Chairwoman Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, who has already expressed skepticism over the state’s existing tax credits, which total about $1 billion a year according to an analysis from economists for the Legislative Finance Committee.

Measures that call for direct appropriations range from funding for the training of “family-friendly workplace programs,” to a requirement that the Aging and Long-Term Services Department buy only New Mexico-grown fruits and vegetables, to half a million dollars to create a registry for people who have been diagnosed with human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer, among a slew of other funding requests.

Much of the legislation attempts to address problems that have surfaced or worsened during the pandemic, including access to medical care.

Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, a member of the interim committee, thanked other panel members Thursday for bringing up legislation that “tried to keep a focus on what was most relevant, particularly as it relates to being in the middle of a pandemic.”

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