New Mexico is one step closer to seeing its share of a massive $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate Wednesday night.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., told reporters on a call Thursday morning he’s fighting for the aid money to arrive in the state as soon as possible to help residents stay afloat as the economy sinks into a recession and unemployment numbers soar to record highs amid the coronavirus crisis.
He and other Senate Democrats fought for significant oversight measures to ensure the money goes where it may be most needed, Heinrich added.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also praised the Senate passage, along with U.S. House representatives from New Mexico, who say they will soon delve into the details of the legislation.
The enormous aid package — the equivalent of about half the federal government’s annual budget — is expected to win House approval Friday.
“Our nation has not seen this level of economic disruption since at least the Great Depression,” Heinrich said. “And last week, we saw more New Mexicans apply for unemployment than at any time” since the last recession.
“All of the substantive negotiations have brought us to a place where we are gonna be able to deliver a lot more help to the New Mexicans who need it.”
It is difficult to know at this point how much money New Mexico and its residents may receive because some of the funding is based on need, a portion will be paid directly to individuals and other funding may depend on which businesses apply for loans, and how much assistance local governments, counties and states seek.
Heinrich said the package allows for a “game-changing expansion” of unemployment insurance, increasing the maximum benefit by $600 per week and extending it to four months of full pay for workers who already have been laid off or may be in the coming weeks.
Nationally, 3.3 million Americans sought unemployment benefits last week — close to five times the previous national mark.
New Mexico and the nation are reeling from the economic repercussions of coronavirus-prevention efforts. The true financial toll is unknown as the country braces for a potential surge in cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The GOP, including the Republican Party of New Mexico, has criticized the coronavirus aid package for offering too much in unemployment benefits. State party Chairman Steve Pearce said it offers an incentive for people to stay on unemployment.
Pearce also criticized the delay in the Senate this week as Democrats negotiated with Republicans, and he bashed the inclusion of funding for same-day voter registration and airlines.
“This stimulus package is about saving lives and rescuing our country which is on the brink of economic destruction,” Pearce said in a statement. “Republicans understand this and are addressing people and their jobs. For Democrats to hold people hostage on this emergency relief bill to get their projects and special interests included is not acceptable.”
With scores of people already laid off or on furlough as restaurants have moved to takeout only, and most retailers and a range of other businesses have been required to close, unemployment insurance will be extended for the first time to part-time, self-employed and gig economy workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers, Heinrich said.
Furloughed workers also will be able to receive unemployment benefits, and many adults will receive a $1,200 check, with additional payments for households with children.
Heinrich said the fight against the virus “will be probably the greatest challenge of our generation.”
The package includes $1.25 billion in reimbursements for coronavirus response efforts to state and local governments in New Mexico, $100 billion to help hospitals prepare for a potential influx of COVID-19 patients, and $377 billion in low-cost loans and grants for struggling small businesses across the nation.
It also includes $260 billion to beef up unemployment benefits, for which “we’ve already seen unprecedented applications, and we’re going to scale that up very quickly at the state level,” Heinrich said.
New Mexico will receive a portion of a $400 million fund to increase voting by mail, expand early voting and online registration, and boost the number of voting facilities and poll workers, according to Senate Democrats’ summary of the legislation.
The stimulus package includes $150 billion to help community health centers, Veterans Affairs hospitals and the Indian Health Service, along with $8 billion in aid to tribal governments across the country.
Udall said in a separate call with reporters Thursday that the aid is the first step in making sure states and local communities are prepared for the pandemic. The Senate is already beginning to work on another aid package, he added.
“While this is a major and important step forward, it can’t be the end,” Udall said.
“We’re all worried how long this will last and what the impacts on our health care system and our people will be, but I’m inspired by what I see in our community and what they are doing, and I’m not gonna stop fighting for New Mexico,” the outgoing senator continued. “We will get through this crisis together.”
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, meanwhile, is engaged in negotiations “to ensure local, state and tribal governments are supported as they address COVID-19 and mitigate the impacts of this public health crisis,” said Adán Serna, a spokesperson for Luján.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland said in a statement “there are many things we can be proud of in this bill.” She said she will be reviewing it to ensure it “includes priorities for New Mexico families and communities, and that corporate executives are held accountable for any assistance that comes their way.”
When asked for a response to President Donald Trump’s proclamation that the nation could return to normal by Easter, Heinrich urged people to listen to public health professionals and scientists who have said the pandemic and prevention efforts likely will not be over in a few weeks.
“We all want to return to normal. No one is enjoying what we’re all going through right now. We do not want to be Italy, and right now that is the trajectory that we’re on,” Heinrich said.