Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham outlined a slate of initiatives Wednesday that may be on the agenda for the upcoming legislative session in addition to the expected efforts to shore up state finances amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
A number of potential bills would be aimed at helping New Mexico residents cope with the economic impact of COVID-19, ranging from providing loans for businesses to giving tax relief. Other measures could help streamline the state’s ability to conduct the November general election should the pandemic still be in effect.
“The message I’ve given to the Legislature is we need to be in there for a limited amount of time, where we come out of there solvent with a mind and attention toward addressing some significant problems that local governments, tribal governments and New Mexicans are facing,” Lujan Grisham said during a videoconference call with reporters.
The potential measures would be taken up along with the special session’s main event: fixing a revenue shortfall of around $2 billion for fiscal year 2021 caused by falling tax revenue and lower oil prices since the coronavirus outbreak began. Lujan Grisham noted her office is still negotiating with legislators on the measures.
The governor said there is “general positive movement and agreement” between her administration and legislators on an effort that would use nearly $500 million from the state’s Severance Tax Permanent Fund to bolster local economic development, potentially offering low-interest loans to businesses in the state.
“There are businesses that are still going to be really stretched by that, so we’re still open to ideas,” she said.
The New Mexican reported June 4 that legislators were drafting a bill that would use a similar amount from that fund to offer loans to some 5,000 small businesses as well as providing relief for tenants who can’t afford their rent payments. Lujan Grisham did not specify whether she was referring to the same bill.
Another potential economic relief bill would allow New Mexicans to lessen their tax liabilities, Lujan Grisham said.
The governor did not give additional details on the tax effort, but legislators have said they might propose to forgive penalties and interest for small businesses that are delayed in submitting gross receipts taxes. Penalties and interest also could be waived for people delayed on paying property taxes and personal income taxes, House Speaker Brian Egolf said last week.
Additional legislation could aim to help businesses better adapt to public health restrictions should there be a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, the governor said. That might involve allowing curbside pickup and delivery at certain businesses that are now prohibited from offering the service, she said.
Egolf has said legislators could seek to change state law to allow restaurants to sell alcohol through takeout and delivery, which currently is not allowed, in a bid to help them boost sales during the pandemic.
Turning to electoral matters, the governor said she was looking at several options aimed at smoothing out the voting process for the upcoming general election, after county clerks were overwhelmed by the huge volume of absentee ballots they received during the primary election this month.
“I’m feeling very positive about having an elections emergency component in the special session,” she said. “I’m seeing the right kind of responses out of the Senate and the House. It’s something that I care about. I think it’s necessary.”
One measure could extend the time limit for clerks to process absentee ballots, while another could provide for “an emergency mail-in election system just related to COVID” and limited to November’s election, the governor said. Or, the governor could propose a “hybrid” of those two options, she said.
“New Mexicans should expect that we will have something together that can get final shaping in the special session that I would be prepared to sign,” Lujan Grisham said.
Despite the potential additional measures, the governor said she was aiming to not overload the agenda for the special session to ensure legislators can pass the needed changes to the budget.
“If we can hold that to a pretty narrow framework, I think we can get out of the special session without the kind of division that can often happen when you’re pushing legislators,” she said.
The governor also noted that lawmakers won’t be able to operate in the same manner they normally do during sessions, given they will be maintaining social-distancing measures.
“I’ve been careful — and so have they — not to try to load up the special session,” she added.