District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler chats with a constituent by phone during the COVID-19 quarantine. Courtesy Photo
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
With the primary elections over, June 18, the start date chosen by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for a special session of the state legislature is just around the corner. The Los Alamos Reporter chatted this week with District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler about what she expects to see during the special session.
Chandler said there seems to be some expectation that there will be a major revision of the state budget, but that she doesn’t think that’s likely.
“I think the approach we will be taking is progressive steps, because we really don’t know at this point what our budget is. So let’s step back a little bit. We know we passed a budget that was at $7.6 billion. The reserves that we have in place are over 26 percent, which is about $2 billion that we have access to in order to help narrow our funding gap,” she said.
Chandler noted that oil and gas dropped precipitously in March and April but that right now it’s a $35 a barrel.
“That’s not good and that’s not where it needs to be but what we see is it’s improving. If we had relied on the $0 a barrel, we would be in a different situation. So that’s a fluid situation that we’re all concerned about and will be on top of but we can’t bank on it in terms of planning at this point in time,” she said.
Chandler said legislators also know the state will be getting money from the federal government but doesn’t know how much.
“Congress passed a bill that would potentially allow access to $1 billion for New Mexico. There are currently restrictions on that money but our delegation and others are working to have those restrictions released,” she said. “So what we know is we passed a budget with very healthy reserves. We’re going to rely on those reserves to make up the budget shortfall for sure. We might readjust some of our spending priorities and cut spending but I don’t think people should assume that it’s going to be draconian at this point in time during the special session.”
Chandler said right now a shortfall for FY2020 of about $400 million is projected but that’s a fluid thing too, based on where the oil and gas revenues are at.
“That’s a very manageable number. We’re projecting potentially pretty significant shortfalls in FY2021 but again, we don’t know what level of funding we’re going to get from the federal government yet and again oil and gas is fluid,” she said. “So we will be adjusting the FY2021 spending and making it up through the 26 percent reserves and some other things. “
Chandler said she does not anticipate broad, sweeping changes during the special session.
“There will be adjustments because we went to be very careful as we go into the regular session in January not to take steps based on information that’s ever-changing. My sense is that we’re going to be very careful about how much we adjust the budget without having adequate information. We need to address the FY2020 deficit for sure and make some adjustments to soften the deficit we’re expecting in FY2021,” she said.
She noted that there’s discussion about trying to provide some economic initiatives for businesses that are hurting that have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and that people are actively looking at ways to access probably the severance tax fund.
“There’s been some discussion of the permanent fund but that’s a difficult fund to access because we would probably need a Constitutional amendment to do that, but right now there’s some analysis being done to look at severance tax fund as a source of perhaps very low interest loans or economic incentives or support for the businesses that were impacted by the COVID-19 crisis,” Chandler said.
She thinks the agenda at the special session will be fairly narrow with the aim of looking at broader legislation, broader budget activity in January and February of 2021.
Los Alamos small businesses are negatively impacted by COVID-19, Chandler noted. She said they have the potential to benefit from any stimulus or economic package that the legislature puts together in June.
“Of course we will look at additional packages in January, February and March 2021 timeframe. Our local businesses will benefit from the general type legislation,” she said.
She noted that Los Alamos National Laboratory is in good shape, happily but that many communities do not have the advantage of having a strong federally-funded facility that has only been impacted in the slightest way.
“People are very fortunate to continue to be employed, to be able to continue to work at the Lab and at a number of our local governmental agencies. We should be in reasonably good shape except for our small businesses that are in the same place as small businesses in other communities. And they’ll benefit from whatever packet we’re able to put together,” Chandler said.
Addressing the outlying areas of District 43, she said Cuba is her poorest area and that of course her constituents there are hard hit not just because of the financial issues with their small businesses but also because they are at the Navajo Nation.
“A lot of Native Americans come into Cuba for support services so Cuba has been impacted both economically and by virtue of the COVID illness being present in Indian Country. So that’s a heavy lift for them,” she said.
Chandler also noted that Jemez Springs has been heavily impacted in two ways, one being that tourism, which is an economic driver in Jemez Springs, has been severely limited because of the quarantine, self- isolation and so on.
She noted a second impact involving the huge influx of people into the Jemez Mountains on the weekends.
“Many people have not been respectful of the forest. I appreciate the fact that they’re feeling claustrophobic especially if they live in the Albuquerque or the urban areas of our state, but what they’re doing is they’re overriding the land,” Chandler said. “They’re littering and there’s a huge amount of traffic. And people are not observing the speed limits. The mayor has expressed concern about reckless driving through Jemez Springs.”
She noted that the portion of Santa Fe County that is District 43 has some financial issues they’re going to be struggling with because of the drop in gross receipts tax. She said the small piece of Rio Arriba County that lies in District 43 does not have much economic activity but they’ve been hit because some of the residents have had their jobs impacted.
Chandler has been busy since the COVID-19 emergency provisions were set in place. She has spent a great deal of time researching issues for constituents, especially small businesses suffering from the economic impact of the crisis.
“I encourage people to continue to email me if they have questions about the governor’s orders or need some assistance with unemployment. I’ve had a lot of questions about drivers’ licenses. All these are things that I have been able to help people get the answers to. I’m happy if people would contact me at my legislative address and fill me in. I’m always open to hearing suggestions,” she said.
Looking back at the last two years of the legislature, Chandler said during her first term, legislators were all working very hard to turn around the state educational system and to improve social services
“I think we have to be mindful when we start talking about budget adjustments and cuts if necessary that we try to protect the advances that we have made in the areas of education and healthcare and other social services,” she said. “I think we don’t want to start backsliding now. The whole point of improving our education system is to improve our economy in the state. Long-term, a strong education system will lead to a strong economy and if we undercut that now, we’re just undercutting our long-term success as a state. We need to be very mindful of that and be very cautious.”