New Mexico Senate passes broadband, highway spending bill

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico state Senate voted Friday in favor of a spending plan for $478 million in federal pandemic relief to expand highways, internet infrastructure, electric vehicles and oil field cleanup efforts.

Included in the bill is $133 million in spending on internet projects, including “alternative broadband” using emerging technologies like wireless towers, blimps and new satellite internet networks.

The sparsely populated rural state has struggled for years to dig the trenches and lay the fiber optic cable necessary to expand internet access. The issue was pushed to the forefront during the pandemic, when poor internet access led to inequalities in online education and healthcare access.

Legislators hope that an influx in federal funding and the creation of a dedicated state broadband office will help accelerate internet connectivity efforts, especially in rural communities.

While students are now back to school in person, they’re still expected to attend virtual classes when there’s bad weather, or if they’re quarantined due to a COVID-19 exposure even though thousands of children lack access to quality internet, according to a fall state Public Education Department.

“There’s no such thing as a snow day anymore,” said bill sponsor Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup, in northwestern New Mexico.

The state Senate voted 36-4 in favor of the bill, returning it to the House to approve recent amendments. The measure is expected to pass and preserves priorities added by the House, including $2 million for teacher loan repayment and $50 million for a rural hospital.

The money would come from the some $1 billion in federal funds the state legislature is working to allocate after the state supreme court ruled last month that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had no right to allocate the funds herself. The Legislature is on track to put around half of that money in the general fund, allowing it to allocate the money next year.

Lujan Grisham has urged the Legislature to move quickly on pandemic aid spending.

The Democratic governor had vetoed Legislature allocations of the federal pandemic relief funds this spring, sparking a rare public dispute between her and the Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate. The Legislature sued and ultimately won their argument in court that the Legislature has the power of the purse, even when the money comes from federal funding.