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New Mexico Governor On Passing $330 Million Relief Bill In Her State

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's impossible to separate America's health crisis from the economic crisis. The longer hospitals are full of coronavirus patients, the longer businesses have to stay closed. New figures out today show that last month, employers in the U.S. hired far fewer people than economists expected. And still, Congress can't agree on a relief package. Some states are not waiting for the federal government. In New Mexico, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass a $330 million relief program. The state's Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, is also on President-elect Biden's transition team, and she joins us now. Welcome.

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM: Thank you very much for having me. I'm delighted to be on the program.

SHAPIRO: With so many pressing needs in your state, how did you prioritize what should be included in this coronavirus relief package?

LUJAN GRISHAM: It wasn't actually that challenging - right? - because what we know is that people don't have money coming in because they're not working in addition to paying your basic bills and rent - that that leaves very little room for food - so dealing with food security issues. In addition, we want to make sure we should really do separate funding for housing and small businesses. So we really focused on what made the biggest difference early in the pandemic from the congressional stimulus and followed many of those appropriation aspects. And we believe unequivocally they're really going to pay off.

SHAPIRO: Interesting - so you took lessons learned from the first round of federal stimulus. It's $1,200 checks to individuals, up to $50,000 for small businesses, totaling 330 million, as we said. Does the state have that money? I mean, what is this going to do financially to New Mexico?

LUJAN GRISHAM: Well, I certainly want to make clear that New Mexico, along with every other state, is still pleading with Congress to get a stimulus package passed. We have to have money back into our unemployment programs. We know that folks are exhausting their benefits. They're on a cliff at the end of December. Even with the initial vaccine distributions, we are preparing for the worst of COVID-19. We can't wait any longer. So clearly, it has an impact, and it minimizes our ability to deal with other shortfalls in our next regular session in January.

But you can't let your constituents worry about whether they can pay their mortgage or put food on the table. You can't make decisions about blunting the growth of COVID and impacting small businesses and then just walk away. So New Mexico, because of our energy economy, had real opportunities to put a ton of money away, and I did that. And it's given us that opportunity to borrow from one area and put it into the hands of the families who need it most right now. So I'm actually not panicked about what happens in '21, but it does create less stability for us to continue to figure out what we do given the economic calamities tied to this pandemic.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think Republicans and Democrats were able to agree on a package in New Mexico when they have not been able to agree at the federal level in Congress?

LUJAN GRISHAM: Well, I will tell you that takes leadership from the White House. If you've got questions in the White House and you didn't make that a priority, it gave too much, I think, political leverage to folks who maybe don't think that they ought to be giving money to states. There's been a lot of questions about how states spend that money. It's really been ridiculous.

SHAPIRO: Governor, if I could ask you about a different but related topic...

LUJAN GRISHAM: Sure.

SHAPIRO: There are some conflicting reports about whether you would join Biden's Cabinet, perhaps as secretary of Health and Human Services. And I know that any announcement would come from the transition team, but whoever is HHS secretary will be at the tip of the spear in fighting this pandemic. If you were given that opportunity, how would you approach the challenge?

LUJAN GRISHAM: In much the same way that I've done in New Mexico. Your eye on the prize is making sure that you're saving lives. And to do that, you really have to figure out what public health practices keep the virus from spreading as rapidly. And states really have to decide that. You don't mandate nationally that they all do that. Each reset should be unique to the circumstances - right? - the positivity rates, the R (ph) effective factor - so that rate of infection. You know, every state has their gating criteria. You really have to lean in, and I would lean in regionally. I think that's been a big missed opportunity because we have folks who commute between Arizona and Texas and New Mexico. So you have to think about that because what happens in Arizona and Texas then immediately happens in New Mexico.

Now, the second thing I would do is I would really focus on the vaccine distribution - that there's not going to be any hiccups. And that's a tall order. Even in flu vaccine, every year there's a hiccup. And with extreme cold storage and limited doses in those tranches each time, you're really going to have to make sure that states have the resources and the leadership at the federal level to do that effectively.

And then you have to think beyond COVID. Rebuild your public health system. You're going to have to rebuild health care and hospital capacity. And we need, once and for all in this country, to unequivocally deal with the fact that we have a health care access disparity problem. We've always had it, and this is the time in which this country must fix those access points. It shouldn't have been any surprise to anyone that African American, Latino, Hispanic communities, Asian American communities, tribal members from sovereign nations have been hit hardest in this pandemic. It's because they don't have adequate health care access and supports to start with. That must be fixed.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us about your role in the transition? Are you speaking to the Biden team primarily as a governor, as somebody who is a Latina voice, as someone who is dealing with the coronavirus? What is your role?

LUJAN GRISHAM: I think it's all three. I get to participate from what I'm learning and doing on the ground as a governor. I can be another minority voice about what some of these gaps are and what we need to do to close them. And I get to weigh in and help navigate making sure that we are identifying the talent that exists in this country willing and able to support the Biden-Harris administration so that we are completely successful in this country.

SHAPIRO: That's New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. Thank you so much for joining us.

LUJAN GRISHAM: You are very welcome. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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