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New Mexico lawmakers advance bill to fund response to climate change, extreme weather

A bill addressing climate change in New Mexico with the expenditure of millions of state funds passed out of its first committee Monday on a 7-2 vote by lawmakers.

Senate Bill 5 was sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Stefanics (D-39) and Elizabeth Thomson (D-24), and went before the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee where lawmakers granted the measure a “do pass” recommendation.

SB 5 had yet to be scheduled for its next committee hearing, as of Tuesday.

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If passed, the bill would require New Mexico adopt a statewide plan to address climate change and take preventative measures to avoid impacts of extreme weather events like wildfires.

The plan would be headed by the State’s Environmental Health Epidemiology Bureau with the Department of Health, and the bill set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2024, for its implantation.

The Bureau would also administer a newly created Public Health and Climate Resiliency Fund that would help local communities prepare of climate change, while also working with local governments to devise their own action plans.

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The fund would offer grants of up to $250,000 for climate change projects at the local level, with at least half of the total grant funds going to communities with populations less than 100,000.

The bill would appropriate $5 million to the fund to pay for the grants for Fiscal Years 2024 through 2028, and another $1.1 million annually to aid in establishing the statewide program.

An analysis from the Legislative Finance Committee showed the funding would allow for the hiring of about 6 full-time employees for the work, but that additional employees would need to be funded.

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“Widespread scientific consensus” agreed the world’s climate is changing and could create extreme weather conditions, the analysis read, that could create health hazards for people.

This included higher levels of air and water pollution, drought, food and water shortages and physical injury, read the report.

“Although scientific understanding of the effects of climate change is still emerging, there is a pressing need to prepare for potential health risks,” the report read. “A wide variety of organizations (federal, state, local, multilateral, private and nongovernmental) are addressing the implications of climate change globally.

“Despite this breadth of activity, the public health effects of climate change remain largely unaddressed.”

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Stefanics said SB 5 would help the state take steps to alleviate these problems.

During her testimony before the committee, she said it was essential local communities have the support needed to prepare for emergencies.

State Sen. Liz Stefanics swill be in Ruidoso Wednesday, Oct. 24.
State Sen. Liz Stefanics swill be in Ruidoso Wednesday, Oct. 24.

“We’ve had several climate events, traumas in our state,” Stefanics said. “Issues that really confound communities and that communities do not prepare or plan for.”

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She pointed to Ruidoso, within Stefanics’ district, where she said a wildfire 10 years ago continued to threaten the local water system during heavy rains along the burn scar in the decade since, despite efforts by federal agencies.

“Every time it would flood from fires and then rain, it would take mud into the reservoir that not only served Ruidoso, but also the city of Alamogordo,” Stefanics said. “If communities had the option to work on this in advance, prepare, then they might more ready or more prepared.”

Another analysis from the Legislative Education Study Committee contended that preparation often includes public schools used as community shelters in times of weather emergencies and natural disasters like flooding.

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The analysis said school districts used in this way could likely apply for and received funds as political subdivisions, if the bill was passed, to cover related expenses.

Funds from the bill could also be used, read the analysis, to support “school-based health centers” addressing long-term health impacts tied to climate change.

“School districts are often cornerstones of local communities’ emergency response plans,” the report read. “Schools offer large, spacious buildings that can be used to shelter displaced residents during fires, floods, or other natural disasters.

“SB5 could also support the work of school-based health centers in addressing public health concerns that are proximally related to climate change.”

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-16) said that while she supported the bill for protecting New Mexicans from the effects of climate change, she thought the state should be working harder to prevent climate change rather than preparing for it as an inevitable.

“It saddens me that we’re already moving to adaptation and mitigation, and not engaging in trying to prevent it,” she said.

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, achedden@currentargus.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Carlsbad Current-Argus: New Mexico lawmakers advance bill to fund local climate change response