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Luis Sánchez Saturno /The New Mexican

Rep. Kristina Ortez, D-Taos, begins her work at the New Mexico State Capitol on Jan. 19, 2021.

Hours after pinch-hitting as Speaker of the House in the New Mexico State Legislature, freshman state Rep. Kristina Ortez, D-Taos set up a makeshift office in the Roundhouse and joined an online conference call with her constituents to discuss the progress she and her party have made in the current Legislative session.

"This is my first time on the floor. And I was the Speaker for like three hours," said Ortez Wednesday (March 10). "It was crazy."

Ortez usually legislates from home -- her official office in Santa Fe was a short walk away, but would have cost her precious time getting there and back.

"I think the bill that will probably do the most good in the district is House Bill 206," she said. HB-206 is the Utility Affordability and Relief Act, a bill Ortez sponsored.

"It helps low-income New Mexicans who have debt from COVID-19 toward their utilities. Something like $18 million of debt has been incurred all around the state -- in Taos County, it's somewhere like $700,000 to $1 million of utility-related debt from people who are out of work," said Ortez.

A moratorium was put in place by the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission in order to protect customers from having their utilities shut off due to non-payment. On March 20, the moratorium is scheduled to enter a 45-day transition period, and could end altogether May 4.

"So, folks, if they don't enter a payment plan right now, they will get shut off," said Ortez.

HB-206 allows utility customers to enter payment plans and pay back what they owe over time -- twice the number of months they are delinquent. Half of every dollar they pay will be relieved, said Ortez.

"What my bill does is it allows for folks who are low-income, if you're at 250 percent poverty level, or you're experiencing hardship, you can enter into a payment plan with your utility -- in our case, Kit Carson, or potentially the Town of Taos, or New Mexico Gas, and you will get some relief," she explained.

The bill would tap federal funds provided by the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed in March 2020, in response to the economic fallout due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We had $5.3 million that already came in, that's been applied," Ortez continued. "We've got another $200 million for rental assistance and utilities. Not many people know about that program, partly because it hasn't been implemented yet. But it will come through very soon."

The bill also takes energy efficiency into account, and would set up funding to replace older appliances. "If you're poor, you don't have ENERGY STAR appliances," said Ortez. "You don't have good windows or good doors, so the energy burden among the poor is much higher -- somewhere between 10 and 30 percent, when it should be 5 percent of how much you pay every month."

Data collection to help establish a low-income utility rate is also included in the bill.

But some customers are already receiving 'cut-off' notices from their utility providers for non-payment, said Delores Endres, a committee member with the nonprofit group Taos Immigration Allies.

"A lot of our clients are impacted by this," said Endres, 70, who was forwarded a warning notice from one of the families she helps. The notice, dated March 11, said "This is to notify you that your service will be disconnected if payment of the total due amount is not received in our office by 10 a.m. on March 16."

The warning notice, sent by Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, stated that $470.35 was owed. The notice also said, "If you have difficulty paying this bill, contact our office, or call 800-283-4465. You may qualify for assistance in paying your utility bill. Information is available on the low income home energy assistance program."

The customer who received the notice asked that their identity not be revealed.

"They got this bill, and before I could get to them and say, 'Hey, set up a monthly payment plan, we can try to help you,' somehow they got the money and went to pay it," said Endres. "Did they get the money from [a] payday loan, and now they're gonna be further in the hole?"

"With the kids out of school, needing the Internet, it's winter time, they need more electricity to keep themselves warm. Their bills are probably the highest they've ever been," Endres continued. "They're falling behind because they don't have jobs or they have decreased hours. So what are they supposed to do?"

On Tuesday (March 2), HB-206 passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 39-31. The bill was reported by the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee with a 'Do Pass' recommendation on Sunday (March 14), and now is with the Senate Finance Committee.

"There really isn't a desire to disconnect people," said Luís Reyes Jr., chief executive officer of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative. "The process is to notify all residential ratepayers who have arrears, have them either pay or make payment arrangements -- you have to have a payment arrangement in place prior to May 4."

Reyes said ratepayers owed around $500,000 to the cooperative for unpaid utility bills, and that Kit Carson had sent almost 900 warning notices to customers.

"We've had 460 people pay -- 200 have paid their balance in full, 200 have paid their arrears, and about 100 have made payment arrangements," said Reyes. "We're getting about 55 percent of people responding, the 45 [percent] who aren't, those are the ones that we'll reach out to and make applications for them to see if we can get funds from either local jurisdictions or from the state of New Mexico," he said.

Reyes said when the moratorium ends, people will be shocked by how much they owe, so he is trying to bring awareness to his customers.

"If you're talking about a $600 debt that you owe, the options -- if you're unemployed or underemployed to pay that back -- are few," said Ortez. "This [bill] allows folks to get back on their feet with some dignity."

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