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New Mexico chile labor program halted amid fight between governor, legislature

SANTA FE, New Mexico -- New Mexico’s red chile harvest might become a casualty of a recent Supreme Court ruling that halted Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s ability to spend federal money without the Legislature.  

Lujan Grisham announced a $5 million program in August that chipped in taxpayer money to help recruit and retain seasonal laborers. At the time, the state estimated there had been a 45% drop in farmworkers who pick chile, which amounted to about 1,350 open jobs. 

The governor announced just a couple of weeks ago she would extend the first-come, first-serve program to help farmers find enough workers to handle the red chile season this winter. 

The state paid as much as $4.50 an hour to enhance laborer pay up to $19.50 an hour to process chile.

But the governor’s unilateral use of federal American Rescue Plan Act money came under fire by legislators, who argued they should have a say in the allocation of that money. They sued in September.

Lujan Grisham doled out about $700 million before the litigation commenced on things like vaccine incentives, unemployment insurance, encouraging employees to return to work and boosting pay for the chile farmworkers. 

The lawsuit made its way to the state’s Supreme Court. Last month, justices ruled in the Legislature’s favor, requiring an immediate halt to governor’s spending. 

Jeff Witte, the state’s agriculture secretary, wrote a letter dated Dec. 3 that was published on the website of the Chile Labor Incentive Program, saying the ruling meant the program’s remaining $2.2 million could not be spent. 

“Unfortunately, the Legislature wants unspent funds from the program to be returned to them per the state Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding federal funding, effectively ending the program and preventing us from providing further needed assistance to the chile industry,” Witte wrote. 

As of mid-November, the state had spent around half the money on about 3,000 workers. 

New Mexico farmers produced nearly $52 million in green chile in 2020 from 8,500 acres, according to the United States Department of Agriculture statistics, up from $50 million in 2019. 

Charlie Marquez, lobbyist on behalf of the New Mexico Chile Association, informed the House Appropriation Committee of halt to the program at a meeting today. His mention of the potential problems for the red chile harvest elicited obvious concern from Rep. Patty Lundstrom (D-Gallup), the committee chair, and other committee members.

The committee gathered to discuss the proposed allocation of about $470 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, primarily on broadband and infrastructure. The proposal included no money to help farmers pay living wages to chile farmers. 

Lundstrom did not immediately say what the solution might be to help resurrect the chile program. But she said she would look at the issue.

“That doesn’t sound right to me. We’re going to keep a note on that one,” Lundstrom said. “Chile is chile.”

Glen Duggins, president of the New Mexico Chile Association, previously told Source New Mexico that the program has been very helpful to farmers like him, but he thinks it could have been streamlined to better retain workers.

For example, he said, the program requires too much paperwork to be worth it for some employees who don’t work for very long or abruptly stop showing up to work. That undermines the point of the program, he said, and might explain why the state hasn’t yet spent all the money.

“The turnover is so high,” he said. “They come and go so fast on the farm that (the program) doesn’t work very well on the farm.” 

Instead, Duggins said, it might improve the program if it paid farmers per ton of chile harvested, giving them the flexibility to pay their workers from that sum.

But he said he appreciates the program, especially as farmers harvest red chile this winter. He supplemented one employee’s wages in the fall and intended to enroll at least three more this winter, he said.

“We’re grateful for it, and we’re using it for the red chile (harvest),” he said at the time, before the announcement. 

Witte in his letter urged farmers to continue to track their expenses through Jan. 31 in hopes that the program is brought back. 

“We are disappointed that the burden of this action may fall on you — but we will continue to be of assistance to you in any way we can, as our mission, as always, is to support the essential work you do to feed New Mexicans the best chile in the world,” he wrote. 

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