Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, members of the New Mexico National Guard have been deployed in a number of roles — providing food, water, testing and transportation in the ongoing battle against the coronavirus.
Although up to 400 of those soldiers have been deployed in that effort, the National Guard decreased that number after President Donald Trump announced last week the federal government would only cover 75 percent of all National Guard costs for most states.
On Wednesday, New Mexico’s two U.S. senators joined a growing chorus of lawmakers across the country in asking the president to reverse that decision, which now requires states to ante up the other 25 percent of costs for the remainder of the year.
“The National Guard response has been critical within our states to supporting the health and well-being of millions of Americans,” 33 national lawmakers wrote Wednesday, including Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both Democrats.
Noting the federal CARES Act includes funding targeted at COVID-19 response actions for the Army and Air national guards, the letter says the new determination “comes at the worst possible time, as positive cases continue to rise, and food security and other basic needs increase due to the ongoing economic impact of the pandemic.”
Trump made the announcement when he said he would extend the deployment of National Guard troops in the COVID-19 battle from mid-August, when it was initially slated to end, through December.
Only Texas and Florida — two states with Republican leaders and a strong base of Trump supporters — were spared those cuts. Many lawmakers want the president to explain why there is a disparity in the decision.
In an email, Udall said such exceptions raise “suspicions of partisan treatment,” adding the Guard “has been an essential part of the COVID response in New Mexico and many other states. Forcing the states to pick up the tab when state budgets are already strained will either mean even more state budget cuts that hit essential workers like teachers, or fewer men and women of the New Mexico Guard helping fight the pandemic.”
“COVID-19 is a national emergency hurting New Mexico,” Udall wrote, “and our state deserves equal treatment in support for our public health response.”
New Mexico National Guard Maj. Gen. Kenneth A. Nava, who oversees a force of 4,000, said many of the troops have helped with both drive-by testing procedures and transporting novel coronavirus tests to labs to be processed.
He said they have also provided “humanitarian support and … delivered millions of pounds of food and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to tribal communities.”
Nava said the federal government will continue to cover National Guard costs through the year, but the state will be expected to pay back the 25 percent later. As a result, he made the decision to cut the number of troops being used in COVID-19 operations to offset that future cost.
“It’s still a great benefit to have our soldiers … in active status,” he said of Trump’s decision to extend deployment through December. “But because of the cost-share requirements, we are forced to prioritize and thus not do some of the things that we were doing previously.”
Nava said as a soldier, “I do what I am told and follow orders.”
The battle over the decision is “being engaged with politicians in the political world,” he said.