As New Mexico lawmakers work to rebalance government spending for the current fiscal year and prepare to craft a spending package for fiscal year 2018, state House members have agreed to cut their own funding. In a unanimous vote Thursday evening, the House decided to shave about 2.5 percent from the Legislature’s budget and revert some of its own reserve funds. The move follows lawmakers’ decision during a special session last fall to cut 3 percent of legislative spending. The bill will save about $1 million overall, leaving a budget of about $8.7 million for the 60-day session. The original bill called for a legislative budget of about $24.4 million, funding not just the session but also year-round legislative staff and committees that meet in the months between sessions.
New Mexico’s courts face a funding crisis that threatens to undermine the judiciary’s ability to protect our rights by delivering timely justice. We must act now to prevent further damage. As Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels recently told a legislative committee, “We are now basically on life support through the end of this fiscal year.”
Pete Campos is a Democratic state senator who represents the Las Vegas area. In courthouses across the state, New Mexicans can see the corrosive effects of budget cuts and underfunding of the judiciary. Most magistrate courts are closed to the public for at least half a day each week because the courts are unable to fill vacant staff positions.
As Democrats gear up for a legislative session after retaking the state House of Representatives and expanding their majority in the state Senate, several members are looking at ways to increase New Mexico’s minimum wage. Two lawmakers have already pre-filed legislation to do so ahead of the session, which begins Jan. 17. One measure would double New Mexico’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $15 an hour by January 2018. Another more cautious bill ups the minimum wage to $8.45 an hour.
Media coverage of planned tax legislation has so far focused on one hot-button topic of the proposal—reinstating a state tax on food. Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester and advocacy groups like New Mexico Voices for Children have vocally opposed the idea. But the two state representatives behind the proposal have not actually filed any legislation on the matter for the session that begins in January. Legislators could begin introducing bills on Dec. 15.
During September’s special legislative session, lawmakers agreed on fixes that added about $23 million in revenue. That was a start, but not nearly enough to solve the state’s budget crisis. On Wednesday, state legislators received little good news about the state’s revenue stream during a committee meeting. Even with that help, New Mexico’s bean counters dropped their revenue projections for the current fiscal year from previous estimates by more than $130 million. The state’s current fiscal year began in July and ends next June.
Three state agencies expressed a lack of confidence Thursday in the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance’s (OSI) ability to collect millions of dollars back taxes owed to the state from health insurance companies. State Auditor Tim Keller, Department of Finance and Administration State Budget Division Director A.J. Forte and Legislative Finance Committee Deputy Director Charles Sallee all expressed doubts in OSI’s plans to collect an estimated $193 million that it failed to collect from premium health insurance taxes from 2010 through 2015. The comments came at an interim Legislative Finance Committee hearing. “I think it’s very notable there are three oversight agencies looking at this,” Forte told state lawmakers. “There are too many inconsistencies for me to feel comfortable in this process.”
The controversy began when Keller’s office revealed the uncollected revenue in a special audit earlier this year.
What we do next may very well determine the fate of our state. Will we continue the divisive, dismissive and disingenuous rhetoric of recent months to seek political victory merely for the sake of winning? Or will we thoughtfully discuss solutions to the complex problems we face so that New Mexico might have the educated and motivated workforce that employers desire; so that millennials might stay in New Mexico or, even better, move here from elsewhere; so that the state’s chronically high poverty, crime and unemployment rates might finally drop; so that tax revenue to the treasury might increase; and so that we might spend the money necessary to improve our schools, roads and bridges, public safety and health programs, and cultural amenities
Will we create a cycle of prosperity rather than continue a cycle of poverty? Making the right choice is easy; actually acting on it will be hard. This will be especially true after this election season, as our leaders must set aside personal feelings and move past the misstatements that marked the campaigns in favor of an honest, open discussion. We cannot fix a long-term imbalance between state revenue and expenditures by scraping together unspent money from various accounts any better than a family living on the edge of poverty can achieve prosperity by holding a yard sale. We cannot reduce New Mexico’s perpetually high crime rate by putting criminals who have already committed crimes in jail for longer periods of time. We cannot create jobs without social and educational systems that create good workers. It’s time for the difficult discussion we’ve delayed for years: How can New Mexico raise the money it needs to improve the education our children receive, both at home and in school, divert our young people from a life of crime toward a life of financial security and civic involvement, and support the economy and quality of life we desire? Properly addressing early childhood development, child abuse, drug addiction, alcohol dependency, mental illness, obesity and the needs of the elderly, our veterans and those with special needs—all of which is expensive—is paramount to making New Mexico a great place to live and work.
Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill passed during the recently-completed legislative special session that cut spending in most state agencies, but used her line-item veto authority to spare “below-the-line” funding for the Public Education Department. The bill was part of the effort to solve a budget problem that is estimated to leave the state hundreds of millions of dollars in the hole. This education funding, which restored the $22 million the version passed by the Legislature, goes towards projects of PED that are not part of the state equalization guarantee, the formula that seeks to provide equal funding per student across the state. These funds go towards programs like the controversial merit pay program as well as popular programs like “breakfast after the bell” and after-school programs.
Democrats and Martinez’s administration have clashed over some of the funding since she was first sworn in. Martinez slammed the Legislature for passing the bill with those education cuts intact (though the House version subtracted the cuts from $25 million to $22 million).
Gov. Susana Martinez signed two budget bills that the Legislature passed during the recent, contentious special session. One of those bills will move money from various funds to the general fund to pay for the budget deficit for both the fiscal year that ended in June and the current fiscal year. The bulk of that money comes from the tobacco settlement permanent fund. Martinez signed the bill without any line-item vetoes. The other bill deals with tax credits.
One of the key districts New Mexico Republicans need to take the state Senate back sits just north of Albuquerque in Rio Rancho, where incumbent Democrat John Sapien faces GOP challenger Diego Espinoza. Sapien, an insurance salesman who is running for his third term, won both the 2008 and 2012 elections on narrow margins—by just 121 votes and 161 votes respectively. Sapien’s latest challenger, Espinoza, has so far outstripped him in fundraising, gathering roughly $153,000 as of press time compared to Sapien’s $126,000. Both speak of job creation as the top priority of their candidacies. But each have different solutions.
Earlier, we let you know what happened over the first weekend of the special session. The last 24 hours of this year’s special session were crammed with action as the House sought to finish their work before the Senate was forced to come back Thursday shortly before noon. NM Political Report was there from the beginning of the the special session last Friday, through the 21-hour House marathon that spanned from Wednesday morning to early Thursday morning and when the Senate adjourned sine die for the second time—this time putting an end to the chaotic special session. Here are the stories from NM Political Report on from Wednesday and Thursday at the special session. Senate accepts House budget changes, ends special session
House passes ‘sweeps’ bill to address budget deficit
House sends death penalty reinstatement to the Senate
House debates on whether to debate death penalty in the early, early morning
Bill to slash budget passes House
Critics use same arguments against corporate tax cuts, film incentives