May 16, 2017

House GOP unveil budget proposal which would divert money from Legislature’s retirement

State House Republicans unveiled a spending plan for the upcoming special legislative session that would transfer $12.5 million from the state Legislative Retirement Fund to the general fund to solve the New Mexico’s budget shortfall.

Martinez announced the special session will begin Wednesday, May 24.

GOP House leaders announced the plan publicly in a press release Tuesday, touting it as a solution to fix the state’s budget issues without raising taxes.

“This plan covers New Mexico’s budget needs for the upcoming fiscal year and increases funding for cancer care as well as support for students working to obtain a college degree,” state Rep. Larry Larrañaga, R-Albuquerque, said in a statement. “I urge my colleagues in the Legislature to adopt these proposals so we can resolve this budget impasse fairly and for the benefit of all New Mexicans.”

But the ranking lawmaker in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee questioned whether the Legislature could legally transfer money already invested the retirement fund.

“If a stream of money gets diverted before it gets deposited to the [retirement] fund, I’m OK with that,” state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said in an interview. “But I’m not OK with taking money out of the fund that has already been deposited. We think there’s a constitutional issue around that.”

The Public Employees Retirement Association of New Mexico (PERA), which manages public retirement accounts in the state, has come to a similar conclusion on the constitutionality of diverting money already invested in the fund. That would mean lawmakers could only divert just under $1 million from the fund, which is equal to the amount that state lawmakers and state contributions give to the fund each year.

House Republicans touted that their budget proposal for adding $1 million to the University of New Mexico Cancer Center and $2 million to higher-education assistance to for low- and middle-income students in the spending proposal passed earlier this year by the Legislature. Both programs faced cuts in the previous budget passed by the Legislature.

Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the previous spending proposal and criticized it for raising taxes on gas, car and internet sales. She called a special session to begin on May 20 for the Legislature to pass a new spending plan.

But Lundstrom said neither House Republicans nor officials from the governor’s office have been talking with House Democrats about a new budget plan.

“It surprises me that they’re working in isolation,” she said.

But she added that she has “confidence we’ll get to where we’ll want to be” and was open to one suggestion from the House GOP plan—a one-year ban on pork projects from state lawmakers.

“I don’t have a problem with suspension of things, as long as the money isn’t already promised [on projects],” Lundstrom said.