February 1, 2018

Legislator says he was shut out during budget process

A member of the state House of Representatives is asking for an investigation of a legislative committee, charging that several of its members met privately without him to craft part of the annual state budget and omitted his proposal to restore about $41 million cut from the reserves of school districts last year.

Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia, said the meeting left legislators like him out of part of the process of preparing the spending plan.

In an unusual move, Townsend asked the Legislative Council Service to investigate why the meeting did not include him and many other members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

“I don’t believe it’s in any of our interest, whether it be a Democratic majority or a Republican majority, to have a process that prevents your constituents or my constituents from being represented,” he said on the House floor Thursday before heading to the council’s offices on the fourth floor to file what the representative described as a verbal complaint.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, the Gallup Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said the panel did nothing improper or out of the ordinary.

The meeting was part of a working group and it did not act on Townsend’s proposal, she said. Moreover, he was free to attend, she added.

Regardless, the episode raised questions about how exactly lawmakers craft the state’s multibillion-dollar budgets each year.

And it showed that even as a proposed $6.3 billion budget wends through the Legislature with bipartisan support — it passed the House 65-3 — some still feel the sting of spending cuts that were made amid the financial shortfalls of previous years.

Legislators voted in 2017 to shore up the state’s budget by taking money from the cash reserves of school districts. The trims were designed to leave districts with at least 3 percent of annual spending in reserves.

Some districts had much more, however, and Townsend has said the approximately $50 million shift of funds hit smaller school districts particularly hard, leaving schools with less financial flexibility.

Townsend filed legislation in December to restore the money. He said Thursday that some top lawmakers had assured him the budget bill would include this funding or at least get a vote on the House floor.

But the budget approved by the Appropriations and Finance Committee and the full House did not include money for the proposal.

And the committee on Wednesday tabled Townsend’s bill during a hearing crowded with school superintendents.

Lundstrom said the proposal simply did not follow the budget-writing process.

The chairwoman suggested that the legislation had other drawbacks.

The House was committed to ensuring that the budget provided the state with reserves of at least 10 percent. If it sent $41 million back to school districts, reserves would drop below that level, she said.

Townsend himself has argued for reserves in the double-digits because of the state’s reliance on the volatile oil and gas industry.

The Senate could still provide funds to restore school district cash reserves. But it faces long odds as lawmakers seek to boost the state’s financial cushion while also guaranteeing pay raises for state employees and teachers.

Gov. Susana Martinez last year referred to the school reserves as “slush funds.”

While lawmakers have grumbled over the years about senior legislators crafting pieces of the budget behind closed doors, Lundstrom maintained the meeting at the center of Townsend’s complaint was a normal part of a process that often involves subcommittees.

“We set up subcommittees,” she said. “Anyone who wants to attend can attend.”

The Legislature is not subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act, which governs, for example, city council meetings. And subcommittees are common. But the House rules also say committees cannot meet without a quorum and that meetings shall be webcast as well as archived.