February 5, 2018

Contingency fund audit bill wouldn’t affect Martinez

The public is one step closer to learning how the governor spends the tens of thousands of tax dollars she is provided every year for miscellaneous expenses, from entertaining dignitaries to hosting parties.

But there is a catch.

A bill approved Monday without opposition by the state Senate would subject the governor’s contingency fund to an audit and to New Mexico’s open records law, but not until after Gov. Susana Martinez leaves office.

Unless specified, a bill usually takes effect a few weeks after it is signed by the governor.

The Senate Finance Committee, however, amended the measure last week to ensure it would not take effect until Jan. 1, when a new governor takes office.

“I didn’t want to make this about a particular governor,” said Sen. Sander Rue, the Albuquerque Republican sponsoring the measure.

He said Democrats asked him to amend the measure.

“This isn’t a ‘gotcha,'” Rue said. “Nobody should have a slush fund funded by the taxpayers of New Mexico.”

Senate Bill 52 heads next to the state House of Representatives.

Unclear is whether the change will turn off Democrats. They might see a member of their party win back the governor’s office later this year, and they might view the provision as letting Martinez off the hook.

Also uncertain is whether Martinez would sign the measure into law if it passes the Legislature.

Kept in a separate bank account, the contingency fund is not audited like the rest of the governor’s budget.

Rue says the money provided through the contingency fund has fluctuated but in recent years has totaled between $70,000 and $90,000 annually.

The Senate Finance Committee also changed the bill to ensure that unspent money in the contingency fund would not accrue year after year. It would revert the general fund for other uses.

A contingency fund is a long-running perk for the state’s top elected official. An analysis by legislative aides found governors since at least the 1920s have had similar accounts.

But Martinez has drawn particular attention to the fund.

The fund helped pay for a 2015 holiday party at a Santa Fe hotel that led to reports of noise complaints and bottles being thrown off a fourth-floor balcony. The governor then tried to hold off police officers in a phone call to dispatchers that later made the rounds in the media and received national headlines.

Asked about Rue’s bill last month, Martinez said she had not seen it. But, she said, the contingency fund is audited internally.

“It is exclusively used for the residence,” she said, referring to governor’s mansion.

And Martinez argued that her administration has been more transparent with the fund. She pointed out that her administration reports spending by categories — supplies, food and beverage, contract services for events, miscellaneous and subscriptions.

Rue sponsored a similar measure last year but it died in the state House of Representatives. Speaker Brian Egolf, D- Santa Fe, also sponsored a bill in 2016 calling for an audit of the contingency fund.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.