November 12, 2019

Letters could foreshadow future debates over crime prevention, budgets

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

The months leading up to legislative sessions are often marked by state agencies presenting progress reports to lawmakers. Crime in the Albuquerque area has been a frequent subject to come up when talking about spending. But those conversations are usually devoted to the road ahead and not to picking apart past budgets. 

But in a letter sent last month, the state’s speaker of the House and a top financial leader in the House asked the Bernalillo County district attorney for an informal audit of millions of dollars appropriated to his office two years ago. In return, the district attorney offered a private meeting with a legislative panel to go over how money is being spent. The written exchanges hint at further budget scrutiny from lawmakers, and also a potential rift between some House and Senate Democrats. 

Progress report

On October 17, New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf and House Appropriations Chair and Legislative Finance Co-chair Patricia Lundstrom, both Democrats, co-authored a letter to 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raul Torrez about an upcoming interim meeting with the Legislative Finance Committee. The two lawmakers asked Torrez, also a Democrat, for a detailed explanation of how his office handled a $6.052 million increase back in 2018. 

“This $6.052 million increase in the budget for the 2nd [Office of the District Attorney] set that office apart from other district attorneys’ offices in terms of its increased budget, ambitious goals, and promises made to the Legislature,” Egolf and Lundstrom wrote. “The FY20 budget approved in the 2019 legislative session maintains that enhanced funding level and preserves the Legislature’s expectations that the 2nd ODA will deliver on commitments made to justify the enhanced funding.”

Egolf and Lundstrom requested that Torrez present a progress report to the LFC regarding a list of ten items the DA said he would address with the increased budget. 

In response, Torrez said the request was unexpected, but that he would comply as best he could. 

“Although the request for information is largely outside the established performance metrics previously set forth by the LFC, I am nevertheless prepared to provide as much information as possible regarding the expenditure of public funds by this office and the substantial progress we have made improving our performance over the past several years,” Torrez wrote. 

But Torrez said he would have to take a raincheck on the meeting scheduled next week as he would be at home caring for his wife after a medical procedure. Torrez offered to appear at a December LFC meeting, but he also offered to host the meeting at his Albuquerque office—albeit behind closed doors. 

“I recognize that most members of the committee and legislative leaders have not had an opportunity to attend one of our many open houses or to participate in a confidential law enforcement briefing by the agents and analysts inside the Crime Strategies Unit (CSU),” Torrez wrote. “I strongly encourage you to consider this option as it will allow us to incorporate a closed session as part of the hearing to give members a detailed overview of live, data-driven enforcement actions that will not be possible in open session.

Through a spokesperson, Egolf and Lundstrom declined to comment on the letter. Torrez did not respond to questions from NM Political Report regarding his closed meeting proposal and why a detailed overview of how his office works would need to be kept from the public eye. 

‘A dog fight going on’

Besides the detailed accounting request, the letter from Egolf and Lundstrom was notable because of a missing key signature—that of the budget hawk and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith. The long-time Deming lawmaker said it was for good reason—he refused to sign it because it was uncalled for. 

“There’s a dog fight going on there obviously, and I just did not want to be a party to it on the Senate side,” Smith told NM Political Report.

Smith, the chair of the LFC, said Lundstrom has every right, as a member of the committee, to question Torrez about previous appropriations, but that it’s not a priority for Smith.

“I’m just basically interested in the budget cycle and obviously we can pick up what has not been spent and that will be reflected in the next budget if they still have cash balances,” Smith said.   

Smith speculated that the genesis of the exchange between Torrez and the two House leaders was a public battle by Torrez, a Democrat, to receive a budget increase from the Democratic controlled Legislature. Smith remembers that the House tried to cut Torrez’s budget, but backing from Smith’s Senate Finance Committee and ultimately then-Gov. Martinez ensured Torrez got the money.  

“On a $6.5 billion budget, I wasn’t going to lose sleep over two million dollars and to shut the thing down, so we funded those additional dollars,” Smith said. “Some of it was supplemental funding so they could put it to work immediately.” 

Smith said he refused to sign the letter because he viewed it as the start of a battle over money given in the past and he just didn’t want to be a part of it. 

“Quite frankly it sounded like a backyard fight and I don’t have anything in that game, from that standpoint,” Smith said. 

Smith added that he has no intention of holding a private LFC meeting at Torrez’s office. 

“I don’t subscribe to that either,” he said.