By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
The state House of Representatives voted Wednesday to send a $9.57 billion budget bill to the governor for her approval.
On a voice vote, the chamber concurred with the Senate’s amendments to House Bill 2, the last procedural step to send the bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. The Senate amendments include, among other changes, an additional $130 million in recurring spending for initiatives to address hunger and new investments in the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship college tuition fund.
But concerns were raised on the House floor about the way the Senate Finance Committee made some extra budget adjustments just a day after the committee had already approved the bill. That action, which took place Sunday morning, annoyed Republican senators on the committee and raised questions about behind-the-scenes deals and political pressure for changes that may have come from the Governor’s Office.
The weekend move prompted Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup — long the chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee before House Speaker Javier Martínez removed her at the beginning of the session — to ask whether it was all on the up and up.
“We talk about transparency and we talk about how everybody has to see everything … that is not my impression of what happened in the other chamber,” she said Wednesday afternoon as lawmakers discussed the concurrence motion on the House floor.
“I think it was not handled properly,” she said. “I talked to different members on the Senate Finance Committee who said that [when] the [budget] bill rolled out, they didn’t know what was in it because of closet negotiations happening without their input.”
While she said “we may not be sure” there were backroom shenanigans, she added, “I’m concerned when a group tries to pull the wool over the eyes of its own committee.”
Meanwhile, some House Republicans expressed concern about the roughly 14% increase in spending from this year’s budget, saying it’s troublesome in a state where so much revenue comes from the boom-or-bust oil and gas industry.
“I don’t think we can sustain it,” Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said.
House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, told the House the budget leaves room for a reserve fund of roughly 30% — about $2.873 billion. He said he is keeping a “cautious” eye on oil and gas revenue news.
Though Lundstrom said in January she was initially shocked to learn she had been removed as head of the appropriations committee, she told the assembly Wednesday the committee did “a very good job” sticking to the framework for building the budget that she had helped create before the session began.