By Daniel J. Chacón, The Santa Fe New Mexican
A big fight is brewing at the Capitol over the state budget, which is supposed to be the focus of the 30-day session but has almost become an afterthought amid a politically charged push to pass gun control legislation.
With less than two weeks left until lawmakers are set to adjourn for the year, the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee is sounding the alarm on a number of proposed appropriations in New Mexico’s record-breaking $10.1 billion spending plan, saying they are in direct violation of the state constitution.
The problematic spending line items in the 200-plus-page budget proposal not only call for an appropriation but create policy, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said in an interview Thursday after the House delivered the proposed budget to the Senate.
“Those people that were in the know that voted yesterday violated the constitution,” Muñoz said. The budget passed the House on a 53-16 vote Wednesday.
“The constitution clearly says that you cannot change law in an appropriations budget bill,” Muñoz said.
Among the examples cited by Muñoz and his staff: a proposed $5 million appropriation for a compensation program for livestock losses to Mexican wolf attacks. The budget bill includes language stating “compensation for the depredation payments shall be based on fair market value of the livestock as determined by New Mexico [State University] and shall only be made if a determination of a confirmed or probable livestock loss due to Mexican wolves is made by a qualified county, federal or tribal investigator.”
These specifications go beyond spending money, they said. It also creates policy.
Muñoz and other Senate Finance Committee members are also raising red flags over proposed appropriations without accompanying legislation. Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said the spending plan lacks transparency.
“I am convinced that you should bring a bill forward if you want money,” Woods said at Thursday’s committee meeting. “You should bring a bill forward that says, ‘I want money.’ In my case, it was a prison in Clayton. I brought a bill forward. Now, that bill may not go, but the whole state can look under my stuff and say, ‘By golly, [Woods wants] money for Clayton,’ and it’s transparent.”
Sen. Crystal Brantley, R-Elephant Butte, said she shared Woods’ concerns.
“I think at the end of last session, you [Muñoz] made it very clear to this committee and really anyone who wanted anything in the budget that unless you have a bill before me that tells me how much you’re looking for and really outlines exactly the intent of how that money’s going to be spent, we weren’t considering it,” she said. “No more of this, like, sneaking stuff in.”
This, Brantley said, lets lawmakers and New Mexicans see how taxpayer money is being spent.
“I can look up and see the details of how that money is appropriated because it’s attached to some sort of bill and the public and the lobbyists and everyone [can see it],” she said. “It’s very transparent how we’re spending the money. I would say that was made very clear by this committee last year.”
Muñoz said he agreed with his Republican colleagues and that following such a process lets the entire Legislature consider the proposed appropriation. The problem, he said, is isolated.
“I haven’t had any requests like that” from members of the Senate, Muñoz said. “Did the House do it? Yes.”
Rep. Nathan Small, a Las Cruces Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said he wasn’t going to be “inserting” himself in the Senate Finance Committee’s approach to developing the budget.
“We’ve had an orderly process [in the] House Appropriations and Finance Committee. Over 60 public comments on agency budgets, the most since I’ve been here. And we had no executive sessions. We had very long and extensive public hearings with a lot of discussion,” he said. “That’s what I would focus on for us.”
Muñoz, who has been among the voices calling for fiscal restraint in anticipation of the oil and gas boom cooling in the coming years, said he’ll have to lead the charge on reining in spending. In committee, Muñoz said he is inundated with funding requests amid record revenues for the state, largely fueled by the oil and gas industry.
“They want the pie, not a piece,” he said.
Muñoz has served as chairman of the Senate’s budget committee for four years, succeeding former Sen. John Arthur Smith, a conservative-leaning Democrat from Deming who ran the committee for more than a decade. Smith, who lost to a more progressive Democratic challenger in the 2020 primary, earned the nickname “Dr. No” for his refusal to fund various initiatives, even those championed by his own party, over the years.
“I’m filling those shoes, I guess,” Muñoz said.