ByJens Gould and Michael Gerstein, Santa Fe New Mexican |
Over the objections of Republicans who wanted to cut more, House Democrats pushed through a scaled back state budget to shore up a $2 billion budget shortfall caused by the pandemic and oil price crash that devastated state coffers. The House approved the roughly $7 billion budget in a 46-24 vote along party lines, with Republicans opposing the budget plan. In extended budget talks over the past several days, lawmakers continuously described the spending reductions as difficult decisions in the face of massive hits to state revenue. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has referred to the cuts as “austerity” for the state, but supported them at slightly different levels. The bill now only needs to be approved by the full Senate to get to the governor’s desk, as the Senate Finance Committee approved the House’s version Friday.
As state legislators convene in Santa Fe for a special session to tackle the budget, environmental groups are asking lawmakers to limit cuts to the state’s environmental regulatory agency budgets to 3 percent.
A group of 28 organizations, ranging from conservation and wildlife advocates to renewable energy proponents, sent a letter to members of the state Senate Finance Committee and the state House Financial Affairs Committee last week.
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) — the state’s two main environmental regulatory departments — each saw their respective budgets erode during the Susana Martinez administration.
NMED’s general fund was cut by 32 percent between fiscal years (FY) 2012 and 2019, which was the last fiscal year budget passed by the legislature in 2018 before Martinez left office, according to a report released by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. EMNRD saw its budget drop roughly 24 percent under the Martinez administration between fiscal years 2012 and 2019.
In Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first budget proposal for FY2020, NMED’s general fund increased 6 percent compared to FY2019, while EMNRD saw a 9 percent increase in fiscal year 2020 over 2019. The departments saw similar increases in the FY2021 budget, which goes into effect on July 1 and will be amended during the special session due to the COVID-19 caused economic slowdown and dropping oil and gas prices.
“The 2021 budget saw about a 7 percent increase for those agencies from 2020,” said Ben Shelton, policy and political director at Conservation New Mexico, and who coordinated the letter. “What we’re trying to do is hold that reduction in increase as low as possible.”
While the recent budget increases are steps in the right direction, the departments’ budgets are still much lower than they were at the end of Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration in 2011.
“These guys got cuts in the Martinez administration where they got cut below what they needed to do the minimum of their jobs — particularly EMNRD,” Shelton said.
Both departments are suffering from high vacancy rates as a result. NMED has a 19 percent vacancy rate, with only seven inspectors in charge of monitoring 7,700 air emitting sources, two inspectors in charge of monitoring 700 groundwater sources, and seven inspectors for monitoring nearly 3,000 hazardous waste sources.
EMNRD’s Oil Conservation District (OCD), which regulates oil and gas activities in the state, had its budget decline 26 percent under the Martinez administration. The OCD is responsible for oil and gas regulatory activities ranging from permitting new wells, inspecting abandoned wells, ensuring compliance with permits, and enforcing the state’s oil and gas rules.
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is advocating for legislation during this week’s special session that would extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots in the November general election and allow county clerks to automatically send ballots to all registered voters prior to Election Day, her office said. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Toulouse Oliver and a couple of dozen county clerks in the state had pushed for a mail-only primary election to protect poll workers and voters from risks of contracting the viral illness. The state Supreme Court rejected the clerks’ request, however, saying the Legislature would have to approve a change in law to allow mass distribution of ballots by mail to voters who haven’t requested one. Spokesman Alex Curtas said Friday the secretary of state still supports an emergency provision allowing ballots to be sent to voters without an application. She also backs other proposals that could streamline the general election, he added.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signaled in a letter to legislative leaders Thursday that there will be a special session to deal with the budget situation from plunging oil and gas prices and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But first, Lujan Grisham said she wants new revenue projections, including a sense of what sort of federal aid will be provided to states as the country is gripped and increasingly shut down by the virus. House Republican leadership sent a letter to the governor on Thursday calling for a special session to adjust the budget. And Senate Finance Committee chairman John Arthur Smith told the Albuquerque Journal the state could be facing a billion dollar loss in revenue because of oil and gas prices. But Lujan Grisham said in a letter that her focus is currently on stemming the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they need more time to fully assess the economic impacts.
A “perfect storm” is hitting oil and gas prices, impacting New Mexico and its reliance on the volatile industry’s tax money, according to the Senate Finance Committee chair. The collapse in the price of oil comes just weeks after the state Legislature passed a budget and days before the governor makes her final decisions on line-item vetoes and other decisions in the budget. As of now, the governor’s office says the budget will preclude the need for a special session to adjust spending. Oil prices dropped nearly 25 percent on Monday, the worst day since 1991. Senate Finance Committee chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said it was because of a “perfect storm” with a dispute between Saudi Arabia and Russia leading the Middle Eastern nation to slash prices and announce an increase in production.
Only two weeks after crafting and approving the state budget, the New Mexico Senate’s top finance chief has told Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham he would have no problem if she decides to pare back spending. “I’ve already sent word to the executive branch that if they feel vetos are necessary, I’m not going to be objecting to those,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, the influential chair of the Senate Finance Committee. “The last thing I want to do is go back into special session.”
Why such drastic talk only two weeks after the House and Senate agreed on a $7.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2021? To put it briefly, coronavirus. U.S. oil prices closed at their lowest point in almost four years Friday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave her pen a workout Friday, signing a slew of public safety, child welfare, anti-discrimination, economic development and veterans bills. The governor signed into law a crime prevention package — House Bill 184 and House Judiciary Committee substitutes for House Bills 6, 35 and 113 — that will increase the penalties for being a felon in possession of a firearm and brandishing a firearm in the commission of a felony. In addition, the legislation will:
• Create funding for the training of school resource officers, including instruction on de-escalation techniques and adolescent-specific issues. • Increase funds available for training and equipment for police departments, county sheriff’s offices and university and tribal police officers. • Allocate up to $2 million to the Department of Public Safety to offset expenses for special deployments of state police in counties and cities across the state.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a slate of bills into law Tuesday afternoon aimed at expanding renewable energy and modernizing the state’s electricity infrastructure, including a bill that reinstates the solar tax credit that expired under the previous administration. SB 29, sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque and Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, reinstates the solar tax credit that expired in 2016. The bill creates a personal income tax credit to cover 10 percent of the costs of a solar thermal or solar photovoltaic system for residential, business or agriculture applications. The new law is applicable to tax years starting on January 1, 2020. The tax credit will help more New Mexico families and small businesses “invest in solar, and will boost our statewide effort to move toward the goal of having a 50 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2030,” Stewart said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed a bipartisan bill into law that aims to put New Mexico’s state pension system on a path to solvency.
Senate Bill 72, one of the high-profile bills of the 2020 session, calls for increasing contributions from public workers and the state in a bid to eventually eliminate the Public Employees Retirement Association’s $6.6 billion unfunded liability. “By paying out more than it was taking in, PERA was on a path to eventual bankruptcy,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement on Monday. “Now we’ve reversed course, and I’m confident New Mexico can keep its promises to current and future retirees.” Lujan Grisham made the bill one of her priorities for the session after issuing an executive order last year to create a working group that drafted a pension reform proposal. Many of that task force’s recommendations were incorporated into the eventual bill, sponsored by Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, and Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell.
A bill signed into law Monday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will provide free breakfast and lunch to thousands of low-income public school students who have been required to pay a reduced fee for meals through a federal program.
House Bill 10, funded through a $650,000 appropriation to the Public Education Department that was included in the main state spending bill for fiscal year 2021, will eliminate copays of 30 cents or 40 cents per meal for about 12,500 students across the state who qualify for federal reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. “A 40-cent copay should never come between a child and the food they need to grow and learn,” Lujan Grisham said in a news release. Her signature on HB 10 came on the first day of National School Breakfast Week. The national nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, in its recently released school breakfast scorecard, found New Mexico ranks third in the nation, behind West Virginia and Vermont, for the ratio of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunches who also take advantage of school breakfast programs.
For every 100 New Mexico students who eat subsidized lunches, 69.4 also eat breakfast at school, the nonprofit said. “This school year, New Mexico is on track to serve more than 13,500,000 school breakfasts,” said Public Education Cabinet Secretary Ryan Stewart said in a news release.