With only two full days remaining in the 2023 New Mexico legislative session, the New Mexico House a Representatives, on a voice vote, passed House Bill 2 and sent the $9.6 billion budget to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. It is the largest budget enacted in state history as a direct result of $3.6 Billion in additional revenue from oil and gas production. Ongoing spending contained in the bill have been increased by 13.7% or about $1.2 billion over current levels.
The House vote was a concurrence with the Senate’s amendments to House Bill 2. The Senate amendments include an additional $130 million in recurring spending for initiatives to address hunger and new investments in the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship college tuition fund. The Senate amendments authorized more spending than the House but the budget still has 30% in reserves projected. House Bill 2 contains funding for 6% raise for state employees and educators, sharp increases in prekindergarten and child care assistance, higher Medicaid reimbursement rates intended to better compensate doctors and appropriates $100 million in one-time funding for a law enforcement officer recruitment fund.
BUSGET SIZE CONDEMNED AND ALLLEGATIONS OF “SHENANIGANS”
The passage of House Bill 2 did come with drama. The size of the budget was condemned and accusations of lack of transparency and behind closed doors shenanigans were made.
During the House debate, accusations were made about the way the Senate Finance Committee amended the budget and added more funding just a day after the committee had already approved the bill. The additional Senate amendment annoyed Republican senators on the committee and those Republicans raised questions about “behind-the-scenes deals” and political pressure for changes that may have come from the Governor’s Office.
Artesia Republican Representative Jim Townsend and other House Republicans expressed concern about the 14% increase in spending saying it is “troublesome” in a state where so much revenue comes from the boom-or-bust oil and gas industry. Townsend said this:
“I don’t think we can sustain it.”
Gallup Democrat Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, long serving the chair of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee before House Speaker Javier Martínez removed her at the beginning of the session, asked whether the Senate’s amendments were proper and admonished the Senate Committee. Lundstrom urge the House to reject the Senate amendment and said this during debate on the house floor:
“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. I think it was not handled properly. … I hope the House stands its ground and doesn’t roll over for the other side. … 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. … We may not be sure [what] shenanigans happened. … I’m concerned when a group tries to pull the wool over the eyes of its own committee.”
Las Cruces Democrat Representative Nathan Small, who succeeded Lundstrom as Chairman of the powerful House Appropriations committee said he was comfortable with the Senate changes. Small said this:
“We are investing in education. We are investing in infrastructure. We are making the largest investment in public safety, and we are saving more money than we have ever saved before. … [The budget] leaves a reserve fund of roughly 30%. [I am keeping a] cautious eye on oil and gas revenues.”
SENATE BUDGET AMENDMENTS QUESTIONED
It was on Sunday, March 13, that the Senate voted to approve House Bill 2 and the $9.6 billion budget, but it did so with amendments which required the bill to go back to the House to consider the budget as amended by the Senate. The full Senate voted 25-16, with all Democrats except Tohatchi Senator Shannon Pinto voting in favor and all Senate Republicans voted against the bill.
The Senate Finance Committee had approved revisions to the budget House Bill 2 on Saturday March 11, but the committee voted to bring back the spending plan for additional amendments before it advanced to a full senate chamber vote later in the day. One particular budget line-item that drew strong objections was $2 million for the Department of Game and Fish to protect threatened species. The appropriation was deleted in the previous version of the budget bill and it was restored.
Many of the budget bill changes adopted by the Senate were in response to concerns raised by the Governor’s Office after the House passed its version of House Bill 2. The areas of disagreement include proper funding levels for the Opportunity Scholarship, a tuition-free college program championed by Lujan Grisham, and child care assistance programs. The final changes also included revised budget language for how roughly $250 million should be spent to extend New Mexico’s annual public-school calendar.
Democrats and Republicans voiced frustration about the last-minute changes to the spending plan. Some lawmakers defended the revisions and said they were necessary to ensure a budget bill that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham would sign. Gallup area Senator George Muñoz, the Senate Finance Committee’s chairman, said he tried to be transparent in his handling of House Bill 2 after it passed the House last month, but acknowledged difficulty in modernizing a system that has long been shrouded in secrecy.
The last-minute Senate amendments drew sharp accusations from Republican senators who suggested the Governor’s Office and some top lawmakers had conspired on the changes. Broadview Republican Senator Pat Woods said this during the committee hearing:
“We shouldn’t be putting the stuff in here without running it through the process, letting every legislator in the House vote for it, before we just stick it in the dadgum budget as a personal piggy-bank.”
Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said this on the Senate floor:
“There’s a lot of us that still don’t have any idea what’s going on with the budget.”
Some Republican senators suggested the last-minute changes represented an end-run of sorts around this year’s budget-drafting efforts. Elephant Butte Republican Senator Crystal Diamond, said during Sunday’s debate:
“It’s just unfortunate that our values and our priorities got undermined.”
The links to news sources quoted are here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Talk about cutting it close and with politcal drama and a few sour grapes from both Democrats and Republicans thrown in for good measure. The legislative process has always been very messy and the legislature delaying as long as it did enacting the 2023 budget did not help in the least, but that’s New Mexico politics.
The 60 day session ends on March 18 at 12 noon. The Governor has until April 7 to act on the budget and she has the power of line-item veto where she can review specific appropriations and line item.
Just two years ago, the Governor line item veto a number of capital improvement appropriations sponsored by individual legislators and all hell broke loose with threaten overrides by the legislature. To quell the controversy, a special session was held to deal with the capital improvements budget.
The Governor would be wise to talk to more than a few legislator’s before she excercise her line item veto authority.