Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Revised spending bill may add more transparency measures

Flags hang at the Roundhouse rotunda. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A $50 million spending bill that ignited a legislative furor after being vetoed this month by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not include any disclosure of how lawmakers divided up dollars at their disposal.

But that could change under a revived bill that is expected to be brought back for a special session next month.

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said Monday she has set up a Senate subcommittee to look at ways to bring more transparency to the so-called “junior” spending bill that legislators have assembled in recent cash-flush years.

“We recognize that this bill needs to be more transparent,” Stewart told the Journal. “We should have been doing it from the start – shame on us for that.”

While no decisions have been made yet, Stewart said lawmakers are considering adopting a similar system to that adopted last year for the state’s annual capital outlay bill – a separate spending package that funds public works projects.

Under the 2021 law, the Legislative Council Service, the Legislature’s administrative arm, is required to publish a list 30 days after the conclusion of each regular session containing every legislator’s final list of funded projects, along with dollar amounts.

The change came after years of secrecy regarding the annual capital outlay package, though some lawmakers had voluntarily disclosed their spending decisions.

House Majority Whip Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, said House Democrats discussed the issue during a recent caucus meeting and would welcome a similar system for junior spending bills.

“I think that’s what taxpayers and constituents want,” Gallegos said in an interview.

She also said she allocated her available funding during this year’s 30-day session to pay for police equipment and library expenses in Anthony and other rural communities in her district.

However, Stewart said the disclosure requirement could be difficult to implement for this year since the special session bill is expected to be largely similar to the one vetoed last month, with some possible changes to address the governor’s concerns.

Democratic legislators and Lujan Grisham reached agreement last week on plans to call a special session focused on reviving the $50 million spending bill and approving additional tax rebates to benefit New Mexicans struggling with high gas prices.

That agreement came after lawmakers considered calling themselves back to Santa Fe for a rare extraordinary legislative session to override the governor’s veto.

Lujan Grisham, in his March 9 veto message, said the spending bill only partially funded many of the 500 or so projects it contained and did not represent sound fiscal policy.

“While I’m sure my veto today is disappointing to many, it is my sincere hope that it will serve as a catalyst for changing this process going forward to ensure that all such substantial expenditures are warranted and prudent,” the governor said.

Shannon Kunkel, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said increased disclosure requirements should be one of those changes during the special session scheduled to start April 5.

“I think this is an opportunity to shine a little light on this process that is kind of inside baseball,” Kunkel said. “It’s taxpayer money, so we should know the thinking behind funded projects.”

She also pointed out that open government advocates pushed for years for more transparency in state capital outlay spending.

Spending allocations for this year’s final $823.1 million capital outlay bill were posted last week.

While most lawmakers targeted available dollars at projects within their district, some funded projects in other parts of the state.

For instance, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, allocated $150,000 of his available capital outlay dollars to the construction of a COVID-19 survivors’ health care clinic in McKinley County, which is one of the counties hit hardest by the ongoing pandemic .

Several other legislators also chipped in to fund the project.

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