In scramble to spend federal money, lawmakers make million-dollar errors

By: - December 10, 2021 10:18 am

The New Mexico House of Representatives, pictured Dec. 6, in Santa Fe. (Photo by Patrick Lohmann / Source New Mexico)

New Mexico Game and Fish Director Michael Sloane left some members of the Senate Finance Committee speechless Thursday when he balked at $5 million coming his way to help his agency buy 50,000 acres of ranch land in Northern New Mexico. 

“I guess I’d first like to begin by expressing my surprise at the inclusion of the $5 million appropriation for property acquisition statewide,” he told the committee, “given that the department did not make the request.”

Sloane explained that buying the property in question was only “aspirational” and not yet a firm department priority. He also said the agency could not use federal American Rescue Plan Act money for the purchase if it also wanted to use other federal funds. 

He had no explanation for how the ranch purchase could have been added to the bill, where it was part of more than $460 million in proposed spending from the federal stimulus program. Neither did other senators at the hearing.

“I am at a loss for words right now with what you’re coming before us and saying,” Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte) told him. “So I guess my first question, I’m afraid you don’t have the answers, if you’re not requesting the funds for this land acquisition, who put it in (the bill)?”

The misallocation of $5 million to Game and Fish was one of two such mistakes that surfaced during the hearing. 

Another $10 million was allocated to the New Mexico Water Fund, even though that program is already overfunded, committee chair state Sen. George Muñoz announced at the meeting. Muñoz explained that the money would have had no use at the Water Project Fund, because all the projects on the fund’s docket are fully funded. 

“So, we’re going to have to look at that item,” the Gallup Democrat said during the hearing. 

Muñoz later told Source New Mexico that, in his opinion, the mistakes are a consequence of the scramble to spend more than $460 million in American Rescue Plan Act money before the end of the special session. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham late last week announced that the Legislature would have to allocate the money — which totals $1.1 billion —  during the ongoing special session, in addition to once-a-decade redistricting.

“I’d attribute them to having short notice, to not getting 100% viable projects,” he said. “Basically, we got a message or a notice on a Thursday … that it was going to be added to the call,” which required a flurry of weekend work by the House and Legislative Finance Committee. 

Muñoz previously cautioned that the scramble to spend the funds was not fiscally responsible. He said he’s not sure what other issues might come up in the coming days, though he expects that the misallocated money identified Thursday will find a better home. 

“We’ll see. I don’t know how much more time we have,” he said. “We’ll need to have more conversations of, is this really what we want to do? Or do we need to change some stuff around?”

He said the hearings like the one on Thursday are a necessary step to determine from agency heads whether the money is able to be spent quickly on necessary projects. More hearings will likely happen this week and next, he said, before the funding is finally approved. 

Patty Lundstrom (D-Gallup), chair of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee, said the errors occurred due to the time crunch.

“We’re trying to do this fairly quickly,” she said.

She said the Game and Fish Department had requested the money for the ranch from state, not federal, funding sources, so they’ll be able to pay it from a state fund in the regular session in January.

“That’s the beauty of having a session in less than six weeks,” she said. “We can fix all this.”

She’ll introduce an amended bill Friday that cuts both allocations. She also said she is unaware of any other errors like those that would prevent the money lawmakers allocate from being spent.

“If an agency says we can’t use it, we’re not going to allocate it,” she said.

In a statement last week to Source New Mexico, Lujan Grisham’s spokesperson Nora Sackett said that it was “imperative” to allocate the federal money soon, and that there are some federal limitations on where it can be spent, making the process quicker. 

Lawmakers expected the federal stimulus money appropriations to be a part of the regular legislative session that starts in January. 

Governor packs $1 billion in spending into special redistricting session

Lawmakers have said they pushed off making decisions about more than half of the $1.1 billion to the regular session, focusing instead on spending this money quickly on established programs that didn’t require additional legislation to spend. 

The money that Sloane didn’t ask for was supposed to go toward the $33 million purchase of the “L Bar Ranch,” two plots of ranch land in Sandoval and McKinley counties that comprise about 52,000 acres. The agency has bought land of this type in the past for conservation and hunting, Sloane said. 

The listing for one of the properties states that the property is “under contract” to be purchased. The property’s broker declined to say who is under contract to buy the ranch. 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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