‘Junior’ budget bills fill in the gaps

Money can go toward community projects from Meals on Wheels to uranium mine cleanup

March 28, 2022 4:58 am

(Getty Images)

When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pocket vetoed the so called “junior bill” a couple of weeks ago, she opened what former Gov. Bruce King called a “Box of Pandoras.”  Legislators of both parties and all ideological stripes immediately called for an extraordinary session to override the veto of one of the few bills that had passed unanimously in an otherwise highly contentious session.

The $50-million spending package contained funding for community projects designated by legislators themselves — everything from meals on wheels, transportation for people with disabilities, equipment for police and sheriffs to land grant operating expenses and uranium-mine cleanup. 

Each senator got $600,000 to allocate to preferred projects; Representatives got $360,000. The junior bill is often confused with the capital outlay bill, but that’s for brick-and-mortar projects like roads or buildings. Legislators get to divvy up one-off allocations for those projects. Unlike capital outlay, junior bills can include recurring, operational funds for staff and ongoing programs.  

To some, including the governor, a junior bill looks like a Christmas tree, with each legislator getting an ornament or two. In her veto message, Lujan Grisham said the allocations were unvetted and opaque. The big, annual budget, after all, goes through extensive hearings. Even the capital annual bill is finally transparent, after years of advocacy, with legislators required to reveal their allocations. 

But junior bills are not all bad. Over my 16 years in the New Mexico Senate, I witnessed how the power and ability of rank-and-file lawmakers reduced drastically as they tried to get their policy ideas or projects into the main budget. Thanks largely to former Sen. John Arthur Smith (D-Deming), this power is now concentrated in the Legislative Finance Committee and the two standing appropriations committees of the House and Senate. If you are not a member of those committees, your priorities often go unaddressed despite the dire consequences facing communities without services like, say, a behavioral health clinic or someone to maintain a rural water system.

Often a junior bill is the only way for ordinary legislators to address these needs, which may have been passed over by the big committees in favor of solving a crisis du jour or funding a governor’s big initiative, like free college tuition or a hydrogen hub.

For years, with the help of the nonprofit, Farm to Table, I pushed for funding that would allow schools to use locally grown produce to feed children in the public schools. It seemed like a win-win, a way to help local farmers, keep the valley green and keep our kids healthy, counterbalancing the enormous amount of junk food consumed by the average teenager.  But it never got off the ground. Sure, there were a few hundred thousand appropriated here and there throughout the years, but not a statewide project that would change the paradigm. 

What to do? In 2007 I allocated funds from a junior bill to fund a small pilot program for North Valley schools to use fresh produce from New Mexico as part of snacks and lunches for kids. The program has been a great success and other legislators have started initiatives in their own districts, pushing the Public Education Department to begin a statewide program and enlarge it every year using funding in the main budget. 

With funding from the junior bill, the “farm-to-school” project took off, providing a model for how it might be scaled up statewide.  Thank you notes and letters from parents, students, organic growers and others poured in. It was the most popular thing I ever did for my district.

Several agricultural projects were included in this year’s vetoed junior bill. Other funding went to nonprofits that run after-school programs, shelter the survivors of domestic violence, or provide help for victims of crime. These programs are important parts of our communities — filling in the gaps that legislators can perceive and sometimes providing the social equity that the big programs see only as a byproduct.

Fortunately, the special legislative session just announced for April 5 will moderate the shock and awe that the veto of the junior bill caused among nonprofits, legislators and their constituents. A new junior bill will be part of a package negotiated with the governor, which will also include a rebate to help consumers hard pressed by rising gas prices.  

An embarrassing veto override no longer seems likely. And hopefully, legislators will move to address a valid point made by the governor: transparency. The sponsor of each appropriation in the new junior bill should be identified. Communities, constituents, local officials and residents want to know where the money came from. 

Now that shouldn’t be a huge problem in an election year, should it? 

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Dede Feldman
Dede Feldman

Dede Feldman represented Albuquerque’s North Valley in the N.M. Senate from 1997 to 2012. She is the author of "Inside the NM Senate" and "Ten More Doors: Politics and the Path to Change."