New Mexico senate committee rushes debate on money earmarked for dead bill

Lawmakers complain of last-second changes and a lack of transparency surrounding the reappropriation of $50 million in funding.

By: - March 13, 2023 4:00 am

The seal of New Mexico outside the New Mexico State Capitol on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)

An energy bill that died in the New Mexico House of Representatives at the request of the All Pueblo Council of Governors was partially resurrected Wednesday in a Senate Finance Committee hearing that debated — after a fashion — what to do with $50 million previously set aside for the dead bill. But one would be forgiven for not knowing the details. The committee was discussing wording in HB2, the Legislature’s overall spending bill, but was working with documents received at the last second and not made available to the public.

In fact, they weren’t made available to the cabinet secretaries whose budgets were discussed, either. One handout contained a reshuffling of the New Mexico Environment Department budget, and a day later, James Kenney, the NMED cabinet secretary, still hadn’t received or even seen a copy. “They don’t post the handouts,” he said. He called tracking his budget as it winds through the Legislature “a little challenging.”

The proposed changes at NMED include shifting money primarily from the department’s groundwater cleanup program to the department’s climate change program and ozone standards enforcement — both of which deal with the state’s burgeoning oil and gas industry. “I hope we’re not choosing this at the expense of clean drinking water,” Kenney said. “They pick winners and losers and then ask me to go tell communities who wins and loses.”

That shift and the $50 million reappropriation were two of dozens of changes contained in three packets filled with recommended budget updates handed out to lawmakers an hour and 20 minutes into the committee meeting, after the committee had already discussed bills addressing subjects ranging from the Special Olympics to health care funding. It was the first time many of the committee members had seen the information. The documents, which were debated and voted on publicly, were not made available to the public after the meeting. A staffer in the Legislative Finance Committee called them “budget development documents” and said they are not public records. Melanie Majors, open records watchdog and executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, called that “poppycock.”

She wasn’t the only surprised party. “In the future, we need to do a better job allowing a full discussion on these issues, full participation, including transparency to the public, and that’s just the bottom line,” committee member Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) said after the meeting.

He was particularly angry with the rushed, last-second nature of the debate. “This is an unacceptable process that shouldn’t be repeated,” he said. “You barely have time to process it in real time in the few seconds you’re being allowed to debate it.”

There was plenty to debate. Capital & Main obtained copies of the documents, which include a dramatic rewrite of the $50 million appropriation to the Economic Development Department (EDD) originally intended for “public-private partnerships to seek matching federal funds for advanced energy-related projects” plus another sentence on implementation. The committee recommendation replaced those two sentences with five paragraphs covering border planning, infrastructure, economic transition projects and, again, advanced energy projects. It also earmarked millions for the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the Environment Department, the Finance Authority and the Department of Workforce Solutions to carry out the work.

More than $30 million of the original appropriation wasn’t clearly promised to any department and goes toward “unidentified, vague stuff,” Steinborn said in the hearing. He asked, “Who gets to decide how to spend that?” In the original act, a board populated with appointees from state universities, state agencies, the state’s two national science labs, Native American representatives and others with science backgrounds would have vetted grant proposals brought to EDD — but that act died. Charles Sallee, deputy director for budget at the Legislative Finance Committee, who was explaining the changes, said that under the legislation as currently written the EDD would decide on its own.

Steinborn then asked for the definition of an advanced energy project. The committee chair, Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup), responded that the bill’s language “came over from the House that way. You’d have to ask them.” Other New Mexicans had that question, too, but earlier. The now-dead Advanced Technology Energy Act definition for advanced energy projects included hydrogen from fossil fuels, nuclear power and carbon sequestration projects — all controversial political topics. Last week, the All Pueblo Council of Governors asked the bill sponsors to put it on hold for another year until its own questions about advanced energy technologies could be answered. The sponsors quickly pulled the plug.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Muñoz repeatedly asked the group to avoid wording changes or adding money anywhere. He also asked to keep discussion limited. “If we start adding anything at this point, I think that it’s dangerous,” he told the committee. “I think we’ve fleshed $9 billion out pretty well, plus a billion dollars in capital spending, plus a billion dollars in tax packages. We’re at a point where we’re full everywhere,” he said. The budget, at $9.4 billion, is the largest in state history, and more than a third of it comes from oil and gas revenues.

While most senators remained quiet, some were clearly nonplussed. “I’m not quite sure why we’re even going through all of [this] if we don’t even have any money left,” Sen. Michael Padilla (D-Albuquerque) said.

“We need to vote on this today,” Muñoz said halfway through the debate, and he was clear that the wording needed to pass. Indeed, when the committee did vote on the changes to HB2, they passed unanimously. When Steinborn then broached further debate at a later date, Muñoz shut him down. “We’re not opening HB2 again to adjust numbers,” he said. Steinborn later called the response “totally inappropriate.”

There are still possibilities for further debate over both the NMED budget and the overall budget. HB2 has yet to be discussed on the Senate floor, and the reconciliation process between House and Senate versions offers another window of opportunity for change. But with only a week left before the end of this year’s legislative session, “This train’s about to leave this station,” Steinborn said.

This story was originally published by Capital & Main. It is republished here with permission.

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Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main
Jerry Redfern, Capital & Main

Visual journalist Jerry Redfern covers the environmental and humanitarian issues across Southeast Asia and other developing regions, as well as at home in the US. His work ranges from the aftermath of American bombs in Laos to agroforestry in Belize to life amid logging in Borneo. Jerry’s photos have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Der Spiegel, among others. He has contributed to four book projects, including Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos (co-authored with Karen Coates), which was a finalist for the IRE Book Award.