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Key legislative committee faces roadblock

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In its role overseeing the effectiveness of state agencies and programs, the Legislative Finance Committee does some of the most important work in government.

In recent years, for example, the LFC staff has reported on the chronic staff shortages and case overloads at the Children, Youth and Families Department, the cost overruns and other problems with the new computer system for the Department of Workforce Solutions and how poorly public schools are educating students.

Now, the LFC is being told it can no longer obtain documents, data or other information from executive agencies without first getting the approval of Gov. Susana Martinez’s chief of staff, Keith Gardner.

Martinez’s new policy, first reported last week by The Associated Press, also applies to the Legislative Education Study Committee. The administration says it wants to ensure executive agencies are acting collectively and cohesively.

Legislative leaders, both Republican and Democratic, fear the policy will hamper the flow of information. The Governor’s Office says it will continue to provide requested information consistent with state law.

The Legislative Finance Committee and the Legislative Education Study Committee are interim committees, meaning they meet between sessions of the Legislature.

The LFC and the LESC have members from both the House and Senate and from both parties, but Democrats are the majority on both committees because they are the majority in both the House and Senate. (Martinez is Republican.)

The LFC and the LESC are the only two legislative committees with their own staffs, which include some of the best and brightest people in government.

The LESC has about a dozen analysts and other employees, and its duties include a continuing study of education in New Mexico and recommending funding levels for public education.

The better-known LFC has about 40 staff members, including fiscal analysts, auditors and economists. Most have advanced degrees; a few have doctorates. It issues reports on agencies and programs, holds hearings and makes state budget recommendations.

The LFC staff director, David Abbey, has received a Distinguished Public Service Award from the University of New Mexico and has been recognized nationally for his work in helping address the state budget shortfall brought on by the last recession.

More than a half -dozen LFC employees, including now-Finance and Administration Secretary Tom Clifford, were hired by Martinez when she took office in January 2011.

The work of the LFC isn’t limited to overseeing the effectiveness of agencies and programs under the governor’s control. LFC reports, for example, also have been critical of the office of Attorney General Gary King and public schools.

Here is some of what the LFC staff has reported in recent years:

• June 2011: Efforts by the Children, Youth and Families Department to ensure child safety are being compromised by chronic case overload and top-heavy management.

• July 2011: The Office of Attorney General spends more money rooting out Medicaid fraud, waste and abuse than it recovers as a result of its efforts.

• October 2011: The agency that runs the State Fair is in dire fiscal straights because of sagging fair attendance, poor financial management and outstanding debt.

• June 2012: The state corrections system needs to better prepare inmates for release, because more than half return to prison within five years.

• September 2012: Government office space has expanded while the number of state workers has dropped.

• September 2012: New Mexico Lottery revenues aren’t keeping pace with demand for lottery-funded college scholarships.

• November 2012: The Motor Vehicle Division’s computer system is 30 years old, has been labeled the worst in the nation and is on the verge of collapse.

• November 2012: The state’s three-tier pay system for public school teachers has little connection to whether teachers boost students’ test scores.

• January 2013: Medicaid pays for about seven in 10 of all births in New Mexico.

• May 2013: New Mexicans could have longer waits for doctors as demand grows for medical services because of an aging population and expanded insurance coverage under Obamacare.

• May 2013: The state’s casinos and racetracks aren’t adequately overseen by state agencies because of too few personnel.

• July 2013: The previous administration of Gov. Bill Richardson mismanaged renovation of a schoolhouse in San Miguel County, a pet project of Richardson and national radio/TV talk show host Don Imus.

• July 2013: The cost of a newly implemented computer system for the unemployed to make claims and employers to pay unemployment taxes has more than doubled to $48 million.

• September 2013: Neither the $95 million the state spends on child care assistance nor the $61 million the federal governments spends on Head Start has boosted third-grade reading and math scores.

• September 2013: The state fails to collect as much as $56 million a year in tax revenue from the trucking industry because of inadequate enforcement.

• January 2014: The average time for a caller to complete a transaction with the unemployment insurance call center increased to 44.5 minutes, up from 15 minutes in fiscal 2012.

• More than half of high school graduates need to take remedial coursework – particularly in math and English – upon entering state colleges or universities.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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