SANTA FE – Former longtime New Mexico lawmaker Luciano “Lucky” Varela, a budget guru who helped guide the state through turbulent economic times, died late Saturday evening after recent health complications.
He was 82.
Varela, a Democrat and former state controller, represented a Santa Fe-area House seat for 30 years – from 1987 through 2016 – before stepping down.
He served as chairman of the powerful Legislative Finance Committee, among other key committee posts, and was regarded as a top budget mind and a savvy lawmaker.
“Lucky was beloved in Santa Fe for many reasons, not the least of which was that he knew more about the state’s budget than most of us ever will,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said in a Sunday statement. “He never shied away from asking tough questions and giving selflessly of his time and energy to make New Mexico a better state.”
Before retiring from the Legislature, Varela pushed for pay increases for rank-and-file state employees and expressed concern about high vacancy rates across New Mexico state government.
“We have a morale problem in state government, and we need to address it,” Varela said in 2013.
He also took an interest in other issues, including sponsoring 2009 legislation aimed at curbing the practice of allowing retired state workers to return to work while still collecting pension benefits.
Varela, who grew up in Pecos, also staunchly opposed legislation allowing landowners to block public access for wading and fishing in streams running through private property.
But it was his work on the state budget – and knowledge of state finances – that got the most attention as news of his death circulated Sunday.
“Lucky Varela was a master legislator whose expertise on the budget and finances was unparalleled,” former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson told the Journal. “He was also a gentle soul who cared deeply about his Santa Fe constituents and his wonderful family.”
A spokesman for two-term Republican Gov. Susana Martinez also praised Varela in a Sunday statement.
“We are all deeply saddened by the passing of former Representative Varela,” Martinez spokesman Joseph Cueto said. “He spent many long hours at the Roundhouse leading the (House) Appropriations and Finance Committee to help not only those in his district, but our entire state grow stronger.”
Varela was forced to skip much of the 2015 legislative session after an infection in his right foot required the amputation of his toes.
But he returned in better health for the 2016 session and unsuccessfully pushed legislation that year to increase the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and repeal dozens of tax breaks in state law.
“He loved his family. He loved the Legislature. He had high integrity and he was a leader, which is important in these times,” said longtime Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey.
The Santa Fe lawmaker’s son, Jeff Varela, said Sunday services were still being scheduled.
But he said his father had taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks, after appearing to initially recover from a heart attack earlier this year.
“From a family perspective, he was our leader,” Jeff Varela said. “He was our mentor.”