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Investigation sought on panel’s budget work

SANTA FE – State Rep. James Townsend called for an investigation Thursday into whether some of his colleagues violated a House rule when they met informally as a subcommittee – without him – to work on the budget.

In particular, Townsend says his own $41 million proposal to help school districts didn’t get fair treatment as a $6.3 billion budget bill was crafted in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

He said he had learned that a quorum of committee members met last week to work on the budget without inviting him, and his proposal wasn’t properly considered.

Townsend, a Republican from Artesia, announced his displeasure on the House floor Thursday morning and then walked up to the fourth floor of the Roundhouse, where, he said, he asked legislative staff members to investigate.

“You shouldn’t be excluded from the process – none of us should be,” he said.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, said there was no violation of the rules. It’s true that subcommittees help work on the budget, she said, but the groups don’t make final decisions and anybody is welcome to attend them.

There is simply too much budget work that must happen quickly in a 30-day session to work as a full committee at all times, she said, so smaller working groups or subcommittees go over parts of the budget proposal separately.

“Anybody who wants to show up can show up,” Lundstrom said.

Any recommendations the smaller groups make, she said, must be acted on in a properly noticed full meeting of the House appropriations committee – whose work, in turn, is subject to action on the House floor.

Townsend is a member of the House appropriations committee, and he was the lone vote in committee against the bill for the fiscal year starting in July. He was also one of just three members who voted against the bill when it reached the House floor.

His proposal centers on reimbursing school districts for money the Legislature took from them last year to ensure the state could pay its bills among a budget crisis. Money out of school districts’ cash reserves was “swept” into the state’s general fund.

Now that the budget picture has improved, Townsend says, districts should get about $41 million back – money that would shore up their finances and help them avoid having to seek emergency financial help from the state, he said.

Townsend noted that his complaint about the budget process isn’t partisan: Republicans and Democrats alike went to the subcommittee meeting he wasn’t invited to, he said.

“I just think the process is skewed,” he said.

The budget proposal is now in the Senate.

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