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Sen. Smith: Don’t expect big changes on DA funding

SANTA FE — The influential chairman of the Senate Finance Committee says the panel is unlikely to make big changes to a $6.3 billion spending plan, despite political pressure from Gov. Susana Martinez and others to further increase funding for prosecution efforts in Bernalillo County.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said a proposed funding hike for the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s office in the House-approved budget — an additional $2.3 million to hire more prosecutors and provide pay raises — is already larger than that of nearly any other agency.

Any larger increases would be unfair, he said, citing recent legislative data showing that Española, Taos, Belen and Gallup all have higher crime rates than Albuquerque.

“It opens up the door to say, ‘Why not me?'” Smith told the Journal.

He also questioned why Martinez, a former prosecutor, is now supporting a hefty spending increase for the 2nd Judicial District. The two-term GOP governor recommended flat or modest budget increases for the agency in each of the four previous fiscal years, according to legislative data.

“All of a sudden, now she wants substantially more,” Smith said.

In response, a Martinez spokeswoman criticized the veteran senator, a conservative Democrat who’s regarded as a top legislative budget guru.

“The Senate Finance Committee chair should know the difference between a surplus budget and a deficit,” Martinez spokesman Emilee Cantrell said Thursday, referring to a recent revenue uptick after several years of lower-than-expected tax collections.

“Nevertheless, he was wrong to try and raise taxes on New Mexicans last year and he’s wrong about being soft on crime this year,” Cantrell added.

Funding for the state’s largest district attorney’s office has emerged as a significant budget flashpoint in a year in which there’s otherwise been broad bipartisan agreement on most budgetary matters.

In the last week, the Governor’s Office has described the House-passed spending plan as a “soft on crime” budget that’s full of pork-barrel projects. A senior administration official has also suggested it could face vetoes in its current form.

Before this year’s session began, Second Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez, whose office covers Bernalillo County, asked for a nearly 30 percent budget hike for the fiscal year that starts in July — a request then endorsed by Martinez.

Torrez, a Democrat who was elected in 2016, specifically requested a $5.4 million base budget increase to hire more prosecutors as Albuquerque grapples with soaring crime rates.

The budget bill approved by the House would provide less than half of that amount — a $2.3 million bump would represent roughly a 13 percent increase over the office’s current $18.2 million budget. The bill would also authorize several one-time expenditures, including $600,000 for prosecuting the three people charged with killing 10-year old Victoria Martens in 2016.

But that proposed increase has not proven large enough to satisfy many critics, including a group made up of family members of murder victims.

Albuquerque’s crime rate has gone up since 2010, and the city’s 75 reported homicides last year were the highest in recent history. Also, among the nation’s 30 or so largest cities, Albuquerque was tops percentage-wise in crime in 2016, according to federal data.

At the state level, the 2nd Judicial District accounted for about 48 percent of New Mexico’s violent crime and 70 percent of auto thefts in 2016, according to Torrez. He has also said his funding request would allow his office to hire 20 more attorneys who, combined, could handle roughly 1,600 felony cases.

However, some skeptics have questioned where Torrez would find those additional attorneys, and whether such a quick ramp-up would be effective if similar investments are not made in funding for courts, law enforcement and public defenders.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to unveil its changes to the House-approved spending bill by as soon as Saturday. If approved by the panel, the spending plan would then move on to the full Senate.

The 30-day legislative session ends Feb. 15.