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‘It’s our money’ mindset must be eliminated

State Auditor Wayne Johnson

“We honestly believe this is our money.” Seven words spoken by New Mexico Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, to the Albuquerque Journal, eloquently – if unintentionally – illustrate a shocking lack of understanding of public money and the absolute necessity for an independent state auditor.

Trujillo chairs the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District (NCNMEDD) and was explaining why a recent audit shows thousands of public dollars spent on pricey parties and bonuses during state budget cuts.

The NCNMEDD has a state contract to administer state and federal funds for senior centers and programs like Meals on Wheels and Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in nearly every county.

I recently visited the J.O.Y. Center in Roswell where senior services like meals and transportation were cut by $45,947 while NCNMEDD spent thousands at gaming venues, four-star restaurants and boutique hotels for its own staff, plus $57,400 in employee bonuses. Doña Ana County seniors lost $45,106, and Santa Fe County lost $43,078. Overall, $617,998 was cut from senior programs statewide.

I met hard-working staff and volunteers who aren’t eating four-star meals and staying in fancy hotels. They’re stretching every dollar to serve nutritional meals to as many seniors as possible in centers and at home. They’re struggling to fill budget gaps they say mean fewer meals and home visits, while drivers aren’t available to pick up the home-bound for doctor visits.

By using money for themselves while budgets shrank, the NCNMEDD was literally taking food from the tables of seniors.

“This is our money” is an appalling but not isolated attitude upon reviewing the NCNMEDD. A previous audit revealed similar financial mismanagement when it lost records of almost $1 million of taxpayer money and 12 miles of fiber optic cable meant for internet to underserved areas.

NCNMEDD isn’t (alone). … Another special audit found the Regional Coalition of LANL Communities (spent) thousands of dollars on expensive restaurants, wines and whiskeys, and tickets to a professional baseball game at your expense.

It’s not OK. The Legislature adopted laws requiring transparency and accountability to ensure public funds aren’t wasted, abused or stolen. As the state’s top transparency officer, it’s my job to ensure every state and local government follows the laws and policies that protect your tax dollars. I have found too many public bodies hidden in the dark recesses of bureaucracy. I’m determined to change that.

The New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool is one example. The Legislature created it to provide health insurance to people rejected by private insurers. The pool taxes insurance companies, including those that provide Medicaid coverage. In New Mexico insurance companies are required to fund the pool. It shocked me to find the High-Risk Pool has never provided a complete financial/compliance audit.

For nearly 30 years the pool and its chairman – the superintendent of insurance – have operated as if it’s their money and have taken the drastic step of suing my office to prevent the public from knowing how they operate. …

Others who believed it’s their money are unscrupulous guardians appointed by courts to protect adults unable to manage their affairs. I’m working with judges to prevent the most vulnerable among us from having their finances fleeced by those entrusted to protect them.

Waste, fraud and abuse thrive in darkness. Too many officials believe “this is our money.” They’re wrong. … As your state auditor, I’m committed to making sure your money is used appropriately, lawfully and wisely.

Wayne Johnson, a Republican, is running for re-election Nov. 6. He was appointed to the position in December and previously served as a Bernalillo County commissioner.

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