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Lawmakers consider bringing back ‘junior’ spending bill

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – It’s been more than a decade since New Mexico had enough money to pay for a supplemental spending bill that gives individual legislators a pot of money to fund pet projects.

But top lawmakers say they are contemplating bringing back such a bill – called the “junior” budget bill – in the final weeks of this year’s session.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said the plan is for each of the 70 members of the House to have $400,000 to spend under the bill, which has not yet moved out of her committee.

That amounts to $28 million in total spending, half of which would be for nonrecurring spending and the other half would be for ongoing – or year-after-year – spending.

State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom

“Members recognize we have a lot more revenue,” Lundstrom told the Journal, referring to a projected $1.2 billion budget surplus driven by unprecedented oil production levels in southeastern New Mexico.

She said money spent under the bill could go toward pilot programs, studies or existing state programs.

But some lawmakers say they don’t think the supplemental spending bill is a good policy.

“I just don’t think it’s a responsible vehicle,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the influential chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

In addition, Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said the practice could lead to money being appropriated to state agencies even if they did not request it or don’t want it.

Although it’s unclear how much money might be available to senators, Smith said he would put his available money in the bill toward filling staff vacancies at the state Taxation and Revenue Department.

The supplemental spending bills – House Bill 548 and Senate Bill 536 – would be separate from an annual capital outlay bill that allows lawmakers to divvy up available dollars for roads, dams, sports fields and other infrastructure projects.

That process has come under fire by critics who describe it as secretive pork barrel spending, and some of those critics say they have similar concerns about the supplemental spending bill.

“This is the public’s money, and the public has a right to know how each legislator is choosing to spend it,” said Fred Nathan, the executive director of the Santa Fe-based Think New Mexico, a think tank that has pushed for more disclosure in spending of public dollars.

The last year New Mexico lawmakers passed a “junior” spending bill was in 2007, during then-Gov. Bill Richardson’s second term in office.

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