SANTA FE – A spending provision buried in a 213-page budget bill is drawing close scrutiny as a 60-day legislative session nears its end.
The $7 billion budget bill passed by the House included a $886,500 appropriation for House leadership to spend on “staff, operational and related expenses” at the Capitol and elsewhere for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told reporters this week the money was intended to be used to allow majority House Democrats to set up and staff constituent field offices in Albuquerque and Las Cruces.
Top-ranking House Republicans would have also been able to set up similar offices in locations of their choice, he said.
However, some legislators objected to the appropriation and a Senate committee struck the money from the budget bill earlier this month.
That prompted back-and-forth negotiations between the two chambers that ended Friday with a compromise of sorts – $350,000 in funding for both House and Senate leadership to provide constituent services by hiring staffers, travel and other operational expenses.
But several senators expressed misgivings with the final result, saying the money could potentially be used for political patronage.
“I’m concerned about the precedent we may be setting,” Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, said on the Senate floor.
“As long as we’re a citizen Legislature, I don’t think we should be doing this,” added Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants.
While Legislative Council Service Director Raúl Burciaga would have to sign off on expenditures, he said Friday the hires would be appointees – and thus would not be subject to the state’s merit-based classified hiring system.
New Mexico is the nation’s only state with an unsalaried Legislature, though lawmakers do receive per diem payments – currently set at $184 daily – intended to offset the cost of food and lodging.