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New Mexico tax agency moves to fill vacancies

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, announces the appointment of Stephanie Schardin Clarke, left, as secretary of taxation and revenue and Lynn Trujillo as secretary of Indian affairs in late January at the Roundhouse. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Nearly three out of every 10 jobs are vacant in the state agency that administers New Mexico’s complex tax code, drawing concern from lawmakers about chronic understaffing.

The vacancy rate of 27 percent – down from 30 percent at the beginning of the year – comes as the state Taxation and Revenue Department evaluates over $500 million in tax protests filed by companies or individuals who say they overpaid.

The figures surfaced in a legislative hearing Tuesday at the Capitol. Lawmakers expressed concern about the vacancy rates and volume of tax protests.

“It’s been a fact that there’s been an erosion in the department for virtually 25 or 30 years,” said state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming. “We’ve got a lot of fixing that has to be done.”

Stephanie Schardin Clarke, who took over as New Mexico’s secretary of taxation and revenue in late January, said she has made hiring and retaining employees a priority. The department started the year, she said, in a bit of a hole, with a 30 percent vacancy rate, and it hadn’t had permanent leadership – a Cabinet secretary, confirmed by the Senate – in years.

But the department has hired 30 new employees, she said, pushing its staffing up to about 780 filled positions out of 1,072.

Schardin Clarke said the agency is reinstating an educational assistance program for employees and taken other steps to make it an attractive place to work.

Staffing in the Taxation and Revenue Department has been a longtime concern in the Capitol, where lawmakers have questioned whether the state is collecting all the tax revenue it’s owed.

A coalition of local governments is also suing the department, alleging it hasn’t distributed tax revenue properly. The state denies the allegations.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat who presided over Tuesday’s meeting as chairman of the Revenue Stabilization and Tax Police Committee, said the tax department plays a critical role in securing state revenue.

“This agency – we need to make sure we are fully staffed and ready to do business more than any other across state government,” Cisneros said.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, told Schardin Clarke that the amount of taxes under protest suggests a broader problem – that “something is wrong.”

He said he successfully protested a small amount of taxes himself.

Schardin Clarke said the department is working hard to create a better culture of customer service and develop consistent procedures.

After years of belt-tightening, New Mexico’s operating budget will grow to $7 billion in the fiscal year that begins July 1, an 11 percent increase over current spending levels.

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