Recover password

A call for more government accountability

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico state and local governments spent $22 billion in 2010, according to the U.S. Census — more than $10,000 per man, woman and child in the state.

There are checks and balances to try to make sure that money is spent appropriately, but could we do more to prevent waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement and to uncover misuse once it occurs?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest the answer is “yes,” and there are ideas on how we could do better.

Sen. John Sapien, a Corrales Democrat, is again proposing a government accountability office with authority to investigate spending from the firehouse to the statehouse.

State Auditor Hector Balderas is floating the idea of creating a permanent funding stream for his office and tripling its budget so it can conduct more special audits of state and local governments and agencies.

“The fraud is there. The risk is there. We know that for sure,” Balderas says.

It’s hard to know how much the state and local governments lose to misspending.

If New Mexico state and local governments lose just 1 percent to improper payments, that’s a hit of more than $200 million to taxpayers every year.

There are government mechanisms to try to prevent misuse of funds or uncover misappropriation once it occurs. Internal, or management, controls are the first line of defense. They are designed to ensure resources are used effectively and appropriately.

Some agencies have internal auditors and inspectors general to oversee compliance with internal and external controls, such as laws and regulations. Elected and appointed officials have responsibility for how their governments and agencies operate.

There also are outside checks on governments and agencies. They must be audited annually by outside CPAs. The state Department of Finance and Administration has some oversight over other state agencies and local governments. The Legislative Finance Committee monitors the performance of state agencies. Law enforcement conducts investigations and brings prosecutions. The news media have a watchdog role.

Still, we have had major problems with the use of government funds in recent years. Some examples:

  • Two men accused of stealing more than $2.5 million in federal voter education funds from the Secretary of State’s Office were convicted last month.
  • Two city officials in Sunland Park were suspended by the state last year after an audit uncovered widespread financial wrongdoing and mismanagement.
  • The state made $16 million in grants to a solar panel factory in Albuquerque without any requirement that all or most of the money be paid back if the factory closed. It did so in 2012.
  • The state built a $209 million spaceport under an agreement with Virgin Galactic, but under its lease, Virgin could walk away from the deal by paying a $2 million penalty, at most.
  • An audit in 2009 found that the former business manager of Jemez Mountain School District had embezzled $3.4 million over seven years.
  • Former state Senate President Pro Tem Manny Aragon and seven others were convicted in a conspiracy to steal $4.3 million from the construction of the Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque.

Sapien’s proposed government accountability office would have authority to audit and investigate state-funded entities “to ensure efficient and effective operations; proper use of public funding; and the detection and prevention of fraud, waste and abuse.”

The government accountability office would be headed by an inspector general appointed by the governor for six years with the consent of the Senate. The inspector general couldn’t be removed by the governor without approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

It is the second time Sapien has introduced such a bill. The first died in 2011 without so much as a committee hearing.

Under state law, the financial affairs of state and local governments and agencies must be examined each year by the State Auditor’s Office or independent auditors approved by the state auditor.

The auditor also has the authority to conduct special audits of governments and agencies, and the office has been involved in some high-profile investigations in recent years, including the New Mexico Finance Authority, Sunland Park, the Jemez Mountain School District and the state Public Regulation Commission.

“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” says Balderas, elected auditor in 2006 and re-elected in 2010.

Balderas says he could do more if he had more money, and is floating the idea that one-tenth of 1 percent of the state general fund budget be permanently earmarked for his office through a constitutional amendment approved by voters. That would have amounted to $5.6 million this year.

The one-tenth of 1 percent would be on top of what the office already receives from the state general fund, which is $2.5 million. The Legislature has proposed to increase that to $2.7 million next fiscal year; Gov. Susana Martinez has recommended $3.1 million.

Sapien says the work of the government accountability office, as he envisions it, wouldn’t conflict with the State Auditor’s Office. Balderas says he supports more auditing and oversight but that a GAO would need adequate funding, just like his office.

In general, what Sapien and Balderas are talking about is an increased investment by taxpayers in fighting waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in government.

Maybe their ideas are the best ways to make that investment; maybe someone else has a better idea.

But given the government corruption and giveaways of recent years, it’s hard to argue with the idea of doing more to ensure public money is spent efficiently, effectively and appropriately.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at tcole@abqjournal.com   or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new  to submit a letter to the editor.

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