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As New Mexico legislators prepare to convene a 30-day session largely devoted to budgeting, natural resource agencies are asking the state to fund executive budget recommendations over more conservative proposals from a key legislative panel.
Brittany Fallon, policy director for New Mexico Wild, said conservation groups were “thrilled” when lawmakers directed $43.5 million in federal pandemic funds in December to state parks, watershed projects, outdoor recreation and abandoned well cleanup.
“But without staff funding, the agencies are not going to be able to spend that money in a timely way, because they’re barely surviving as is,” Fallon said. “Agencies can only protect the environment as much as we fund them to do so.”
The Legislative Finance Committee proposes that the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department receive a general fund increase of $1.8 million, or 7.5%, from Fiscal Year 2022.
The executive budget recommendation released by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration includes a general fund boost of $7 million, or a 29% increase.
EMNRD cabinet secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said the executive plan is “vastly preferable” for funding forest firefighters and oil and natural gas regulators.
“Some of the nuances matter greatly,” she said. “The executive recommendation supports creation of 11 new full-time employees (in forestry) including nine firefighter positions and an administrative position to help manage really complex funding streams and paperwork for firefighting expenses, with the fire season now lasting year round.”
The executive budget also supports a $50 million Land of Enchantment general obligation bond.
The proposal, which was not backed by the LFC, would fund forest thinning, land acquisitions and watershed projects if approved by lawmakers and voters.
The LFC recommends a general fund increase of $1 million, or 6%, for the Environment Department. The executive budget suggests an increase of $7.8 million or 48%.
Debate over natural resource agency funding is an “old tension,” said Ben Shelton, political and policy director for Conservation Voters New Mexico.
“But what’s different this year, specifically with climate, is that the agencies really put together some budget plans that restructure themselves internally to be a lot more proactive in the climate space,” Shelton said.
NMED requested staff funding for a climate change bureau to spearhead vehicle emissions standards and carbon emissions reductions.
The department also wants more staff for a cannabis and hemp bureau to regulate edibles.
The LFC proposes $400,000 from the general fund for seven climate bureau staff – with some positions contingent upon passage of hydrogen hub and clean fuel standard bills – and $239,000 for six cannabis and hemp bureau positions.
The executive plan poses $2.5 million for 15 climate change bureau staff and $2.3 mill for 19 new positions at the cannabis and hemp bureau.
NMED cabinet secretary James Kenney said state efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are attractive for big businesses eyeing New Mexico markets.
“Without funding the climate bureau, I think we’re basically signaling to those Fortune 500s that we’re not the right state for them,” Kenney said.
The executive budget would also direct $1.5 million to NMED to match federal grants for watershed and wetland projects.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.