SANTA FE — David Abbey — one of the most influential people in state government — announced plans to retire Monday as director of the Legislative Finance Committee, where he has led a staff of analysts who help shape the state budget and hold public agencies accountable.
He is the longest-serving director of the LFC, serving under Republican and Democratic lawmakers since 1997. His last day will be this summer.
“Without question, David Abbey was the most valuable state employee to the New Mexico Legislature that we’ve ever had,” said Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat who served as LFC chairwoman periodically in recent years.
Abbey, 70, is known as a prolific reader whose knowledge of state government often made him an annoyance to Democratic and Republican governors alike. But they also turned to his staff as a source of talent when they needed to fill high-level positions in the executive branch.
Abbey, for his part, said it’s a time to retire — after 40 years at the Capitol and the conclusion of a legislative session. Work on the next budget proposal is about to pick up over the summer months.
“I was lucky to have this career,” Abbey said in an interview. “I couldn’t have designed a job I felt fit my interests and skills better.”
Abbey has an economics degree from Brown University. But he also dropped out of college once and caught a freighter to South Africa, where he worked in Kruger National Park and later drove a forklift on the docks of Durban, a coastal city.
At the Roundhouse, Abbey has impressed lawmakers with his work ethic and understanding of New Mexico’s complex network of special funds and taxes.
“He’s kind of an amazing guy with that mind of his,” Republican Sen. Steven Neville of Aztec said.
As director of LFC, Abbey oversees a team of economists, analysts and policy experts who help put the state budget proposal together line by line. They also are a critical source of technical support for tax and finance legislation.
The staff members — some of whom hold doctorates — help the LFC serve as a watchdog agency of sorts. Their reports have spotlighted waste in government operations, tracked the long-term outcomes of state programs and shared academic research with lawmakers.
Former state Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who often served as chairman of the LFC, said Abbey deserves credit for continually building a talented group of analysts.
“I just can’t say enough good things about David,” Smith said. “Every governor I knew would get mad at LFC and David Abbey, and every governor, when elected, would” try to hire away his staff.
Smith said Abbey also played an essential role in helping legislators see beyond their “parochial” interests.
“When David looked at policy,” Smith said, “it had to be good for the entire state, in his mind. In the Legislature, you often have people thinking, ‘What’s good for my district?’ David was uniformly for what was best for the state of New Mexico.”
House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said Abbey helped steer legislators through “enormous challenges and unprecedented opportunities — from the national financial crisis of 2008 to today’s record revenues.”
Lawmakers who serve on the Legislative Finance Committee will choose the next director. The next meeting is in May.
Abbey makes about $190,000 a year.
In a 2008 profile, he told the Journal that he’d always been interested in public affairs. His father worked as a contractor for the U.S. State Department.
Abbey traveled throughout the West during summers in college and eventually took a job with Los Alamos National Laboratory, before moving into state government.
Abbey said Monday that he is particularly proud of his work on New Mexico’s expansion to full-day kindergarten, extended learning time in public schools and home visiting programs for new families.
“I was lucky to have the opportunity to serve the Legislature and our state,” Abbey said.
His next assignment — a trip to Basque country in France.
Dan Boyd of the Journal Capitol Bureau contributed to this article.