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Changes in drug court funding may be in store

SANTA FE – Funding for New Mexico’s drug courts for repeat DWI and drug offenders would be slashed next year under Gov. Susana Martinez’s $6.3 billion spending plan, a top-ranking courts administrator told lawmakers this week.

If approved, the budget cuts would probably mean booting at least 100 people – or about 10 percent – out of the statewide drug court programs, said Artie Pepin, the director of the Administration Office of the Courts in Santa Fe.

“You take all those people, if they’re not going to drug court, they’re going to be incarcerated,” Pepin told members of a House finance committee. “It really would be counterproductive.”

However, a Martinez spokesman disputed the claim, saying the Republican governor’s spending plan would reallocate money for some programs – but not drug courts – to keep judiciary branch spending levels stable in a budget year in which money is expected to be tight.

Currently, New Mexico drug court programs have a budget of slightly more than $2.4 million, according to the courts. Most of that money comes from the state general fund, but about 20 percent – a total of $500,000 – comes from liquor excise tax revenue collected by the state.

Under the governor’s budget plan, that tax money would no longer be earmarked specifically for drug court, and general fund spending would be trimmed back to its 2014 budget year level, according to the Department of Finance and Administration.

But drug courts could still get some of the liquor tax dollars, possibly even more than they are currently receiving, according to the agency. The funding decision would be up to a board consisting of state and local leaders, as is currently done for many county-run DWI programs.

The Legislative Finance Committee’s budget recommendation calls for drug court spending to be increased by $250,000 in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1. The judicial branch has asked for $775,000 more in drug court funding next year.

While the overall state budget is still being crafted in the 60-day legislative session that began last week, several lawmakers voiced concern during a House Appropriations and Finance Committee hearing this week about the potential cuts.

Rep. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, said such a move would be a “big mistake” from a policy standpoint, saying, “The old cliche penny-wise and pound-foolish comes to mind.”

Drug courts generally involve judges teaming up with prosecutors, public defenders and mental health professionals to work with repeat substance abuse offenders as an alternative to jail. They are aimed at decreasing recidivism rates, or inmates cycling in out of the prison system.

There are currently about 1,025 participants in 52 drug court programs around the state. Those programs include both adult and juvenile drug courts, as well as mental health courts.

A 2013 report by the LFC found drug court programs are more cost-effective to the state than prison-run drug treatment programs. It also found 75 percent of inmates entering New Mexico’s prisons have a history of drug addiction.

The Martinez administration and the judicial branch have clashed over spending issues before. Just last year, the Republican governor used her line-item veto authority to strike down a proposed 8 percent pay raise for judges that was included in the $6.2 billion budget bill approved by lawmakers, saying the pay hikes were too large for her to support them.

A group of judges then challenged the governor’s actions, leading to a June 2014 state Supreme Court decision that partly overruled the veto and directed the state to provide the judicial pay raises in question.

Budgeting for the coming fiscal year has been complicated by plummeting oil prices, which have already caused state projections for available money to be pared back once.