Governor freezes hiring for most state jobs

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez said Thursday that she will impose a hiring freeze on most state jobs – exceptions include public safety and health – as New Mexico continues to wrestle with a budget crisis.

Gov. Susana Martinez
Gov. Susana Martinez

A two-page memo sent to agencies under her control directs them to halt recruitment efforts and cancel plans to fill any job that doesn’t already have an applicant in the hiring process.

In the memo, State Personnel Director Justin Najaka told executive agencies that the state must control its spending because of “unprecedented budgetary challenges.” The freeze takes effect Saturday.

The Martinez administration is also evaluating the possibility of closures for state museums and parks to help save money this year.

New Mexico has already endured a credit downgrade and exhausted much of its cash reserves over the past year as state revenues have been squeezed by low oil and gas prices.

The value of general-fund assets overseen by the state Treasurer’s Office, for example, has fallen nearly 48 percent over the last year, from more than $1.3 billion in February last year to $711 million last month.

The hiring freeze comes after Martinez and the Legislature adopted a solvency package earlier this year aimed at ensuring the state would have enough cash to pay its bills through June 30. The package was valued at roughly $190 million.

Martinez, however, says the changes didn’t go far enough. Low reserve levels have left the state with little margin for error if revenue estimates are off by even a few percentage points, her administration says.

Democrats in the House and Senate, in turn, say the solvency package they adopted is enough to help the state survive through June 30, when another budget year begins.

Other governments that rely on state funding – Albuquerque Public Schools and the University of New Mexico, for example – have also imposed hiring freezes of some kind over the past six months.

The hiring freeze announced by Martinez includes exceptions for law-enforcement officers, nurses, highway workers and others who are “critical to public safety, public health or revenue generation.”

More budget trouble awaits. The governor and lawmakers have not yet agreed on a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The Legislature – led by Democrats who control both chambers – passed a $6.1 billion spending plan that relies on about $350 million in tax increases to help pay for it. It won bipartisan support in the Senate but passed on party lines in the House.

The proposal approved by lawmakers would keep state spending largely flat, with increases for K-12 public schools and the court system.

Gov. Martinez, a Republican, has vowed to reject tax increases. State lawmakers, she said, wasted time during the session and refused to pass a budget she can support.

“This is disappointing and a disservice to every family,” Martinez said.

Democrats say the governor already has authority to craft a budget more to her liking. She has line-item veto power, they say, that would allow her to reject tax increases and strip out some of the spending she opposes.

They say they tried to reach agreement with Martinez before the session ended and, after failing, they sent her a budget that had bipartisan support from the Legislature.

“The governor now has in her hands a responsible budget,” Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said just after the session ended.

Martinez said last week that she plans to call a special legislative session to consider a budget that doesn’t increase taxes. She said the session will be soon, though she hasn’t set a date.

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