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Furloughs not needed this year

As in medicine, the first rule of budgets is “do no harm.” New Mexico’s budget is already significantly lower in real dollars than it was a decade ago, and the number of state employees providing core services has been slashed by about 25 percent.

The five primary functions of the state are public safety, education, health, infrastructure and providing a temporary hand up to our most vulnerable. In all five areas, we’re near or at crisis stage, and cutting core services further with furloughs exacerbates these problems.

In public safety, our correctional facilities are understaffed at levels not seen since the deadly 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. Angels like Victoria Martens and Omaree Varela fall through CYFD’s cracks because caseloads are far above national standards.

Education? Class sizes in the 30s are a regular occurrence, and teachers are leaving as the administration wrongly blames the very people who are part of the solution for society’s ills.

In health care, Gov. Susana Martinez’s dismantling of behavioral health still hurts. Thanks to Obamacare – and credit Gov. Martinez for accepting Obamacare’s opportunity to expand Medicaid – we’re barely afloat. We should be doing more.

Our infrastructure – roads, bridges and buildings used by the public every day – is deteriorating, and we’re delaying maintenance more than is safe.

Our safety net is understaffed. The administration allegedly forced workers to inflate food stamp applicants’ income so they would be rejected. Understaffing means longer waits, less follow up, errors and poor delivery of critical services.

During the October 2016 special session and the 2017 session, legislators in both parties and Gov. Martinez agreed to fixes that balance the fiscal 2017 budget for the year ending June 30th. Nothing major or unexpected has happened since. Oil and gas prices are stable, there’s no recession and no major emergency expenditures.

Data from the state Treasurer’s Office show the state checking account – from which payroll is cut – was up over $71 million in March, finishing with almost $1.3 billion. That’s before an infusion of $110 million from the tobacco settlement fund that should hit in early April, and before April 15 tax receipts. Even the checking account’s monthly low points have stayed above $800 million. The administration admits we’ll end this fiscal year with a balanced budget, and with the hiring freeze the budget improves weekly.

The last thing New Mexico needs is more temporary layoffs, otherwise known as a “furlough.” AFSCME state employees average about $30,000 a year, meaning most of them live paycheck to paycheck.

To take a percentage of these New Mexicans’ pay for a month or two is absolutely devastating to them and their families, not to mention harmful to New Mexico’s economy. For taxpayers, furloughs mean longer lines, worse service, deteriorating infrastructure and cases falling through the cracks.

Yet for all this harm to thousands of families and core services, five weeks of 20 percent pay cuts – as was done in 2010 – generates just over a tenth of a percent of the budget, about $8 million out of $6.1 billion. The Journal was right when it said that before the administration implements drastic pay and service cuts, it must prove furloughs are absolutely necessary.

The administration itself says we have a balanced budget for the current fiscal year. Treasurer’s data show there is more than sufficient money in the bank. State laws (NMSA Sections 6-4-6 and 6-5-6) are clear there is tremendous flexibility to meet payroll when there are sufficient funds. There’s just no reason for furloughs this year.