Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With no deal in place to bolster New Mexico’s cash reserves and pay for state government operations, Gov. Susana Martinez has directed Cabinet secretaries in her administration to come up with employee furlough plans that could be rolled out by as soon as next week.
Top-ranking Democratic lawmakers claim the move is misguided and politically motivated, with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, saying, “There’s no need to do it.”
The Republican governor gave the instructions at a Cabinet meeting earlier this week, but her office signaled Wednesday that the unpaid furlough days can still be avoided if Martinez and leading lawmakers can reach an agreement.
“Here’s the thing: We shouldn’t even be having this conversation,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said. “But the fact is, lawmakers continue to stick their heads into the sand and ignore that we have a crisis before us.”
The governor’s decision to forge ahead with employee furlough plans is the latest twist in a high-stakes showdown between her administration and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Martinez met last week with Egolf and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, but the meeting did not lead to an agreement. Wirth said Wednesday that he has not had any subsequent meetings with Martinez.
Top-ranking lawmakers have blasted Martinez for line-item vetoing all proposed funding for higher education – roughly $750 million – and legislative agencies from a budget bill approved by the Legislature during the 60-day legislative session that ended last month.
They’ve also authorized contract attorneys to file a court challenge against Martinez’s line-item vetoes with the state Supreme Court. A petition is expected to be filed in the coming days.
The Governor’s Office has insisted the veto was aimed at bringing legislators back to the negotiating table, and that higher education and legislative funding will be part of a stand-alone appropriations bill passed before July.
On Wednesday, Wirth questioned the need for furloughs, pointing out that lawmakers approved a $190 million solvency package in January aimed at plugging a projected deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
“It does seem like this is an effort to make the crisis bigger than it already is,” Wirth told the Journal.
The solvency package signed into law in January, the second revision to this year’s budget, left the state with about $90 million in reserves, or roughly 1.5 percent of spending. State economists say that might not be enough to ensure the state is able to pay its bills for the next two-plus months.
Wirth also accused Martinez of being “punitive” toward state workers, saying the governor has also proposed making state employees pay 3.5 percentage points more into their retirement accounts – the state’s taxpayer-funded contribution would decrease by a corresponding amount – as a cost-saving measure of roughly $25 million.
Martinez administration officials have previously indicated they are weighing ordering most rank-and-file state workers to take at least five unpaid furlough days between now and June 30, which would save an estimated $8 million.
Such a move could mean temporary closures of state parks, museums and Motor Vehicle Division field offices around the state.
Both immediate funding for reserves and next year’s budget predicament could be addressed in a special session the governor has vowed to call in the coming weeks. However, she had expressed hope she and lawmakers could agree on a budget deal before she called a session. That appears to be at a standstill. And with no deal in place, such a session could end up being lengthy – special sessions can cost up to $50,000 a day – and contentious.
The Governor’s Office said the first phase of the furlough plan could go into effect by as soon as next week but did not provide details on what that might entail. A Martinez spokesman said the rollout would depend on the plan each Cabinet secretary submits.
Martinez has already implemented a hiring freeze on all nonessential job positions, and her administration is considering canceling certain contracts, a Department of Finance and Administration spokeswoman said Wednesday.
New Mexico lawmakers have been grappling with budget problems for two consecutive years, as plummeting oil and natural gas prices – along with other economic trends – have led to lower-than-expected revenue collections.
Meanwhile, Martinez’s line-item vetoes on next year’s budget – and her veto of a $350 million package of tax and fee increases to help cover proposed spending levels – have received national attention and generated concern among university leaders.
And New Mexico Democrats have sharply criticized the governor’s actions.
“We’ve got a chief executive that’s willing to use higher education as a political playing piece,” Egolf said Wednesday.
Lawmakers could reconvene in a rare extraordinary session, which would require a three-fifths vote of all elected members in both the House and Senate. Unlike a special session, the governor would not be able to set the agenda for an extraordinary session.