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Lawmakers seek updated revenue projection

SANTA FE – A bipartisan trio of New Mexico lawmakers is calling for state economists to craft a new estimate of the money available to spend this year and next, with the goal of making it clear how much cost-cutting or other budget adjustments are necessary.

But Gov. Susana Martinez said the state already has enough information to make sound decisions and it’s time to negotiate a budget agreement. Her support would be necessary because a revenue forecast can’t be produced without help from economists who work in her administration.

The request for an updated revenue estimate, in any case, comes as Martinez, a Republican, and the Legislature – where Democrats hold majorities in both chambers – are at odds over how to resolve a state budget crisis, triggered in part by a downturn in oil and gas prices.

Martinez is preparing to force most rank-and-file state workers to take unpaid days off to help balance this year’s budget, though she said she hopes it won’t come to that. Democrats say furloughs aren’t necessary, but that a new revenue estimate would make the budget picture clearer either way.

Meanwhile, the governor and Legislature haven’t agreed on a budget for next year. The fiscal year begins in July, and Martinez has said she expects to call lawmakers back for a special session soon.

There’s also litigation over the budget, parts of which the governor vetoed.

Two Democrats – Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming and Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup – joined Republican Sen. Steven Neville of Aztec this week to request a new revenue estimate.

In a short letter, they asked the Martinez administration to support calling together staff economists who work for the executive and legislative branches to review economic projections and determine whether any changes should be made to the state’s most recent revenue forecast.

“It seems like common sense to me,” said Neville, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. “We don’t want to cut anything we don’t have to.”

The last forecast came in December, and it was reviewed in February, with no changes made. The estimates are typically made only twice a year – once in winter and once in summer.

They’re issued by staff economists for the Legislative Finance Committee and the state departments of Finance and Administration, Taxation and Revenue, and Transportation.

Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for the governor, said there’s no need for a new estimate.

“It does not make much sense,” he said, “to spend more money and more time to produce an out-of-cycle revenue estimate. … Rather than delay tactics, legislators should focus on negotiations and working on solutions that pay for their spending and grow our reserves without raising taxes.”

Rep. Larry Larrañaga, an Albuquerque Republican and former chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said a new revenue forecast would take time – time that would be better spent negotiating a budget agreement.

“I don’t think there’s big a change” in the numbers, he said.

The three lawmakers who signed the letter, in turn, said they believe state revenue is coming in a little better than estimated in the December forecast. That could provide some extra room to reach agreement in budget talks, they said, if economists determine a change is justified.

A revenue-tracking report issued last month by the Legislative Finance Committee showed the state was on track to collect roughly $55 million more than projected for the current budget year.

“I think (the administration) should have a common interest in wanting to know where the state stands financially,” said Smith, chairman of both the Senate Finance Committee and the LFC.

It takes about two weeks to develop a revenue forecast, he said.

Neville said it might not take that long, if the economists just review their prior work and determine whether changes are necessary.

Lundstrom, chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said it can’t hurt to have updated information.

“It’s a best practice,” she said. “There’s no downside, if you’re looking at it from a professional point of view.”