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Streamline State Gov't.? Forget It

By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
          SANTA FE — Months of planning on how to streamline New Mexico's state government to save money and increase efficiency ran into the ditch during the Legislature's 60-day session that ended March 19.
        Faced with institutional resistance and limited time, lawmakers didn't pass any of the 25 or so bills dealing with merging state agencies or consolidating government functions.
        Even a proposed one-year extension of the task force that has studied the issue failed to win approval.
        It's not as though there weren't potential targets.
        In the past eight years, eight new Cabinet-level departments have been established, creating new administrative positions and increasing the state's spending burden. The state now has 23 Cabinet-level departments, more than 40 administrative agencies and nearly 130 boards, commissions and other entities.
        The Legislature did give Gov. Susana Martinez authority — in the $5.4 billion budget bill approved by both the House and Senate — to come up with $2.5 million in savings by streamlining administrative functions within agencies under her control.
        However, agency mergers or eliminations have to be authorized by the Legislature.
        Some lawmakers said the governor didn't push hard enough during her first legislative session; she said lawmakers didn't enact measures they could have.
        "I was hoping that when the new governor came in, some of her ideas would have melded with the ideas we'd already came up with," said Sen. Tim Eichenberg, D-Albuquerque, who chaired last year's legislative task force on government restructuring.
        "I'm disappointed she didn't take a more active involvement, " Eichenberg said.
        Martinez, a first-term Republican, said earlier this week she was equally disappointed with the Legislature's failure to approve any bills dealing with merging state departments or agencies.
        "She believes that several consolidation measures — such as combining the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Tourism; combining the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management; and merging the Department of Information Technology into the General Services Department — would save taxpayer money and promote more efficient operations across state government," said spokesman Scott Darnell.
        Those were among restructuring proposals that ended up languishing in the Legislature.
        The issue of restructuring government isn't a new one, as decisions to merge or split state departments have been considered, and occasionally made, throughout New Mexico's 99 years of statehood.
        The latest attempt — prompted in large part by a lingering state budget crunch — came last year when the Government Restructuring Task Force was created to come up with ways of cutting costs and streamlining state government.
        After holding a series of meetings and public hearings, the group issued a report in December with 20 core recommendations. Those ideas included consolidating numerous agencies, as well as combining or eliminating dozens of boards and commissions.
        "There are a lot of good ideas in there," Eichenberg said Friday.
        While restructuring proposals were never viewed as a cure-all for the budget woes — enacting all of the task force recommendations would have saved only an estimated $5 million next year — budget-minded lawmakers see the lack of action during this year's session as a missed opportunity.
        "I'm very disappointed with that particular issue," said Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, who sponsored several of the restructuring proposals.
       

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