Monday, November 29, 2010
Streamlining State Government Is a Battle
By Dan Boyd
Journal Capitol Bureau
SANTA FE — New Mexico lawmakers are finding that trying to restructure and streamline state government might be a little like trying to perform surgery on a grizzly bear.
Resistance to proposals to merge or eliminate state agencies, offices and boards has been steady since a legislative task force began its work earlier this year.
In addition, it appears unlikely that any changes enacted would provide the state with significant fiscal relief in the short term.
Though the Government Restructuring Task Force last week recommended 20 different ways to make state government more cost-effective and efficient — and the group is scheduled to meet one more time in December — it's unclear how many, if any, of the proposals will be adopted when the Legislature convenes in January.
In part that's because Gov.-elect Susana Martinez, who will have to sign off on any bills approved by the Legislature, hasn't said specifically which restructuring proposals she would be willing to support.
"Gov.-elect Martinez's team is in the process of reviewing state government from top to bottom. And this includes each and every agency," said Martinez transition spokesman Danny Diaz.
In conducting its own review, the legislative task force has floated proposals that have prompted objections from the heads of state agencies and other bodies that would be affected.
The pushback has caused Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and other task force members to voice frustration.
During last week's meeting of the task force, Smith cited the state's projected $450 million budget shortfall for the coming year — which could increase when new estimates are released this week — but said he doubted whether changes could be made quickly enough to generate savings in the upcoming fiscal year, which starts in July 2011.
The Legislative Counsel Service has suggested that any large-scale agency mergers not take effect until either Jan. 1, 2012, or July 1, 2012.
"We need structural changes," Smith said, citing the need to make state government leaner in the face of ongoing budget troubles. "And we're not going to get that in time to put out the flames of the fire we're in."
Sen. Tim Eichenberg, D-Albuquerque, the co-chairman of the Government Restructuring Task Force, told the Journal that he has high hopes for the group's recommendations, despite the fact that a number of consolidation proposals stalled during the 2010 legislative session.
"I'm hopeful and optimistic the Legislature will see the benefit of smaller and more effective government," Eichenberg said.
While the ideas studied by the task force have been analyzed and some fiscal projections have been made, it's unclear exactly how much money the state could save by enacting all the changes.
Proposals already endorsed by the task force include:
• Merging divisions of the Environment Department with the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
• Eliminating the Public Regulation Commission as a standalone constitutional agency or transferring some of its functions into existing agencies.
• Forming a new Commerce Department by combining the Tourism, Labor and Economic Development departments.
In addition to finding cost savings, the Government Restructuring Task Force is charged with eliminating redundancies in state government and improving efficiency. One task force cost is already clear: The Legislature is paying a facilitator about $48,000 to help guide the group's discussions and produce a final report.