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Senate committee debate highlights transparency issues in legislative budget process

Tug of war statue at Roundhouse
New Mexico In Depth
Tug of war statue at Roundhouse

A proposed budget of $9.6 billion passed the state Senate Sunday, with a final debate slated for the House. Jerry Redfern with Capital & Main has been following energy and environmental issues this session and wrote about the ongoing problem with transparency in the budget process. He focused on a bill that failed early in the session at the request of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

JERRY REDFERN: It was originally a plan to create these public-private partnerships between the state and private businesses that want to develop new energy production technology and sort of energy adjacent technologies here in New Mexico. And that included things like hydrogen fuel for natural gas, nuclear power and carbon sequestration projects, all of which are fairly fraught political issues here in the state. And the All Pueblo Council asked for it to be pulled this session so someone could explain to them, you know, exactly what these things are -- what is an advanced energy project and so on and how might those things affect the tribes? The interesting thing about it is it came back to life, because the money for those projects was earmarked in the overall budget bill as money to go to the Economic Development Department for advanced energy projects, right? But that wording lacked a contingency clause that would have returned that money to the general fund if that backing bill, that energy bill failed.

KUNM: One of the biggest issues in your story is transparency. The reappropriation of this $50 million, as well as proposed changes to the environment department's budget and dozens of other changes, were in a slew of documents that were handed out to the committee members more than an hour into this hearing. So how did lawmakers react to that?

REDFERN: Poorly. You know, people don't really go into politics because they're shy and retiring. But the committee that night was, you know, remarkably muted, I thought, as they talked about those issues. And Senator Jeff Steinborn from down in Las Cruces was pretty grumpy with the whole process and said so. Then on I guess it was on Saturday, after the committee finally voted on the whole funding bill, the committee chair, George Muñoz, said people could complain all they want, they could complain to the media if they want to do that, but that the whole setup is better than it used to be. Despite as difficult as it is to sort of get these documents that the senators are looking at and debating, you know, something for me, for anybody in the public -- if anybody in the public wanted to see these documents, they wouldn't have been able to see them until after the Senate had already talked about and voted on them to add this wording into the overall funding bill.

But he's saying that this is better than it used to be that all of this used to be held behind closed doors, so this is an improvement. Yeah, so the [New Mexico] Foundation for Open Government thinks that's distinctly not the way to go. Senator Jeff Steinborn distinctly thinks that's not the way to go. I know that there are lots of other people who are legislators and or, you know, department or secretaries in state government who think that this is not the way to go. I guess we'll see what happens in the future.

KUNM: Are these not public records we should have access to? What happened when you tried to make that argument?

REDFERN: You know, that's a really good question. It really seems like they should be public records. I mean, they are documents created by public servants in the course of their jobs. They're debated publicly, they have the utmost importance to how the state is run as a whole. But to get them you essentially have to get a senator or somebody on that committee to give you a copy. I was floored when I was told by an office person at the Legislative Finance Committee that these are private documents for the senators. It's like, how does that work?

KUNM: What did the foundation for open government have to say about that?

REDFERN: Yeah, their director Melanie Majors just boiled it down into one word, she called it “poppycock.”

KUNM: How do you think this is a larger systemic issue in the legislature right now?

REDFERN: For the last two years, I've been sort of confounded by how the state appropriates money to deal with enforcement issues here -- enforcement issues dealing with the oil and gas sector. We have two agencies that really do that work. And I've never fully been able to figure out how they get from their requests to over here where the budget bill passes and the money comes out of state government and pays them right? And in these last two years, I've essentially asked every single legislator I've spoken with, and every single department head that I've spoken with for all the stories I work on, how does your budget work? How do you get from request to getting it through the legislative session to figure out where the money is? And none of them can answer. They say, “I don't really know.” And then the word that comes back regularly is just it's a black box and you put your request in one end, and hope you get the money you want out the other and I've just been surprised by that.

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.