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Lawmakers question NM Environment Department’s request for a bigger budget

Environment Sec. James Kenney reviews his department's fiscal year 2025 budget request before the Legislative Finance Committee on Dec. 12, 2023.
Courtesy NM Environment Department
Environment Sec. James Kenney reviews his department's budget request before the Legislative Finance Committee on Dec. 12, 2023.

Environment Secretary James Kenney presented his agency’s budget request to a panel of lawmakers this week, which asks for an additional $9 million dollars. It would be the fifth straight budget increase for the agency. But members of the Legislative Finance Committee questioned whether the department should get more to work with when it didn’t spend down all of this year’s budget.

Kenney said the department calculated how much more it needs to adequately compensate its employees at $6.2 million. That’s about two thirds of the amount of additional recurring funds he’s asking lawmakers for as they prepare to debate the state budget next month.

He told the committee that, without it, his department has had to reduce services.

“We’ve closed offices, we stopped compensating people appropriately, we held people back,” he told lawmakers. “So, we’ve had a lot of challenges retaining people.”

Kenney told KUNM that additional risks to not getting the boost the department is requesting include facing union action and losing crucial federal funding.

Chair of the Legislative Finance Committee Democratic Senator George Muñoz questioned why, if the Environment Department needs more funding, there is still money left in some categories of its account.

“When you say ‘Oh, you didn’t fund me correctly,’ and every year we do an increase, that signals to the Legislature that we’re overfunding you because you’re not spending everything you have,” he told the Secretary.

Muñoz acknowledged that some budget categories were depleted.

Republican Rep. Rod Montoya told Kenney that another bulk budget increase would again result in “greatly overfunding” some areas. He argued that what's needed instead is to put the right amount in each of the department’s pots of money.

Despite the pushback, Muñoz told Kenney that lawmakers will see to it that Environment Department employees get what they need.

“We’re committed to getting this fixed,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot of work to get there.”

The 2024 legislative session begins January 16.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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