Lawmakers plan ’junior’ budget allowing members to earmark money

By Barry Massey: The Associated Press

SANTA FE — With the state enjoying a revenue windfall, lawmakers are planning a possible $40 million “junior” budget bill that would allow each member to earmark several hundred thousand dollars for programs or projects of their choosing.

The Senate is taking the lead in drafting the spending measure, and written guidelines to senators suggest that each of the 42 members will get to allocate $357,000 for their favorite proposals.

House members and Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration also would get to earmark money for their favorite projects.
Lawmakers are hoping to expedite passage of the measure to potentially force Richardson to sign or veto it while the Legislature is in session — an approach that could lead to a budget confrontation with the governor.

The governor has cautioned lawmakers against a “spending spree” with the huge pool of revenues available to the state.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the spending bill would be similar to a measure approved last year, which allocated about $30 million for programs and projects earmarked by individual legislators and the Richardson administration. The governor used his line-item veto powers last year to reject initiatives totaling $1.4 million.

The proposed spending measure would be in addition to the main budget bill, which is expected to provide about $5 billion for operations of general government and public education next year, and a financing package for capital improvements.

Smith said the tentative spending target for the so-called junior budget measure is $40 million, but that could change depending on an updated revenue forecast that lawmakers will receive later in the session and other budget decisions, including tax cuts.

The Senate will have about $15 million out of the proposed $40 million to allocate. The remainder will be left for House members and the governor to divide among programs they favor.

Smith said in an interview that written guidelines were given to senators to help ensure the money supplemented agencies and current government operations rather than paying for new projects and capital improvements.

The guidelines to senators stated: “The focus of this initiative should be the supporting or reinforcement of existing programs and services rather than the starting of new programs that may be difficult to fund in years where the revenue picture is not as bright as it is today.”

Last year, there were complaints that the measure became a budgetary Christmas tree laden with money for one-time projects that didn’t readily mesh with existing programs. Money was handed out for items ranging from ambulances and school sports equipment to proposals by the governor such as rodeo programs and expanding physical education in public schools.

Smith acknowledged that last year’s junior budget bill was “quite controversial.”

“It was thrown together at the 11th hour,” Smith said. “This year we attempted to do in a fashion that would require better planning.”

Richardson said Thursday it’s too early to tell whether a spending spree is under way in the Legislature. The governor and lawmakers have recommended saving at least $100 million of next year’s revenues rather than spending all available money.

“I think it’s important that we have one budget bill, that we protect the $100 million that we put in reserves — that be the top of the agenda — and then we discuss what the state’s priorities are,” Richardson said.

Governors typically prefer that lawmakers put money for agencies and programs in a single budget bill rather approving separate spending measures, which might arrive at the governor’s desk at different times and force him to make veto decisions without having an overall spending blueprint from the Legislature.