Just as New Mexicans begin to recover from a busy holiday season, the Legislature embarked in early January on the process of crafting the next year’s state budget.
And just as we can expect to endure many winter days ahead, we sadly can also expect within the Roundhouse a secretive process in which a select group of legislators puts the final touches on the budget.
New Mexico’s budgeting process is cumbersome at best. Legislators sit in hearings for weeks on end, listening to ever-growing demands by state agencies for more money and new programs.
The budget process involves a mountain of paper covered with numbers that quickly become nearly incomprehensible. As confusing as this process seems, we should be proud the creation of the state budget is usually conducted in the open and broadcasted live over the web.
By seeing how the process works, people can gain an understanding of the challenges legislators face in addressing the needs of both urban and rural New Mexico. This is the way the budget process should work.
We must commit ourselves to ensuring this openness continues, while also demanding it should be expanded whenever possible.
Unfortunately, as we see year after year, the legislative committee tasked with putting the budget together will deviate from this public debate when the time comes to put the finishing touches to its budget document. Instead of continuing to meet in public, the chair and a group of hand-picked committee members will retreat to a closed-door conference room in the Roundhouse Annex to decide how to spend millions of dollars on various projects that have never been publicly vetted.
These meetings are so secretive that many of the remaining committee members are often not aware these meetings are being held.
This year, the money earmarked for “member requests” was $5 million for House members and another $10 million for the Senate. However, over the past 10 years, the amount of money spent in these secret meetings has exceeded $100 million.
Imagine having the power to spend millions of dollars on lawmakers’ pet projects that the public has never heard about and are being funded simply because the legislator asking for it holds an important legislative position. Granted, a list of these secretly decided projects is ultimately approved by the budget-writing committee, but there is no disclosure as to which legislator requested the money or why some projects were selected while others were not.
The people of New Mexico send us to Santa Fe to work for them, not to find ways to keep the levers of government hidden behind closed doors. The House Republican Caucus has made transparency a key issue this session.
Therefore, we will continue to shine light on the dirty little secrets of the legislative process that seem only to benefit the powerful. We will also demand changes to the legislative process.
One legislative leader recently said transparency is “the biggest buzzword out there.” I disagree. Transparency is what separates Western democracies from third-world dictatorships.
(State House of Representatives Republican Leader Rep. Jim Townsend is from Artesia. He has served as a representative since 2015.)