Algernon D'Ammassa, The Deming Headlight
Published 9:00 a.m. MT Feb. 28, 2018 | Updated 5:00 p.m. MT March 1, 2018
Oil and gas revenue provided breathing room, but challenges remain
DEMING – “When you have money, the tone is better,” observed Sen. John Arthur Smith. At the 2018 legislative session, the tone was much better than last year.
On the other hand, Smith – who has served in the state Senate since 1989 – suggested short memories or wishful thinking can overrule fiscal prudence.
New Mexico's 30-day legislative session concluded on Feb. 15, and Deming’s delegation to the Roundhouse, Sen. Smith and Rep. Candie Sweetser (both D-Deming), both reflected on a month when lawmakers sent a $6.3 billion budget to Gov. Susana Martinez without the partisan rancor or threats of furloughs that defined last year’s session.
Sweetser described the tone as bipartisan and genial throughout, in contrast to the "baptism of fire" she witnessed as a freshman legislator last year.
With an upturn in oil and gas revenue beginning last fall, lawmakers were able to restore money that had been swept from state agencies and school district accounts, fund more projects, and boost pay for teachers, state police, and other state workers.
More: Who won, who lost the 2018 legislative session
"The process was much more positive than working on state budget solvency, freezing positions, and cutting funding," said Sweetser.
Smith, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said he was pleased to see cash reserves replenished to an extent. He also fended off an effort to raise distributions from New Mexico's Land Grant Permanent Fund to 6 percent from 5 percent as a way to fund early childhood programs.
Smith has stated the proposed amendment to the state Constitution did not have enough votes to pass his committee anyway, but he also philosophically opposes raising distributions from the Permanent Fund past 5 percent. “Most people don’t realize what it does," said Smith. "They just see a pile of money there to be spent, but that’s an endowment fund.”
The fund distributed $638 million, mostly for public education, in Fiscal Year 2017, according to the State Investment Council.
MORE: Finance chair John Arthur Smith holds sway over child-related funding
Smith was supportive of pay increases and said low compensation for corrections officers and judges has created a crisis. “New Mexico has the lowest judicial compensation in the country," he told the Headlight. "Whenever there’s a vacancy coming up in the judiciary, getting applicants that are seasoned attorneys that have been in practice or a while is virtually impossible.” Smith also called attrition by corrections officers "unsustainable."
Two bills carried by Sweetser made it to the Governor's desk. House Bill 207 became law on March 1, creating a fund for broadband infrastructure for public, school, and tribal libraries in New Mexico, and giving libraries a boost in seeking federal grants.
Representing a city that is home to two award-winning wineries, the Deming lawmakers worked together on a bill allowing New Mexico wineries and brewers to sell their beverages at private events away from their places of business.
Another bill Sweetser sponsored, House Bill 200, would have created a tax incentive for employers filling high-wage jobs in the state, but did not pass the Senate.
More: State Representative Candie Sweetser's two House bills move on
Sweetser and Smith agreed that diversifying the state's economy so that it is cushioned from downturns in one industry requires study and consensus-building between legislative sessions. To this, Sweetser added that attrition from the state slows economic growth and concentrates the tax burden on a smaller population.
A new Governor will be elected before the next regular session, and whoever that is, Smith said, "The next administration is going to have to talk about a reliable revenue stream. When you’re 32 or 33 percent either indirectly or directly related to oil and gas, you’re leaving yourself extremely vulnerable.”
This story has been updated. A previous version of the story claimed that HB 200 had passed the Senate. It has also been updated regarding the status of HB 207.
More: Sweetser honors Deming teacher in NM legislature
Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-546-2611 (ext. 2608) or firstname.lastname@example.org.