New Mexico budget crisis rears its head in courts, colleges

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Downtown Albuquerque skyline at dusk. Albuquerque is the largest city in the state of New Mexico, United States. Albuquerque is known for its pleasant scenery, southwestern cuisine and International Balloon Fiesta.

In New Mexico, a budget crisis is taking a toll on courtrooms and public defenders. Photo via Getty Images

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s grinding budget crisis is taking a toll in courtrooms where overburdened attorneys have denied legal counsel to poor defendants, at museums reeling from layoffs and admission hikes, and at state universities and colleges grappling with steep spending cuts.

A prolonged downturn in oil and natural gas markets continued to ripple through New Mexico’s economy over the summer and into the fall, undermining state tax revenues.

Employers across the state have shed thousands of jobs since October 2015, as more than a third of New Mexico’s oil rigs shut down.

Fossil fuel prices are squeezing budgets in several states that rely heavily on severance taxes, such as Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming and Oklahoma — even as OPEC nations consider cutting production to boost prices.

“They’ve had cuts, significant cuts,” said John Hicks, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. “That’s very notable in comparison with the rest of the country to have an actual decrease in general fund taxes and general fund spending. I can’t say it’s bottomed out — it’s kind of a lower-revenue hit that is sustaining.”

The effects are evident in New Mexico’s Lea County, an area known for its oil production. Public defenders there have declined or asked to withdraw from representing hundreds of indigent criminal defendants. They say swelling caseloads and limited funding threaten their ability to provide effective legal assistance.

The actions prompted a standoff this week as District Court Judge Gary Clingman held the state’s chief public defender in contempt of court, and the local district attorney petitioned the New Mexico Supreme Court to intervene.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur insists on his agency’s obligation to speak out when attorneys and budgets are strained.

“We can’t continue to spread our attorneys so thin that they don’t have time to read police reports, to meet with a client, to do legal research if necessary,” he said. “This is a systemic problem.”

The dispute threatens to taint cases that lead to convictions since defendants can argue they lacked effective representation.

An October special legislative session culminated in budget cuts of 3 percent across the judiciary, where court-employee furloughs are under consideration and travel reimbursements have been reduced for jurors and court-ordered witnesses.

Most state agencies are grappling with spending cuts of 5.5 percent, and they’re bracing for more belt tightening as state economists prepare to release reduced revenue estimates for the current and coming fiscal year.

The forecast, due Monday, sets the benchmark when legislators meet in January to write a state budget for the coming fiscal year and fix shortfalls from the current year.

Amid hiring freezes, the state workforce dwindled to 21,905 full-time positions in October, down 18 percent from mid-2008.

Sen. Peter Wirth, the Democratic majority leader, worried cuts to the Taxation and Revenue and Cultural Affairs department would be counterproductive — limiting the state’s ability to collect money and attract tourists.

“Here in Santa Fe — the arts, tourism — these are huge economic development drivers,” Wirth said. “We are impacting a big portion of our economy.”

Cultural Affairs Secretary Veronica Gonzales has warned legislators the agency might have to reduce the days of operation at the state’s world-renowned network of museums and historic sites. Her agency already laid off a dozen employees this year, raised entry prices and discontinued some free Sundays at Santa Fe museums as attendance numbers dipped.

Gov. Susana Martinez has steadfastly opposed any new taxes to close the gap. Democrats who are pushing for new revenue sources — including a gasoline tax increase — will have some new leverage come January after winning back a majority control of the Legislature.

The Las Cruces-based New Mexico State University last summer cut nearly 40 active staff positions and scuttled the school’s equestrian team, an employee health center and a small engineering program in response to spending reductions and enrollment declines.

University President Garrey Carruthers said a $10 million state funding cut in October has added urgency to a top-to-bottom review for new efficiencies. Academic programs could be merged and investments delayed indefinitely for student facilities and services.

“We’re going to be more involved in surviving the cuts rather than making some strategic investments, simply because of the depth of the cuts,” he said.

Even as revenues falter, finance officials have placed a priority on replenishing depleted operating reserves to protect the state’s credit rating. Adding to budget pressures, New Mexico is struggling to cover its annual obligation to Medicaid health care for the poor and disabled.

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