A budget deal hammered out this week by Republican and Democratic negotiators likely will have profound effects on Southwest communities that are heavily reliant on federal spending, though precise impacts remain to be seen.
The deal, developed by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington would restore about $63 billion from sequestration cuts that have heavily affected military and domestic spending, including national parks and public lands. Those cuts would be replaced by spending reductions elsewhere and higher fees.
The budget deal, which would be in place through Sept. 30, 2015, is viewed as a modest step to buy time for broader budget discussions and end the crisis-driven budgeting of recent years. The House is expected to take up the plan today.
In New Mexico, the Bureau of Land Management has been heavily affected by the sequestration. The agency oversees a wide range of activities on public lands, from mineral extraction to public use.
Vacant positions held open because of the sequester have created major challenges, said BLM spokesmen in Farmington and Carlsbad.
In the Four Corners area of northwest New Mexico, limits on filling those positions have made it difficult to keep up with the demand for the right-of-way permits required to build roads, power lines and pipelines to oil and natural gas well sites, BLM office manager Gary Torres said.
While the Farmington office is still processing drilling permits within two to three months, it is taking longer for customers to obtain right-of-way permits, Torres said.
Torres said companies have applied for many drilling permits in an area south of U.S. Highway 550 near Counselor. He said that area is undeveloped and drilling companies need to build the infrastructure to access the new well sites.
The Farmington office currently has 105 full-time employees and 13 to 15 vacancies, he said. Several of those vacant positions are for realty specialists, who process the right-of-way permits.
"Nobody's predicting a budget increase, but we're hopeful we can at least fill those critical positions," he said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that they get a budget passed."
George MacDonnell, associate field manager for the BLM's Carlsbad Field Office, said his office faces the same challenges.
"We're having to prioritize and do our best to keep up," he said.
Jason Sandel, a Farmington city councilor who owns a well drilling company, said "budget certainty" would be good for the nation. And he added, "There is no question that this area depends on a fully funded and fully operational BLM office that churns out permits to support oil and gas exploration that is environmentally sound."
Valerie Gohlke, spokeswoman for Carlsbad Caverns National Park, said all national parks have seen a 5 percent budget cut since the sequester took effect in 2012.
"We're trying to not make it obvious for the public and are making cuts behind the scenes," she said.
For example, if a sewage pump went down and they switched to a backup pump, the main one would not be fixed immediately.
Far West Texas and Southern New Mexico economies also rely on the military.
"Given sequestration, furlough and the government shutdown in 2013, news regarding the passing of an adequate budget would be welcomed," said Maj. Gen. Gwen Bingham, White Sands Missile Range commander. "Though we will undoubtedly face challenges in 2014, the incredible men and women of this installation will continue to exude the utmost professionalism and commitment to our nation and its multi-missions; we consider it a privilege to continually serve."
Fort Bliss officials declined comment on the budget deal, saying they were awaiting more details.
Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican who represents southern New Mexico, said he was pleased that there was a long-term budget proposal on the table, but disagreed with its direction.
"I commend Chairman Ryan and all those involved for their dedication to return Washington to a real budget instead of continuing resolutions and temporary measures. However, this solution is not without significant flaws," Pearce said.
"The proposal directly impacts New Mexican families by reducing New Mexico's share of receipts from commercial activity on federal lands -- money that we rely on for schools and roads. This budget does nothing to reduce our national debt. Our nation spends nearly a trillion more a year than we collect, but this proposal does not have any productive deficit reduction. The people of southern New Mexico sent me to Washington to rein in our national debt -- this is not the solution they asked for."