FARMINGTON — Several San Juan County legislators say additional spending on education and government in next year's $6.2 billion state budget is too aggressive.
Legislators passed the budget during the 30-day legislative session, which ended Feb. 20. The budget for the fiscal year starting in July includes a 5 percent spending increase on public education and government services.
"The biggest problem with the budget is we basically spent everything we think we might get," said Rep. Tom Taylor, R-Farmington, who, in a phone interview last week, called the increase in spending a "double-edged sword."
Sen. Steve Neville, a Republican who represents San Juan County, said the 5 percent increase in spending reflects an anticipated increase in revenues, mostly from the oil and gas industry. But he said the state may never see that money if the oil and gas industry crashes.
Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, said a 3.5 percent increase in spending would have been "prudent." The larger increase cuts into the budget's reserves, he said.
"We're kind of spending the checkbook," he said in a phone interview.
Sen. Bill Sharer, a Republican who represents the county, acknowledged that some may say the spending increase is too much, but he approves.
"It's always a guess," he said, also during a phone interview. "The hope is it's a well-educated guess. I don't think at this point we need to worry about those oil and gas numbers."
But while local legislators expressed concerns about the budget, they applauded the capital outlay funds awarded to the county and local cities.
During the session, the state approved about $4 million for a downtown bypass project in Aztec, about $1 million to replace an aging sewage lagoon in Kirtland and about $500,000 to build a Porter Arroyo detention pond in Farmington designed to control flooding.
Taylor and Neville discussed the recent session on Thursday at a luncheon hosted by the Rio Del Sol Kiwanis Club. They answered questions about the state's budget and education. Taylor, who announced last month that he will not run for re-election, explained why he's leaving the Legislature.
In the Thursday meeting, Taylor told the officials gathered that the county has been in a permanent decline.
In a later phone interview, he said he was referencing a study from about three years ago conducted by private development group, E>P. Taylor, a member of the group, said that for the county to climb up from its downward spiral, the study determined it needs to create 500 jobs that bring in money from outside the region every year for at least 20 years.
That goal is possible, said Ray Hagerman, CEO of Four Corners Economic Development, an organization dedicated to stimulating the region's economy.
"I think we're going to have way more than 500 economic-based jobs this year," he said.
He added, "I can tell you, in 2014, there'll probably be a couple of larger expansions in the manufacturing area."
Neville also said the county needs to diversify its economy, and the freight rail from Thoreau to Farmington is the first step. That would open the county and other local economies to the world, he said. The rail would allow the county to export more oil, agriculture, manufacturing parts and Raytheon missile parts, he said.
"There's all kinds of prospects," he said.
The county needs to develop more resources in addition to the oil and gas industry because, eventually, that industry will leave, Neville said.
Strickler agreed the freight rail is important, and Sharer said it is "critical," though added that he doesn't think the state should fund it.
Also, to improve the county's economy, governments need to remove obstacles to businesses, Sharer said. Those could be transportation difficulties, legal holdups, cultural stigmas or regulations, he said.
"What kind of obstacles can we make go away so we can insure San Juan County can continue to be viable?" he said.
But, in general, Sharer said the winter session went well.
"We did come up with a pretty good budget," he said. "Some will argue that it was a little overspent."
Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, and Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, could not be reached for comment.