AG: Budget not keeping pace with crime growth

Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press
Hector Balderas

ALBUQUERQUE — New Mexico faces a public safety crisis and needs resources to respond to everything from police officer shootings to consumer fraud, state Attorney General Hector Balderas said.

Balderas has joined a chorus of state officials seeking more money in what’s sure to be another slim budget year. He testified recently before the Legislative Finance Committee and reiterated his concerns in a letter sent this week.

The attorney general warned lawmakers against overestimating the funding his office will receive from other sources during the next fiscal year. The agency saw an infusion of $2 million into its consumer protection fund as a result of a decade-old settlement with Pojoaque Pueblo and will receive federal money for tackling Medicaid fraud and elder abuse.

Without sufficient money from the Legislature, “public safety would be at severe risk as I would be forced to lay off … employees and other essential legal services would be cut from the (office’s) operations,” Balderas wrote.

His office wants a 4.8 percent increase — nearly $962,000 — over last year’s spending. That would help pay for raises as well as the state’s share of a new assistant attorney general and two special agents who would focus on Medicaid fraud in southern New Mexico.

Balderas said he’s also concerned lawmakers will try to siphon money from the consumer protection fund to pay other bills given that new revenue for government programs is expected to be less than initially predicted.

Money from successful litigation and settlements feed the consumer protection fund, which the attorney general’s office depends on for half of its operating budget.

State Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, has said New Mexico will probably be able to handle some revenue shortfall next year thanks to healthy reserves.

“But we would be wise to be cautious this year,” Smith said.

Legislative budget officials held their latest round of meetings with state agencies earlier this month and more meetings are planned in December as they prepare to craft the foundation of a state budget.

New revenue estimates are due in December, and the next 30-day legislative session — focused on the budget and finance issues — will begin in January.

State agencies already have asked for $85 million in supplemental appropriations to make it through the rest of this fiscal year, analysts say.

Balderas argued that his office makes money for the state.

“I’m asking them to take the handcuffs off my litigators and properly fund us,” Balderas said. “We are in a public safety crisis, and they need to begin to really reinvest some of the money they’ve cut throughout the years.”

The attorney general’s office says some $15 million has been swept by the Legislature from the consumer protection fund in recent years and the office’s budget has not kept up with the growth of crime.

Officials with the state Department of Public Safety made similar arguments in testimony before the finance committee. They say New Mexico is among the most violent states in the U.S., with a crime rate 64 percent higher than the national average.