Spread the pain of budget cuts urged
By Dianne L Stallings, Ruidoso News
Supporters of historical sites of Fort Stanton and Lincoln call for fairness in applying budget cuts and contend staffing already is bare bones at the sites.
In good revenue years, officials with the Department of Cultural Affairs failed to spread the bounty equitably among divisions and entities, State Sen. John Arthur Smith said Wednesday during a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee in Ruidoso.
Now in the lean revenue years, he recommended they take a second look at ensuring the pain of budget cuts is spread equitably. And he urged department officials and supporters of maintaining staffing levels at the Lincoln and the Fort Stanton historical sites to lobby the governor for more money, because even if the legislature found some extra dollars, Gov. Susana Martinez could veto an allocation.
Smith, a Democrat from District 35 known for his tough fiscal stance, also pressed Cultural Affairs Secretary Veronica Gonzales for details on how she plans to spend $6 million allocated for Art in Public Places, concluding that pot of cash might be used for more pressing needs. He noted his often frustrated push for more support of the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo.
“This committee doesn’t find it fun or delightful to make cuts and we’re often are accused of being too conservative, but we’re trying to be responsible,” he said to Gonzales. “The difficulty I have is that (with your agency) there are a lot of volunteers giving lovingly of their time. One of those volunteers (Herb Marsh, urged) to spread the pain. Some of the concern, and I think you have done a much better job, but when we had resources, I don’t think all those resources were spread fairly either.”
Thelma Domenici, president of the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents, emphasized the importance of the museums and historical sites that preserve the state’s history and educates visitors and residents, adults and children about the cultures of New Mexico. Gonzales, defending the proposed cut of 11 jobs from already understaffed historical sites, warned that by 2018, all reserves for the DCA will be exhausted and the department “will be at a point of critical failure.”
Committee member State Rep. Patricia A. Lundstrom, a Democrat from District 9, said allocations are not the exclusive domain of the legislature and she would like to see more cooperation from the Department of Finance and Administration.
The budget is a legislative and executive process, she said.
“It always have surprised me that most of the time, the budget increases for this department have come from the legislature,” Lundstrom said. “I asked the cabinet secretary last year why we don’t see increases or at least some consideration from (the Department of Finance and Administration) and there wasn’t an answer, so I’m not sure why that happens.
“But I tend to agree with you that this department we’ve seen deprived. We’ve seen the desperate need for support of the programs here. I’ve seen that over the years. I’ve been on the appropriations committee since 2001. This is not one of the agencies that tends to get bloated up with a lot of extra dollars.”
Smith said by constitutional requirement, the state must approve a balanced budget.
“We can’t spend more money than we have coming in,” he said. “We have to work with the executive branch to prioritize.”
Inevitably after executive review, the cabinet secretaries have to adjust and come back to the legislature, he said.
“The fall of last year, we told them that we don’t think the revenue is going to be there and you’re talking from a higher number than we think actually will be there,” Smith said. “Unless we find some new revenues, the cuts you’re talking about will have to be expanded for 2017.”
The cut could be as deep as another 4 percent across the board for all departments, he said.
Gonzales said even with staffing and other reductions totaling $1.6 million, she is projecting a $500,000 deficit in 2017.
“Yet, you still are planning a new art museum in Santa Fe, are you not?” Smith asked.
Gonzales said the project is a renovation of an unused building owned by the DCA to be used for art museum collection storage and exhibits. The Museum of New Mexico Foundation is trying to raise $10 million from the private sector to renovate the building.
“How much operational budget will that require?” Smith pressed, and Gonzales said about $1 million, but added the project is longer term and not coming on line for a few years.
“But it is an additional requirement for the legislature to appropriate on a recurring basis and right now, we can’t see ourselves from month to month,” Smith said.
He commended the director of the arts endowment fund for limiting annual distribution to 4 percent, saying he has been criticized for fighting to stay under 5 percent distribution of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, the primary support for education in the state at $656 million in 2016.
“That that fund is generating more operational money for us than oil and gas,” he said.
Thelma Domenici, president of the New Mexico Museum Board of Regents, urged that more financial consideration be given to the Department of Cultural Affairs. (Photo: Dianne Stallings/Ruidoso News)
Veronica Gonzales, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs Secretary, detailed the financial situation of her department and the 15 divisions, 190 buildings, 122 tribal libraries, eight museums and eight historic sites she manages.
Three supporters of the two historical sites in Lincoln County, author/historian Lynda Sanchez, and volunteers Herb Marsh and Rory McMinn, members of Friends of Historic Lincoln, reminded committee members that cuts at the two popular tourism areas won’t be from a fully-staffed situation. They already are understaffed, some vacancies from cuts and others because they were demoralized by the approach to running the sites, Marsh said.
Lincoln was authorized for eight rangers, including the manager, he said, adding, “Right now, we have two.”
“The historic sites division of the (DCA) is not in anywhere near as good a situation as other divisions you’ve heard from here,” Marsh said. The Lincoln Historic Site contains 17 building of historic significance and seven museum, two staffed by rangers and two by volunteers, requiring 28 people a week to keep them open for the public.
“Up to now, we have been able to do that,” he said. “We see 28,000 to 30,000 paying visitors a year, who actual buy tickets. We see a good 30,000 more who don’t buy tickets, but walk the streets and read the signs and find out what happened here and there. That translates into $150,000 a year to the state from ticket sales alone, more than any of the other historic sites.”
That figure will go up with the increase in ticket prices recently from $5 to $7, he said. The new amount generated is enough to pay the salaries of four to five rangers, contended.
“I understand what happens when budgets are tight, but for heaven sakes, spread the pain around,” Marsh said. Sanchez also called for “parity or equity.”
McMinn contended tourism, not oil and gas, is the future for New Mexico. The historic sites and museums are major economic drivers for the state and deserve full support.
Old Lincoln County Courthouse/Murphy-Dolan Store, Lincoln NM