Melanie Stansbury on the Special Session

By Lance Chilton

The Special Session of the New Mexico Legislature was special in many respects, chief among them the fall in state revenue that legislators had to deal with and the pandemic-induced distancing of legislators from one another and from their constituents and from lobbyists and other experts. I spoke with Melanie Stansbury, state representative from House District 28 in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, who said that she hoped the January 2021 session would return to something approaching normal: “The technology was difficult, but we’ll do what we have to do.”

Rep. Stansbury was at the center of the special session. As a member of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, she had to participate in fashioning a new budget, and then vote on that and the limited additional legislation that was introduced.  In a regular session, 600-1500 or more bills would have been considered; in the special session, new rules were adopted by resolution in each house to allow for legislative activity during this pandemic. Then sixteen House bills and four House memorials were introduced; the Senate had twenty-one bills and two memorials.  But these numbers are misleading, as only thirteen bills and two memorials were considered; the others were not germane to the special session.

The most important work required was adjusting the budget for Fiscal Year 2021 for the expected large decrease in revenue, due to very low oil prices and anticipated decreases in gross receipt ax revenue.  Ms. Stansbury noted the complexity of the budget process when the budget must be balanced (no deficit spending is allowed by our NM constitution) and the extent of the revenue shortfall can’t be known in advance. She stated that media accounts of the process had been rather over-simplified, as legislators were presented with three scenarios – best case, middle case, worst case – ranging from a $600 million deficit to a $2.4 billion shortfall from the February-passed FY 2021 budget.

The solutions were complex as well, as enumerated by Ms. Stansbury, and will vary depending on whether a best, worst or middle scenario becomes reality:

  1. “Sanding” — decreasing the budget of all agencies across the board, though Rep. Stansbury noted that the previous FY 2021 budget had included increases for most departments, so in most cases “sanding” would leave them with smaller increases or slight decreases
  2. Taking credit for Federal payments to the state under the CARES Act
  3. “Clawing back” funds from some capital projects which had not been started
  4. Use of reserve funds for a “rainy day” – the rainy day had arrived!

Rep. Stansbury had worked on budget analysis for the federal government prior to returning to New Mexico. As everyone knows, the federal budget is many times larger and can (and does) run a deficit, but Rep. Stansbury’s experience was critical in getting her appointed to House Appropriations and Finance and in understanding the complexities of New Mexico’s budget process.

Ms. Stansbury pointed to two other pieces of legislation that passed during the session, an economic stimulus bill (SB 3) aimed at New Mexico small businesses and armed with cash, and a bill (SB 8) to require the use of body cameras by police forces. She noted that the latter bill was “the beginning of a conversation” about how to respond to the issues brought to the fore by George Floyd’s murder, and that there would be time to consider further responses carefully before the January session coming up in just over six months.