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NM prison system faces $4.5 million shortfall

Likely will push some expenses into next year to make ends meet

By Milan Simonich
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico’s prison system has a $4.5 million budget deficit and likely will push some expenses into next year to make ends meet.

Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel faced the Legislative Finance Committee on Thursday and took responsibility for the money shortage. Marcantel said he did a poor job of communicating with lawmakers and the committee staff on his department’s budget.

“If we have to point a finger, let’s just point it at me,” he said. “I have to own it. It’s my responsibility.”

The Corrections Department budget for this year is about $270 million.

The tone of the hearing changed after Marcantel publicly accepted responsibility for the money shortage. Until then, a member of his staff had argued that the department tried to make a case for more money, but legislators did not allocate enough.

Aurora Sánchez, Marcantel’s deputy secretary for administration, told the committee that the Corrections Department sought a larger allocation during the 2013 legislative session but was denied at least $1.4 million of what was necessary. She said the deficit today was a result of continued underfunding of the department.

This brought a skeptical response from Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa. Why, he asked, was Sánchez blaming current money problems on a budget that legislators approved back in 2013?

Cisneros said the department made no attempt to obtain supplemental funding during the most recent legislative session, which ended in February. Sánchez told him no request for additional money was made because it would have been rejected.

Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, then stepped in, saying the focus should be on fixing the problem and making sure it is not repeated as budgets are prepared.

“Let’s fix it, not dwell on it,” Varela said.

Still, legislators checked budget records, and many noticed that the Corrections Department had projected it would collect $4 million in fines from private prisons for infractions such as staffing deficiencies. That is essentially the size of the deficit.

Marcantel said private prisons had been fined far less in the last year because they are fulfilling their contractual obligations. He said he considered it unethical to build fines into a budget, thereby setting up a system in which the department might look for ways to penalize private prisons.

Safety is the priority, Marcantel said. Private operators who run their prisons correctly will never be gouged, he said.

New Mexico’s prison population stood at 6,862 inmates in March, an increase of 2.7 percent over the previous year. That, too, was listed by the department as a factor in its budget problem.

Committee members countered that Marcantel’s department authorized a private prison in Otero County last year, both to save money and to provide better treatment for sex offenders.

The prison houses about 320 inmates. Each costs the state $71 a day, but Marcantel said that is a substantial savings from the $100-a-day expense for inmates at state-run prisons.

He called the Otero County prison a plus for the department and taxpayers. The real problem, Marcantel said, is that he had done a poor job in explaining his department’s needs and objectives to legislators.

Drawing a line from the prison movie Cool Hand Luke, Marcantel said he was responsible for a failure to communicate, too often assuming that legislators fully understood all the expenses and problems faced by his department.

The Legislative Finance Committee on Thursday also released a report listing vacancies in state departments. David Abbey, director of the committee, said the state is funding about 2,250 state jobs that are vacant.

The vacancy rate for the Corrections Department is 21.2 percent. It has authorization for 2,447 jobs.

Marcantel said the numbers may not look impressive, but he actually is proud of them. Less than three years ago, when Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Marcantel to run the prison system, staff vacancy rates at some prisons exceeded 40 percent. Marcantel said one probation and parole office had a vacancy rate of 50 percent. Now it is down to 5 percent.

Progress has been steady, and the prison system is more stable, Marcantel said, thanks in part to lawmakers approving additional money for salaries to reduce attrition.

The governor’s spokesman, Enrique Knell, said in statement Thursday, “The bottom line is that the LFC is playing political games by presenting misleading information that only shows a portion of the situation, and are completely disregarding their failure to appropriate funding for targeted pay raises and for meeting the 2009 union lawsuit obligations.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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