Down­turn in oil, gas rip­ples through N.M.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Mor­gan Lee

santa fe» New Mex­ico’s grind­ing bud­get cri­sis is tak­ing a toll in court­rooms where over­bur­dened at­tor­neys have de­nied le­gal coun­sel to poor de­fen­dants, at mu­se­ums reel­ing from lay­offs and ad­mis­sion hikes, and at state univer­si­ties and col­leges grap­pling with steep spend­ing cuts.

A pro­longed down­turn in oil and nat­u­ral gas mar­kets con­tin­ued to rip­ple through New Mex­ico’s econ­omy over the sum­mer and into the fall, un­der­min­ing state tax rev­enues.

Em­ploy­ers across the state have shed thou­sands of jobs since Oc­to­ber 2015, as more than a third of New Mex­ico’s oil rigs shut down.

Fos­sil fuel prices are squeez­ing bud­gets in sev­eral states that rely heavily on sev­er­ance taxes, such as Alaska, North Dakota, Wy­oming and Ok­la­homa — even as OPEC na­tions con­sider cut­ting pro­duc­tion to boost prices.

“They’ve had cuts, sig­nif­i­cant cuts,” said John Hicks, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of State Bud­get Of­fi­cers. “That’s very no­table in com­par­i­son with the rest of the coun­try to have an ac­tual de­crease in gen­eral fund taxes and gen­eral fund spend­ing.

The ef­fects are ev­i­dent in New Mex­ico’s Lea County, an area known for its oil pro­duc­tion. Public de­fend­ers there have de­clined or asked to with­draw from rep­re­sent­ing hun­dreds of in­di­gent crim­i­nal de­fen­dants. They say swelling caseloads and lim­ited fund­ing threaten their abil­ity to pro­vide ef­fec­tive le­gal as­sis­tance.

The ac­tions prompted a stand­off this week as dis­trict Judge Gary Cling­man held the state’s chief public de­fender in con­tempt of court, and the lo­cal dis­trict at­tor­ney pe­ti­tioned the New Mex­ico Supreme Court to in­ter­vene.

Chief public de­fender Ben­nett Baur in­sists on his agency’s obli­ga­tion to speak out when at­tor­neys and bud­gets are strained.

“We can’t con­tinue to spread our at­tor­neys so thin that they don’t have time to read police re­ports, to meet with a client, to do le­gal re­search if nec­es­sary,” he said. “This is a sys­temic prob­lem.”

The dis­pute threat­ens to taint cases that lead to con­vic­tions since de­fen­dants can ar­gue they lacked ef­fec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

Most state agen­cies are grap­pling with spend­ing cuts of 5.5 per­cent, and they’re brac­ing for more belt tight­en­ing as state econ­o­mists pre­pare to re­lease re­duced rev­enue es­ti­mates for the cur­rent and com­ing fis­cal year.

Amid hir­ing freezes, the state work­force dwin­dled to 21,905 full-time po­si­tions in Oc­to­ber, down 18 per­cent from mid-2008.

Sen. Peter Wirth, the Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity leader, wor­ried cuts to the Tax­a­tion and Rev­enue and Cul­tural Af­fairs depart­ment would be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive — lim­it­ing the state’s abil­ity to col­lect money and at­tract tourists.

“Here in Santa Fe — the arts, tourism — these are huge eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment driv­ers,” Wirth said. “We are im­pact­ing a big por­tion of our econ­omy.”

Cul­tural Af­fairs Sec­re­tary Veron­ica Gon­za­les has warned leg­is­la­tors the agency might have to re­duce the days of oper­a­tion at the state’s world-renowned net­work of mu­se­ums and his­toric sites.

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