NMFA oversight? The buck keeps moving

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It seems nobody was minding the store at the New Mexico Finance Authority.

Still attempting to learn how a fake audit could get past management and board, the Associated Press found that two Cabinet secretaries on the board never attended a meeting. Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary John Bemis did send representatives. Environment Secretary David Martin attended about half. Secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration Tom Clifford attended most of the meetings.

Aha! The buck stops here.

Well, no, it keeps on moving.

Barela has said he serves on 31 boards, commissions, and task forces and is actively involved in about a half dozen. Other Cabinet secretaries have similar demands. What does this say for the quality of their time on NMFA business?

Bemis has said the board relies heavily on the NMFA staff, and that’s true across the public and private sectors. So maybe the buck stops there.

The reality is that board members don’t have time to track and research every issue, so they rely on staff to the point that staffers largely control many of the state’s boards, writes Dick Minzner, former Taxation and Revenue Department secretary. They set the agenda for meetings, raise the issues to be addressed, supply the information, and even make recommendations.

Minzner recently wrote in an op-ed that some of the state’s boards and commissions have “extraordinary responsibilities, financial or otherwise,” and yet their governing boards are made up of busy elected officials and administrators and private citizens who donate their time. “It seems likely that the supervision of staff by part-time board members is nearly non-existent,” he said.

The NMFA is a bank-like public corporation that issues bonds and receives about $26 million a year in tax revenues to finance projects for local governments, but it’s independent of other governmental agencies, and its employees are not state employees. State law prescribes a board membership of four Cabinet secretaries, or their representatives, an appointed chief financial officer, four members of the public, and the executive directors of the New Mexico Municipal League and the New Mexico Association of Counties.

Minzner suggests that the Legislature and governor think about having salaried board members who spend time doing the board’s work, or eliminating the boards and placing their responsibilities under a Cabinet secretary.

The buck is still looking for a stopping place, but Minzner is getting warm. Last year the bipartisan legislative Restructuring Task Force studied state government and was startled to see a sprawling organizational chart with 27 departments, 73 agencies, and upwards of 128 boards and committees.

The task force proposed wiping out a slew of boards, commissions and other advisory bodies to restore responsibility and accountability to state agencies. Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, D-Crownpoint, and Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, introduced two bills.

One would have repealed certain boards, commissions, committees, and councils and limited or reassigned their powers. The other would have applied the Sunset Act to every agency, board, commission, council, and task force, which would have allowed the Legislature to evaluate them.

Neither survived. During one crowded hearing, members of the public and a variety of interest groups pleaded for their particular entity.

Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, said at the time, “If we don’t do some of these things, where are we going to be? People need to get a grip. I think we need to pass the majority of this bill.”

Lovejoy predicted: “If we stay with the status quo, when things crop up and people see the lack of efficiency, transparency and accountability, they’ll be back complaining.”

And so they are. Legislators will bring up NMFA oversight but before reinventing the wheel, they should start with the restructuring report.