2011 special session: Governor pushes merging agencies

Trip Jennings

As part of her call for the special legislative session, Gov. Susana Martinez wants state lawmakers to shrink government by merging several state agencies.

Under her proposal, the cultural affairs and tourism departments would merge, the Department of Information Technology would become part of the General Services Department and the New Mexico’s Homeland Security Department would be tucked into the Department of Public Safety.

But the proposal is not a slam dunk, in part, because some lawmakers dislike the governor’s timing.

“When we look at the time we have, and the issues, I don’t think we have enough time to examine these mergers,” said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, vice-chairman of the Legilslature’s budget arm, the Legislative Finance Committee.

Varela served on a recent legislative task force that studied consolidating state agencies to save money. He supports the concept. But Varela doesn’t much like Martinez’s particular proposal. He also wonders if his colleagues have enough time during a special legislative session focused on redistricting to hash out the details of not only how best to merge state agencies but what agencies to consolidate.

“They’re talking about merging the (Department of Information Technology) into the General Services Department. We just created (the information technology) department four years ago,” Varela said. “That’s probably not going to go.”

The Santa Fe Democrat also said he’d rather see the tourism and economic development departments merged, which he said share a closer mission than cultural affairs and tourism.

On Wednesday, Martinez defended her vision for merging state agencies, saying the consolidation would help save New Mexico money in addition to what’s already been saved by her administration by not filling certain vacancies and trimming the number of exempt employees. Exempt workers are political appointees as opposed to most state employees, who cannot be fired without cause.

The administration already had saved more than $2 million at the six agencies the governor wants to merge through those cost-saving efforts, a Martinez spokesman said in an email.

With mergers, the state could save additional dollars by forcing agencies to share administrative staffs, Martinez said. And there would be the potential for cabinet secretaries who find themselves out of a top job moving to lower-paying positions.

“When we hired # cabinet secretaries they knew from the beginning there may be a merger,” Martinez said. “We don’t intend to let any of them go. They may become cabinet secretary or director within the departments.”

Those cabinet secretaries who move into division director positions could receive a lower salary, “depending on the current salary level and the position to which they are moved – whether deputy secretary, division director, or something else,” Martinez’s spokesman Scott Darnell said in an email.

While the mergers haven’t occurred yet, Martinez’s cultural affairs and tourism cabinet secretaries said Wednesday the two agencies already share staff, including legal counsel and an administrative services division director. And in the future the two agencies “also may look at ways to collaborate or do joint programming and marketing,” said Cultural Affairs Secretary Veronica Gonzales. But “at this point we’re not talking about structural changes to either department that would somehow change what we already have going on.”

If a merger does occur, however, a lot of thought will have to go into identifying how to become more efficient, Martinez’s Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson said.

“When we look at these two departments, there’s going to be a lot of places where we have similar groups working on similar things,” Jacobson said. “I think our focus would be where those efficiencies exist, and how we can be smarter with the way we are doing business.”

One example would be greater collaboration between visitor centers and museums, she said.

Neither Martinez nor Jacobson would talk about possible job losses resulting from the mergers, although Jacobson acknowledged that could be one result from trying to maximize efficiency.

Contact Trip Jennings at 986-3050 or at tjennings@sfnewmexican.com.