LOCAL NEWS

Local GRT to Fill in Cut to NMSA Budget?

By Kathleen Sloan

HERALD Reporter

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority Board passed a resolution drafted by the New Mexico Finance Authority at the Wednesday, March 28, meeting held at Hatch City Offices.

NMFA’s resolution closes the gap on what can be done with excess gross receipts taxes, left over after bond and loan payments are paid.

Both Doña Ana County and Sierra County passed a GRT tax referendum that went into effect Jan. 1, 2009. One-quarter-of-one-cent is collected. Of that money, 75 percent goes to NMFA and 25 percent goes directly to the counties to be used for science and technology education.

NMFA issued the subsequent bonds and loan monies, which use the GRT revenue as collateral.

NMFA’s bonds documents described what can be done with bond money, but did not address excess GRT. The bond money is restricted to capital projects and professional services required to carry out capital projects.

This resolution essentially says NMSA can spend excess GRT on staff salaries or utility bills –as it sees fit– with approval from both the NMSA Board and the Spaceport America Regional Spaceport District Board. The latter is the oversight board to the tax district, which was created after the referendums were passed. Therefore, this board’s sole purpose is to oversee GRT spending.

Although the NMSA Board approved the resolution, NMSA Attorney Wade Jackson said the tax district board’s approval is the one with authority on this matter.

Members of the tax district board have two elected officials from Sierra County, which are County Commissioners Walter Armijo and Alvin Campbell; two elected officials from Doña Ana County, which are commissioners Dolores Saldana-Caviness and Leticia Duarte; and two governor appointees, which are Elephant Butte Councilor Gerald LaFont and Dolores Connor.

Commissioner Armijo, in an interview held Saturday, March 31, said the tax district board bylaws state only elected officials are to be members. At their last meeting, Wednesday, March 21, Armijo requested that Connor be replaced, since she lost her bid for Las Cruces mayor against incumbent Ken Miyagishima. Armijo stated, “Connor said, ‘I’m going to serve until the governor tells me not to.”

Armijo is not sure if the tax district board will redraft the NMFA resolution or throw it out altogether, since he feels the purpose of the GRT tax monies is clear: “That money is supposed to go to construction and education.”

Armijo expects a special meeting of their board to be called soon.

NMSA Executive Director Christine Anderson said, during her presentation to the NMSA Board, that she will “only be asking for this money once, during this transition period between construction and operation, when we are fragile.”

The excess GRT this year amounts to $293,000. Anderson said no excess GRT can be used to pay off the bond debt until 2019.

Anderson said the NMSA budget was cut from $1.2 million to $500,000, “about a year ago, just as I was coming on board.” This year, that slashed budget was supplemented from “non-reverting funds” already appropriated.

Anderson said the $293,000 will be used to pay the $30,000 a month electric bill and $11,000 a month communication link bill at the spaceport.

Sandy Jones, who used to be on the tax district board, shot down NMSA requests to expend excess GRT. He spoke during public comment, as a Las Palomas resident and not as Sierra County’s development coordinator.

Jones alluded to the tax district board’s September 2011 meeting minutes. He said they were incorrect because they state the Legislative Finance Committee cut NMSA’s budget.

State budgets are determined by a check and balance system. The Legislative Finance Committee is made up of legislative representatives, and the Department of Finance & Administration is made up of the governor’s staff. Each suggests budgets, and their wrangling provides the check and balance between elected officials and the government – the people and the state.

“Your own secretary, Barela, supported the 60 percent cut,” said Jones, referring to Secretary of the Department of Economic Development, which is NMSA’s parent-government department. Barela is also chairman of the NMSA Board and has made Rick Holdridge his designee. “The LFC put forth a flat budget,” said Jones.

Jones reasoned that if the NMSA now needs more money, “They should go back to the Governor’s Office and not spend GRT, which is locals’ money, voted for a different purpose. Doña Ana and Sierra County should not be paying state employees’ salaries,” he said.

Jones said, “My mother told me, ‘Don’t ever forget who brought you to the dance.’ The $200 million (for spaceport construction) would have sunsetted without the counties’ support.”

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