The Office of the State Auditor is questioning the New Mexico Environment Department's settlement policies, asking whether the agency missed out on millions of dollars in a settlement with the US Department of Energy. The settlement in question involved a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Power Plant near Carlsbad in 2014 caused by a drum of mispackaged nuclear waste. As a result of the settlement, the DOE agreed to fund $74 million in roadwork and “special environmental projects” for the state of New Mexico instead of being fined for nuclear waste management violations. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, those fines would have equaled around $54 million in civil penalties. In a letter to the state auditor written earlier this year, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center requested an investigation into the settlement agreement, alleging that the DOE avoided paying fines by agreeing to work on projects it would have been obligated to complete, anyway. In response, former Deputy State Auditor Sanjay Bhakta reportedly wrote to Environment Secretary Butch Tongate earlier this month, writing that it was “highly unusual” that NMED “unnecessarily forgave tens of millions of dollars in civil penalties related to various waste management violations and repeated missed cleanup deadlines” by the DOE. Bhakta suggested that the department review its policies regarding settlements.
Report Finds NM Education Spending Low
According to a recently published national report, New Mexico's education funding is around 12 percent lower than it was before the US economic recession when adjusted for inflation. “A Punishing Decade for School Funding” was released at the end of last month by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit think tank that analyzes government budget policies. The report uses inflation-adjusted 2015 data—the most recent available—of overall state funding per student, without considering federal investments. The majority of the nation cut school funding following the recession, but according to the report, 29 states had not restored their educational spending in 2015. The report ranked New Mexico 15th for funding reductions with 11.7 percent less spending than the 2008 school year, before the recession began.
Johnson Appointed State Auditor
Last week, Gov. Susana Martinez named Republican Wayne Johnson as the next state auditor through 2018. Johnson, who owns a media production company, is a Bernalillo County commissioner and former Albuquerque mayoral candidate. He told the Albuquerque Journal that he plans to resign his commission seat “at some point,” but isn't aware of any laws against holding both county and state offices simultaneously. He succeeds Democrat Tim Keller—who resigned from his appointment as state auditor last week prior to being sworn in as Albuquerque's mayor. Johnson succeeds Keller after running against him in the Albuquerque mayoral race. Johnson finished fourth among eight candidates in the general election. As state auditor, Johnson's responsibility is to authorize and perform audits of state agencies. It's been reported that Johnson plans to run for a full term in November 2018, when voters will elect the next auditor.