- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico’s state auditor said Friday he has found $4.4 billion in unspent funds tucked away in hundreds of agency accounts.

State Auditor Tim Keller announced the findings as the Legislature took the unusual step of scouring state accounts for unrestricted cash that might temporarily offset plunging state revenue forecasts linked to low crude oil prices.

Most of the idle funds highlighted in the report already have been assigned to specific projects, most importantly infrastructure, and cannot help lawmakers in balancing general fund spending and recurring annual revenues.

The Office of the State Auditor examined fund balances as of July 1, 2015, seeking to identify money that is sitting unnecessarily idle when it might otherwise be used to stimulate the economy and employment.

“Most of these dollars have already been designated for a purpose to help our state, but the audit results do not inspire confidence that funds are actually being spent in a timely and efficient manner,” Keller said in a statement.

The idle funds cited in the report do not include employee salaries, operating costs or retirement and permanent trust funds. A report from the previous year found $4.2 billion in unspent funds.

Capital project fund balances, for a variety of infrastructure projects, decreased by 4 percent. Funds designated for water projects totaled $230 million.

Seizing on the report, three Senate Democrats urged Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to speed up spending on approved state infrastructure projects. A spokesman for the governor had no comment.

“What more do we need in this state than water projects and rural development projects?” said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque.

Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, said he is working on legislation designed to reduce the time between the approval of infrastructure projects and the start of spending and construction.

Keller “does highlight a very serious and real problem, and that is our statewide capital outlay process is a complete wreck,” said Harper, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “From the time the ink dries on the governor’s signature for legislation to when the projects get in the ground, an optimistic time frame is 18 months.”

Lawmakers currently are considering a bill aimed at prioritizing and vetting infrastructure projects more objectively through a planning council. Currently, lawmakers allocate a set amount of funding for capital outlay projects in each legislative district. Advocates of the legislation say it could also streamline spending.

A state budget plan approved by the House of Representatives would sweep together $52 million in leftover cash and savings across state agencies. Major amendments are likely in the Senate.

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