FARMINGTON — Sen. Tom Udall and Rep. Ben Ray Luján have joined other Western lawmakers in introducing legislation to protect New Mexico's mineral royalties from the effects of the federal sequester.
The New Mexico Democrats are cosponsoring identical bills introduced in the House and Senate on Tuesday.
The legislation, known as the State Mineral Revenue Protection Act, would prohibit the federal government from holding onto mineral royalties owed to energy-rich states such as New Mexico.
"New Mexico's federal lands provide significant royalties that fund education and infrastructure in our state," Luján said in a prepared statement.
The state collects mineral royalties on mining conducted on land leased from federal agencies. The state and federal governments split the proceeds equally.
The bills would allow the state to collect its share of royalty revenues without relying on the federal government. The federal government would still be able to collect its share.
The U.S. Department of Interior in March notified state governments that, without a change in law, the payments would be withheld. For New Mexico, it amounts to $26 million due to the state over the next six months.
"Only Wyoming would lose more revenue shares than we would," said Marissa Padilla, a spokeswoman for Udall. "New Mexico is second in the nation on this."
Wyoming stands to lose the most $53 million of any state under the sequester. Utah would be out $8.8 million, and Colorado would lose $8.4 million. North Dakota, Montana and California would also lose millions.
Mineral royalties are an important part of New Mexico's budget. The state collected $39 million in royalties in 2011, according to the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. Most of that revenue $25.6 million came from coal mining.
"Clearly, there are implications for funding important priorities in the New Mexico budget, such as funding education, emergency responder services and basic infrastructure," Padilla said.
For state lawmakers, the mineral royalties are of crucial concern to the state budget.
"They have no business touching that," said Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington. "That's cherry-picking and just another example of this administration kind of sticking in your eye. It shouldn't be tampered with. I don't get it."
Strickler said he supports the federal legislation.
The automatic budget cuts, known as the sequester, were triggered when Democrats and Republicans in Congress couldn't agree on a deficit reduction plan. Since then, Congress has carved out some exceptions to the cuts, such as freeing up money to end furloughs of air-traffic controllers that slowed airport traffic.
"The sequester is a failed experiment one that I have been opposed to every step of the way that is harming New Mexico and should be repealed in full. But absent a comprehensive solution, Congress should stand up to protect funds that belong to the states and play a vital role in our communities," Luján said.
Chuck Slothower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4638. Follow him on Twitter @DTChuck.