New Mexico governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham has picked a familiar face—and a popular one—to lead her transition to power.

Jeff Bingaman, a former five-term US senator from the state, will handle the vetting of Lujan Grisham's first cabinet and senior staff members.

"He is someone I've looked up to my entire career," a beaming Lujan Grisham said Wednesday, praising the Silver City native and Santa Fe resident's efforts to gain prescription drug coverage for senior citizens during his time in Washington, DC. "I know unequivocally the kind of work he's capable of doing, and I am incredibly fortunate to have someone of his caliber make sure we get it all perfect as we move forward."

Offering a trademark slow smile, Bingaman protested the standard set by the new governor, reminding her "very little in government and politics is perfect," but said he was honored to round out what he termed a "stellar performance" by Lujan Grisham in her campaign to lead the state for the next four years.

The five-term former US senator seemed anxious to get to work | Matt Grubs
The five-term former US senator seemed anxious to get to work | Matt Grubs

He'll be joined by longtime Lujan Grisham aide Dominic Gabello, a pair of picks the incoming chief executive said were the only jobs she's offered anyone yet.

Bingaman described the task as demanding, noting the governor will take office barely two weeks before lawmakers arrive at the Roundhouse for a 60-day session to begin crafting a financial plan for the next fiscal year that's expected to have more than $1.2 billion in funding beyond the current budget. Some estimates are that the oil boom in New Mexico's part of the Permian Basin could push the so-called "new money" closer to $2 billion. That's about one third of the current budget.

That's a stark difference from the fiscal scenario that greeted current Gov. Susana Martinez, who faced the prospect of job and programmatic cuts to fill a projected deficit of several hundred million dollars. The state can't take on debt for its annual spending, so lawmakers worked with the governor to craft a balanced budget as required by the constitution.

The governor-elect said that in building a budget proposal, she'd assess the state's current liabilities, which include a court mandate to increase funding to public schools. Lujan Grisham said she embraced the idea of spending more in the classroom and added she'd like to create a universal pre-kindergarten program across the state.

Lujan Grisham bemoaned the stripped-down ranks of state employees during a press conference in Albuquerque Wednesday afternoon.

"We still have way too many vacancies in state government," she said. "They're in high-risk areas like [the Children, Youth and Families Department] and the Health and Human Services Department. Those positions will hold a priority in our administration."

She said she'd ask Bingaman and the rest of the transition team to "confirm my suspicions are accurate."

The governor-elect said she did not expect to ask for a wholesale resignation of Martinez' senior management team, and that she'd potentially offer a chance to stay for those appointees who wanted to interview for their jobs once more. Lujan Grisham said she'd already spoken to Martinez, who was gracious in offering any help desired.

"I want the best and the brightest," Lujan Grisham said, pointing repeatedly to a website she'd set up to gather applicants for the transition.

For Bingaman, the role will be somewhat similar to the period of time when he and fellow New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici swapped roles as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, depending on whether Democrats or Republicans were in power.

"I think it informs [the tranisition process] in the sense that in order to get things done, both in Washington and in Santa Fe, you try to get bipartisan support for what you want to do," Bingaman said. "Obviously Michelle is committed to that, and I think inviting both the Republican and Democratic legislators to come together and talk about what the agenda is going to be for the next four years is a clear sign. … I think that's the exact right approach and the approach I tried to take when I was in the Senate."