Inside the Capitol

Monday, October 04, 2004

Is Saving Taxpayer Money Always Good?

SANTA FE Is saving taxpayer money always a good idea? Apparently not, judging from reactions to two of Gov. Bill Richardson’s recent money-saving initiatives.
The most recent gubernatorial initiative to run into trouble is Save Smart, a statewide central purchasing collaboration among all state agencies under the governor’s jurisdiction. Other governmental agencies, especially public schools and higher education, are being encouraged to participate.
Gov. Richardson expects the program to save millions of dollars that can be redirected to education, economic development and tax cuts. He says it is the same thing a family or business would do to save money.
But many family businesses and small communities don’t see it that way. They see Save Smart as a cavalier approach that ignores its economic effects on small businesses and rural communities. More and more I’m hearing Richardson referred to around the state as “the governor of Albuquerque” and that this may be part of a pattern of disregard for small-town and rural New Mexico.
In Roswell, Ruth Ann Speth of Cobean Stationery Co. says she will lose 10-15 percent of her business now that the state offices in town no longer can buy from her. She says she received a form to bid on a statewide contract for office supplies, but that her firm isn’t equipped to handle out of town business.
State officials say they have created 12 zones around the state to eliminate the problem of handling out of town business, but Speth says the spread-out zone that includes Roswell is still too big for her company. It would necessitate putting in a shipping department.
The company that won the statewide bid for office supplies is in Albuquerque, which means there will be no personalized service. And what about the need for maintenance and repair of office machines when they go down? It appears outlying communities can forget about speedy delivery or service.
But Gov. Richardson’s idea, nevertheless is a legitimate one. “I have pledged to be vigilant and fiscally responsible with taxpayer money,” says Richardson. “I want to deliver taxpayers the best value for their money.”
Another of the governor’s controversial money-saving initiatives is an electronic government plan to revamp the state’s Web site into a convenient, one-stop shopping center for New Mexico citizens. Richardson plans to finance the effort by charging companies that want to buy large amounts of data, such as statewide lists from the Motor Vehicle Division, a fee commensurate with the value of the information to the companies.
Motor vehicle data is reformatted and resold by these companies to insurance carriers and for other purposes for many millions of dollars. But the state currently charges only about $70,000 to provide this data, even though collection of the basic data costs the state millions.
It all sounds fair enough, but the company profiting the most from the sweetheart deal negotiated under a previous administration, convinced the 2004 Legislature to kill Richardson’s proposed legislation.
Also opposing the legislation were the New Mexico Press Association and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, because of possible first amendment rights violations caused by having to pay for public data.
In both of these instances, Save Smart and e-government, the state saves or recoups money for which taxpayers otherwise would have to foot the bill. But both have been unpopular. In one case small businesses and rural communities suffer. In the other, a big business gets hit and a possible first amendment right may be weakened.
So what responsibilities does government have when it saves taxpayer money at the expense of the private sector? Are the economies of scale introduced by Save Smart any different than those of Wal-Mart, which also undermines small businesses? Does government also have a responsibility to control the growth of big box stores or is that just a reality of free enterprise?
It appears the public is saying that government at least should be a good neighbor.


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