Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

1-17 Full Plate for Legislature

SANTA FE – The 60-day, “long” session of the New Mexico Legislature, beginning Tuesday, will be action-packed.
Gov. Bill Richardson calls it his most important session, because it is the only 60-day session for which a governor has time to prepare. The only other 60-day session during the four year terms of our governors comes barely two weeks after inauguration.
Our fast-forward governor always can be expected to have more than a full plate, but this year, it will be heaped the highest. In long sessions, any subject is germane for consideration, not just financial matters. Larger states sometimes take all year for such sessions, even though their legislative bodies are no larger. So New Mexicans get a good deal in terms of efficiency.
Each year, Gov. Richardson has presented lawmakers with a smorgasbord of tax cuts here, a few tax increases there, and dozens of new ideas and programs all over the place. He has been fortunate to be in charge during a time of increasing prices in oil and gas, New Mexico’s two cash cows.
That revenue has helped him finance bold new plans, some of which, at this point, appear to be bringing in the additional revenue the governor had promised.
This year’s gubernatorial initiatives call for $42 million of tax deductions for low- and middle-income taxpayers, single parents and military retirees.
The governor eliminated a proposed tax break designed to attract high-income senior citizens to the state, when figures showed it wouldn’t provide the amount of economic development he had hoped.
Education is the bulk of any state’s budget and Richardson has made it a top priority since taking office because of his economic development implications. The governor knows from experience that good schools and a well-educated work force are both at the top of the list for most businesses considering a move to New Mexico.
No sooner had he finished implementing full-day kindergarten for all children whose parents want it, than he has launched an initiative to do the same for four-year-olds. He wants to put $18 million into that over the next two years and he estimates it will run $52 million a year after full implementation.
With states struggling to meet testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Richardson hopes he can give New Mexico a head start by getting children in school earlier to improve our dismal test results.
For grades K-12, the governor is concentrating on improving teacher qualifications through big salary hikes for teachers with top-level education and experience.
For higher education, Richardson wants to expand the lottery scholarship program in hopes of producing a more highly-educated work force. One risk there is that these students will then leave the state for higher-paying jobs. But we’ll never attract those high paying jobs without a better-educated workforce.
State finance officials estimate we will have approximately $300 million in “new” money to finance existing and new programs and $450 million in “old” money to finance one-time expenditures. Already, there are billions of dollars of requests for both pots.
The governor also will have packages to combat DWI, crime and gangs. Water will be a top priority, as will health care, renewable energy, affordable housing, stopping the loss of public safety officers and establishment of a loan fund for businesses seeking to move to New Mexico or expand existing facilities.
Business groups also have announced their legislative priorities, many of them similar to the governor’s. They would like to have more tax credits for research and development, alternative energy and employee health insurance. They want tort and regulatory reform, faster permitting and relief from the pyramiding of gross receipts taxes on sales by businesses to businesses.
Republican lawmakers’ top priority will be voter identification. They also want to stem the huge yearly increases in Medicaid and to take a look at the cost of Gov. Richardson’s commuter rail plans.


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