Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Grab Your Pocketbooks

SANTA FE -- Grab your hats -- and your pocketbooks. The 2007 Legislature convenes on Tues, Jan.16. It should be a lively time. We've learned that any legislative session with Gov. Bill Richardson cracking the whip will see plenty of action.
This will be a 60-day, "long" legislative session, so all subjects are open for consideration. Over a thousand pieces of legislation are likely to be introduced in each house on every topic imaginable, but the governor and lawmakers have signaled that certain topics are sure to be discussed.
At the top of everyone's list is money. Also sure to be considered are elections, ethics, eminent domain, water and, of course, cockfighting.
The state has a treasure chest of money and all lawmakers and lobbyists want just a little more than their share for favorite programs and projects. A little will be given back, but not enough to make a bit of difference to anyone.
Count on state government increasing by over 10 percent next year. Our current $5.1 billion general fund budget is sure to increase by over $500 million. How can I be so sure?
December revenue projections forecast an increase in "new money" of $720 million. Some of that will go in the state's huge savings account and a little will be used for tax cuts, but most of it will increase state government and its programs.
The major increases are expected to be in Medicaid spending and public safety. State Medicaid costs amount to over $700 million a year. Expect an increase of somewhere around 15 percent for next year. When we have the money, as we currently do, Medicaid spending actually isn't a bad investment.
Under the federal government's poverty formula, the feds will approximately quadruple every dollar we put into Medicaid. Since our state comes out near the bottom in health care coverage, money put into Medicaid will improve our ranking by covering more people.
Strengthening public safety is another good idea for a security conscious nation. The state's Homeland Security office gets part of that. Another recipient is the state police crime lab, which we learned won't be able to get around to former First Lady Dee Johnson's toxicology report for four months. Expect a hefty, double-digit increase there.
Public schools are by far the biggest state expenditure, consuming almost half the state's general fund budget. But increases for schools never will be in the double-digit range because of the amount of money that would eat up.
Care must be taken that tastes don't become too expensive because the whopping revenue increases are made possible by oil and gas payments, which plummet whenever prices do.
Even more new money is available for pork projects. This money comes from severance taxes, mainly on oil and gas; budget surpluses and bond issues. There is so much money available for pork that some of it is wasted on local projects that don't have any local support. Over $1 billion appropriated for pork projects over the last few years, is lying idle because projects are moving slowly or not at all.
The state's new paper ballot voting system worked reasonably well in November but adjustments are necessary to clarify voter identification procedures, provide sufficient training and analyze extra funding requests made by the former secretary of state.
Ethics reform is a must. Gov. Bill Richardson asked lawmakers to send him a bill last year, but they didn't. So the governor appointed a task force to make recommendations, most of which he is sending on to the Legislature.
Eminent domain authority of state and local governments needs reining in to protect private property rights after the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to condemning private property for private developers' benefit.
And then there is cockfighting. Gov. Richardson has agreed to support a ban this year, but that doesn't mean it will pass easily. There will be just as much time-consuming controversy as ever.



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