Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

1-26 Quick Start for Lawmakers?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- New Mexico's 60-day "long" legislative sessions always get off to slow starts. "But not this year" say some legislative leaders.
The necessity of cutting budgets for both this year and next makes the 2009 Legislature a new ballgame. House Speaker Ben Lujan says he wants to work out the cuts to this year's budget during the first two weeks of the session. By doing that, we'll have a starting point to move on to next year's budget.
It might work, but there are problems. The current budget deficit is a moving target. Senate Finance Committee chairman John Arthur Smith notes our economy still is headed downhill, meaning the deficit will grow even larger.
No cut in this year's budget will be easy. The cuts all belong to people who fought long and hard to get each of those items funded originally. Some of those projects belong to political leaders, including Gov. Richardson, or to powerful interest groups that will fight their removal.
Speaker Lujan is a powerful leader himself so he may be able to make it happen in the House. But the Senate always is more difficult. The main reason is that no leadership post in the Senate is as powerful as the speaker of the House.
The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate but has no power other than to break tie votes. The remainder of what would be a speaker's power is divided among numerous Senate leadership positions.
Instead of one person calling the shots, it is a group, which first must reach agreement. The Senate leadership battle that began this session is prime evidence of the problems divided authority produces.
This budget crisis is being called the worst in our state's history. I doubt that is true. It is the worst in most people's memory. But there are some of us who have had an opportunity to build longer memories than most.
The 1983 Legislature began with a budget crisis that had become apparent only two months earlier. Gov. Toney Anaya and legislators elected in November had no idea on election night what they were about to face.
It hit like a ton of bricks and no one was prepared. Currently our political leaders are promising no tax increases will be necessary in order for the state to have its books in balance at the end of the fiscal year. That wasn't the case 25 years ago.
As state budget crises go, the stories I hear about the 1935 legislature top them all. That Legislature had to revamp the state's entire taxation system in order to keep the state afloat and to prevent massive foreclosures on property.
That likely was the state's biggest budget crisis. But other factors are present that easily could add to this session's crisis atmosphere. The College of Santa Fe, a private, Catholic, four-year institution, has been seeking a take-over by other private schools because of major financial difficulties.
When nothing could be worked out, the college threw itself on the mercy of the state higher education system. Highlands University, in Las Vegas, wants to take it over. That would require major financial assistance from the state. Influential politicos support the move.
Animosities over the Senate leadership battle are likely to fester and influence the operation of that body.
Nineteen new lawmakers will be part of this session. Many were elected as "progressives" and come bearing new ideas for additions to educational and social services.
Gov. Richardson has ordered the Department of Public Safety not to release background checks on his high-level appointees. Senate Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez says a lack of good information on appointees will slow down confirmations.
The energy crisis has increased the acceptance for more drilling among political leaders. It would help New Mexico's economy but environmentalists are determined to make it more difficult to drill.
MON, 1-26-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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