Inside the Capitol

Sunday, April 12, 2009

4-15 It Could Have Been Worse

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Reports from around the nation indicate that New Mexicans have escaped the current financial crisis with less pain than most of our fellow Americans. Numerous states already have enacted tax increases
And there may be more because most states have much longer legislative sessions than we do. Some range up to a year. Many of those states still haven't figured a way out of their dilemma. And some of those aren't discussing any other legislations until they set their budget for this year and next.
New Mexico lawmakers had our budget for the remainder of this fiscal year passed and signed by Gov. Bill Richardson on Feb. 6. Next year's General Appropriations Act was passed before the March 21 adjournment of the Legislature and signed by the governor on Apr. 7.
A special session of the Legislature still is a possibility in case the economy gets worse or the federal government does something unexpected later in the year.
Everyone has their complaints about New Mexico's state government but this certainly is an area in which it appears very competent.
Visiting some neighboring states recently, we have had the opportunity to witness the trials they are going through during the current financial crisis. Arizona, Nevada and California have been the three hardest hit states in the nation. Each have about a 30 percent budget deficit for this budget year and maybe another 30 percent for next year.
California's fiscal woes and attempted fixes all have been highlighted nationally. Nevada's and Arizona's dilemmas have been even worse.
In February, the Arizona legislature told all departments they would have to cut their budgets in the 30 percent range for the rest of the year. No excuses. Lawmakers didn't say where to cut. They just said figure it out and report back to us.
Needless to say, many public services have been cut. Perhaps worst of all, the Revenue Department had to lay off 44 percent of its tax collectors and auditors for the last four months of the year ending in June.
Those 208 tax collectors and auditors bring in many times their annual salaries in delinquent tax payments. But the only alternative was to lay off the employees who process tax collections and returns. That would have had an even greater impact on revenues that don't get collected.
This all happened after the department had released all probationary employees and not filled their positions and after implementing furloughs for all remaining employees.
Although not too many people are taking much pity on the tax collectors, their impact on the budget is huge. Lawmakers are debating whether to restore some of those positions in next year's budget but that budget may have to be even more austere than this year's cuts.
Another interesting situation developed in Arizona when the head of the Department of Transportation was called to testify to a legislative committee about the effects of the cuts on his department. It just so happened that the department head was himself on a mandatory furlough at the time.
He toyed with the idea of notifying the committee that he would be unavailable. It would have made a good point but the director decided that action would cause him a great deal more grief than just showing up.
The only New Mexico state employees who received any cuts were the hundreds of top staffers hired by the governor. He cut their salaries two percent and took away their compensatory time and end-of-the-year payouts for annual leave.
But they aren't getting much pity either. They are the ones who get the publicity and cause a public perception that we have too many state employees, all of whom are overpaid.
JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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