Inside the Capitol

Monday, August 17, 2009

8-19 Share the Pain or Prioritize?

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- With a special legislative session to balance the state budget now a sure thing, the big question is who takes the hit? Does the pain get spread evenly or will it be prioritized?
With state government over $400 million further in the hole than predicted six months ago, Gov. Bill Richardson and legislative leaders have agreed that a special session is necessary, probably in October.
The governor had hoped to avoid the session but the shortfall is big enough it is dangerous to use all our reserves to plug the gap. And the deficit would be even worse without the federal stimulus money the state has received and that won't be available next year.
The plan is for a task force, representing the governor and legislative leaders, to agree on a proposal to be presented to a one-day special session. Some lawmakers have expressed opinions that the plan is overly optimistic, unless the proposal is extremely simple.
But considering the number of proposed solutions voiced by legislators and interest groups, the solution may not be simple.
Gov. Richardson and legislative leaders have said everything is on the table but tax increases. To that, the governor has added his desire not to furlough or lay off any state employees.
But some legislative leaders, who have addressed the subject, aren't willing to rule out furloughs, layoffs and a reduced number of vacation days.
At least some lawmakers are upset that the state employees union and those representing county, municipal, school and university employees have filed suit challenging the constitutionality of docking their pay 1.5 percent to make up for a similar reduction in the public employer contribution to employee retirement.
The state employees' union and a child advocacy group have suggested numerous ways the state can generate additional revenue through increased taxes on high incomes, large corporations and removal of tax exemptions and deductions given to small interest groups.
The proposals are accompanied by compelling rationale but none will get anywhere because each proposal is opposed by a strong lobbying corps that would extend a legislative session much longer than a day.
That means sacred cows like education may take a hit. Twice, Senate leader Tim Jennings, of Roswell, has written to school superintendents and university presidents warning them that education must be willing to share the pain.
Public schools comprise roughly 50 percent of the state budget. Colleges and universities add another 10 percent. So a small hit on them would raise significant revenue.
But educators argue that they already took a hit during the regular legislative session early this year. Federal stimulus funds are the only thing that got them close to last year's support level. They wonder if Jennings has sent warning letters to other departments of state government.
Schools are getting some editorial and community support around the state contending that they should be the last place to cut. What other recipient of state funds holds bake sales and collects box tops to make ends meet?
The most popular place to cut seems to be in areas controlled by the governor. Lawmakers argue that without the necessity of legislative mandate, Richardson could be reducing state agency spending, tightening his hiring freeze and cracking down on double-dippers who retire and then return to state government.
And the sorest point of all is the governor's hiring of hundreds of non-essential employees outside the state personnel system. The hiring freeze hasn't reduced those numbers at all.
The task force that will develop the plan to be presented to the one-day session is expected to work behind closed doors. Since it isn't a formal body, open-meeting laws may not apply.
And when, during a one-day session, is there time for any public input into the final decisions? Lobbyists will be the only ones finding anyone's ear.
WED, 8-19-09

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



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