Inside the Capitol

Thursday, October 01, 2009

10-5 State Budget Fight Will Be Brutal

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. How many times have we heard political candidates say that is the solution to balancing the state's budget?
Legislative leaders currently are looking for all of that waste, fraud and abuse they can find. There's bound to be plenty of it but it's not labeled that way.
The governor's hundreds of political appointees, hired outside the state personnel system and scattered in every executive agency, are an easy place to start.
Actually there are too many employees in most governmental agencies, political appointees or not. A hiring freeze and across-the-board cuts get at some of that. I've always felt state employees have far too many meetings. And they all need state cars to get to the meetings.
But not all parts of government are alike. The judicial branch of government has a lean structure. We certainly don't want to cut judges and they don't have big staffs.
Public schools are much the same. Teachers are the big chunk of their budgets. If they are to be cut, state laws that put maximum limits on class sizes will have to be raised.
Teachers of specialized classes, which broaden the curriculum, may be the first to go but they can't be cut in mid-semester without impacting graduation eligibility. And furloughing teachers presents problems.
In affluent areas, parent groups raise money for elementary schools by holding bake sales and sending kids door-to-door selling wrapping paper and candy. Those same schools sometimes require students to buy their share of duplicating paper and other school supplies. But that's not a solution for all schools.
When two state senators warned school superintendents of possible 10 percent cuts in their budgets, the biggest reactions seemed to concern the elimination of high school athletics. That's not likely to happen but anything that is not a required course is subject to elimination.
State revenue projection updates later this month will make it clearer how much will have to be cut. The last projections in August revealed a deficit in this year's budget of over $400 million. There are indications that may climb to $550 million in the October projections.
When the economic downturn began nationally, New Mexico was not as hard hit. But experience from past recessions tells us that New Mexico lags behind the curve, which means we're still a long way from hitting bottom.
If the October projections indicate we're $550 million in the hole on this year's budget of $5.5 billion, that's where the talk of 10 percent cuts emanates. And it is totally possible that revenue decreases for next fiscal year will be even worse.
How are the governor and legislature so far apart on fixing our deficit? Gov. Richardson's are short-term bandaids, depending on the economy improving next year. It is looking less and less as though that will happen.
We may have to cut another 10 percent next year. That will be very serious. The governor and Legislature seem agreed on no tax increases in this month's special session.
Changes in tax law are difficult. They must be correct, which means careful consideration. They likely won't be popular with a majority of voters and lobbyists for the groups affected will fight it with everything they have.
But there also are groups that will push for tax increases. They already are pointing out that tax cuts during the last seven years of the Richardson administration equal about what we are in the hole right now. And they haven't brought the new industry and economic well being that was promised.
Look for increasing pressure during the next several months from groups concerned about emotional issues such as eliminating high school athletics, music programs, art programs and increased dropout rates. Public employee unions and the myriad groups advocating for social concerns also will be putting the pressure on.
MON, 10-05-09

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



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