Inside the Capitol

Thursday, February 11, 2010

2-15 Lawmakers Running Out of Time

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Ready or not, the New Mexico Legislature adjourns Friday noon, Feb. 19. Several issues finally are moving. Unfortunately none of them involve the state budget.
Lawmakers like to get the budget to the governor at least three days before the session ends. That forces him to act on the measure before the end of the session, thereby allowing legislators to override any \vetoes he makes.
That's not going to happen this year. The three-day deadline arrives at noon Tuesday. Lawmakers have their ways of resolving budget battles at the last minute but that's not likely to happen this year because a special session is a surety anyway.
Federal money, on which some of the budget is predicated, has not yet been appropriated, so the amount to be received is not yet known. Also the state revenues available for this fiscal year are only estimated.
If all that revenue doesn't materialize, further sources must be found because the state is constitutionally prohibited from ending a fiscal year with an unbalanced budget.
So the Legislature is not forced into balancing this year's and next year's budgets immediately. Many other states are following the same pattern of remaining in session or calling special sessions in order to deal with the latest budget information.
At this point in the session, here is what the budget session looks like. Any talk of reinstituting any of the billion dollars of tax cuts since the beginning of Gov. Bill Richardson's administration has been squelched by the governor.
Consideration of any other tax hikes have been stopped by a coalition of all Republicans and conservative Democrats who hold leadership positions.
Gross receipts tax increases, which typically are the least onerous to Republicans, have been beaten back by progressive Democrats on the grounds that they are regressive.
That essentially leaves budget cuts as the only avenue to plugging the $650 million budget hole.
The budget savings discussed so far are the nickel-and-dime issues that irritate the heck out of people but which are in the single-digit millions of dollars that are not going to fill many holes.
Chief among these irritants are the exempt employees hired by Gov. Richardson. Reportedly over 500 have been hired. Lawmakers want to limit the Number to 400. The governor's office says there only are about 450 political appointees now because of vacancies. Figure the savings on each one eliminated at around $100,000.
Double dippers, who return to work after retiring and draw a pension check and a paycheck, are another popular target. Many lawmakers want to totally end the practice but there are legal problems with that. The resolution may be to eliminate the practice in the future.
Consolidation of departments, school districts and higher education institutions was recommended by the governor's efficiency task force. The Legislative Finance Committee has recommended eliminating special distributions to small, rural school districts. That may be the only action there.
Cutting film rebates, reducing the state motor pool, strict enforcement of the hiring freeze and elimination of a float in the Rose Parade all have been discussed but haven't gotten far.
The big ticket items left haven't been discussed much openly during the session but you can bet they are being considered behind closed doors.
They include another cut in public employee pay by way of a transfer of employer contributions to state and education pension funds. Last year the amount was 1.5 percent of pay. This year it is 2.64 percent of pay.
Also on the table are more furlough days for state employees. This year, it is five unpaid furlough days. Next year it could be as high as one day in each of the state's 26 pay periods. Some other states are up in that range already.
And there's also the possibility of more across-the-board cuts for all of state government, public schools and higher education.
MON, 2-15-10

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



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