Inside the Capitol

Sunday, July 18, 2010

7-23 A Deal With the Devil?

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- An unusual deal was struck at the end of last spring's special session. Gov. Bill Richardson and the Legislature picked an easy way to end the session. Both may end up regretting it.
Because they hadn't agreed on enough government cuts and tax increases to plug the projected deficit, lawmakers gave the governor the authority to make cuts during the remainder of the year.
That is an authority lawmakers don't want to cede to the executive branch of government. During the Gary Johnson administration, the Legislature went to court to block that governor from doing his own slashing.
But everyone was anxious to end the week-long special session. Gov. Richardson had only wanted it to last a day. The 70 House members had to get back home and start campaigning and fundraising.
Legislators can't solicit contributions during a legislative session. And state senators, having been through several budget cutting sessions already, knew that each new round of cuts gets tougher.
So who wins and who loses from this deal? Lawmakers have put themselves in the position of being able to sit on the sidelines and complain that the governor needs to get busy and start making cuts. And they already are doing it.
But they are powerless to stop him if he makes cuts that legislators don't like. Most legislators have pet programs and projects within the state budget. Gov. Richardson is well known for line-item vetoing capital outlay projects of lawmakers who have gotten crossways with him.
Don't be a bit surprised to see that happen. Legislators are free to try to get those programs and projects restarted in the regular session of the Legislature beginning next January.
But they will have to sell them to a new Legislature and governor and without some extraordinary measures will have to wait until the budget year beginning next July to get them started back in operation.
And there will be no way of getting back at the governor because he will be out of office come January 1.
Lawmakers can call themselves into special session at any time, as they did once with Gov. Johnson. But it is a difficult process, especially when the governor is of the same party as that controlling the Legislature.
Gov. Richardson also has some problems. Most of the state budget is not within his authority to cut. He can't cut the legislative or judicial branches of state government.
He can't cut other statewide elected officials. That's the secretary of state, attorney general, auditor, treasurer, land commissioner and corporation commissioners.
None of the previously mentioned branches or offices are big enough to save much money with cuts but the governor also can't cut public schools or higher education. And that is almost two-thirds of the budget right there.
So the only budget cuts have to come from the cabinet departments under the governor's control. Those departments already have received several cuts by the governor and Legislature.
That leaves state employees as about the only place left to cut. The number of state employees has been reduced by 1,664 since a hiring freeze went into effect in November 2008. That's a 6.5 percent dip.
Salaries have been frozen for almost two years, health insurance rates and retirement contributions have been increased and five furlough days have been imposed already this year.
More furloughs seem likely during the remainder of this calendar year. Furloughs aren't popular with employees but they are less painful than the alternatives because they get the day off.
With unpaid holidays, employees had the day off already. Salary cuts are the most distasteful since employees work just as many days but for less money. Salary cuts also tend to be more permanent. Furloughs and unpaid holidays have to be re-imposed.
After a salary cut, future negotiations usually start with the lower salary and employees have to win back the cut.
From the standpoint of the public, however, furloughs are the poorer alternative because government offices are closed that day.
FRI, 7-23-10

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



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