$80M in the red is no way to start a fiscal year

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — As of July 1, New Mexico state government began fiscal year 2011 $80 million in the red, maybe. That’s what the Legislative Finance Committee is guessing.

Does that mean more tax increases and cuts in government services? For now, additional tax increases seem unlikely. The Legislature and governor have come to what seems like a firm agreement that there will be no more special sessions for the rest of the calendar year.

At the end of the last special session, the Legislature gave Gov. Bill Richardson extraordinary powers to make cuts in state government wherever he sees fit.

Former Gov. Gary Johnson tried that once and lawmakers went to court to stop him from usurping their power. This time, they usurped their own power in order not to have to return until next January’s regular session.

Normally that is not the sort of responsibility a governor would like to assume. But Gov. Richardson won’t be running for office this fall. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish will be running and any Richardson actions are likely to affect her.

So legislators have put themselves in the enviable situation of saying they wish the governor would hurry up and do his job.

For his part, Gov. Richardson says let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  His economists’ revenue forecast will not be completed until later this summer. Meanwhile he says he is unwilling to rely on guesswork from nervous legislators.

So don’t expect to hear anything definite until at least a month from now. At least we likely aren’t looking at a $600 million deficit as we were at this time last year.

But then we’ve made a number of cuts already, making future cuts all the more difficult. Money to schools is a big part of the budget. Many districts have closed small schools despite growing evidence that smaller schools have a significant effect on student achievement.

Class sizes have been increased, educational and athletic programs have been cut back and at least one district has gone to a four-day week.

At the state level 1,664 employees have been dropped since the November 2008 hiring freeze. That’s a 6.5 percent dip. Some legislators say it wasn’t a hiring freeze at all because some vacant positions were filled.

That would be the essential positions we can’t do without, the governor says. He has credited cabinet secretaries with spreading workload so that agencies haven’t been crippled.

Nonetheless, the Legislative Finance Committee is scrutinizing recent hires and looking at other positions that could be cut. They are especially looking at positions currently held by political appointees.

They will all be gone at the end of December but the pressure will be on the next governor to drastically cut the number of these appointments. Gov. Richardson says he has cut 59 politically appointed positions already.

He has listed the titles of some of the positions eliminated but lawmakers want 59 names to see if some of the appointees might appear in other positions.

One group of such positions is the many public information officers who have sprouted up in numerous state agencies since the beginning of the Richardson administration. In 2003, he hired around two dozen news people  from radio, TV and newspapers.

Consolidation of the many departments that have mushroomed since former Gov. Jerry Apodaca reduced over 100 agencies into a 12-member cabinet is a definite possibility.

Last year Gov. Richardson appointed a committee to consider how to streamline state government. Consolidation of departments was one recommendation he said he would like to consider. So would the Legislature.

Of course these new departments all have been created by a majority vote of the Legislature and the signature of a governor. Obviously there is political muscle behind all of them.


Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com.