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Analysis: Democratic split complicates budget work

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By Barry Massey

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The political will to compromise and make unpopular votes was a missing ingredient as the New Mexico Legislature worked for 30 days but failed to agree on a balanced budget to finance schools and government programs next year.

The two Democratic-led chambers were far apart throughout the session on tax and budget issues. And those differences will remain when the Legislature convenes Wednesday for a special session to again try to pass a budget.

Legislative leaders couldn't assemble a budget package — one with politically risky tax increases and spending cuts — that had the support of a majority in the House and Senate.

The House wanted to rely more on tax increases to balance the budget than the Senate. Conservative, rural Democrats in the Senate — and Republicans in both chambers — advocated deeper spending cuts. But urban, liberal-leaning House members strongly opposed cutting schools and services for the needy.

When it came to decide which taxes to increase, there also was little agreement. The Senate objected to a House proposal for a statewide gross receipts tax increase. House Democrats opposed a Senate-passed proposal to tax certain foods.

No middle ground was found before lawmakers adjourned. It was the first time since 1984 that lawmakers went home without passing a budget.

Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson said lawmakers were narrowing their differences as the session ended.

"I don't want to blame anybody," said Richardson. "I think both sides were heading toward a compromise. They just ran out of time."

But taxpayers should ask their local legislator — and the governor — why that attempt at compromise didn't start earlier, perhaps even before the Legislature convened Jan. 19.

The dimensions of the budget problem were obvious. The state is projected to collect $5.1 billion next year and it's spending $5.7 billion in the current fiscal year. At least $200 million in federal economic stimulus money is available to help plug that shortfall.

The political hurdles were well known.

Divisions between the House and Senate have been on public display for several sessions. The fractures within the Democratic majorities of the two chambers are no secret. Splintered Democratic caucuses complicated budget repair work last fall when the Legislature convened in a special session.

But special sessions have a way of focusing legislative attention. No members want to be there. They're eager to wrap up the work and get back to their homes, jobs and families.

Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales, a 25-year legislative veteran, predicts lawmakers will compromise and approve a budget during the special session. Ingle demonstrated his willingness to compromise during the 30-day session when he backed a food tax proposal and a budget that relied on $180 million in new revenues.

But Ingle's outlook is shaped by his occupation.

He's a dryland farmer in eastern New Mexico and is fond of saying that he's optimistic because each day is "one day closer to a big rain."

Come Wednesday, think rain.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Barry Massey has covered New Mexico politics and state government for The Associated Press since 1993.