Big savings gained from less pork

-A A +A
By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — To the surprise of many, state senators voted overwhelmingly last Saturday to ax $130 million of pork projects that were approved in previous years but weren’t going anywhere.

It is a sign of how seriously senators are taking the budget balancing process. This column has opined on several occasions that lawmakers must share the budget-deficit pain with taxpayers, public employees, schools and state agencies.

We suggested cutting legislative per diem and travel, but cutting their pork will be much more painful because lawmakers believe that pork is what gets them reelected.

Pork money is for community projects, but lawmakers think of it as theirs because they can take credit for bringing it home. And if the money is for a building, they might even get their name on it.

People who are closely tied to those local projects won’t be happy with their senators who didn’t go to the mat to save the projects. But senators don’t have to run this year. It may be more difficult, however, for House members to vote for the cuts.

We may see a much closer vote on the pork withdrawal in the House because representatives all have to defend their seats this year.

But what do New Mexicans really want? Do they want those local projects more than they want a balanced state budget? Since the law requires a balanced budget, that means either more taxes or fewer government services.

Last year, a coalition of education groups commissioned a survey that found New Mexicans would prefer a tax increase to cuts in public schools. If that is what House members are hearing from their constituents now, they may pass the pork cuts easily also.

The elimination of pork projects constitutes less than 10 percent of the $1.4 billion of the stalled projects around the state. The projects included in this cut are those that never have gotten to the point of letting any kind of contract on them.

Amazingly there are some 1,500 such projects. What happens is that the amount of pork money allocated to each legislator often isn’t enough to fund the total project. So the money sits there waiting for more to be added the following year. Often it takes several years to fully fund a project.

What a way to run a railroad. The states that have their act together have created agencies to analyze capital outlay needs statewide, prioritize them and then fund them beginning at the top of the list.

Such a logical procedure is not likely ever to happen in New Mexico. Alan Hall, an Albuquerque attorney, has suggested an alternate procedure in which lawmakers could bank their pork money. Lawmakers could then borrow and lend from their accounts in a more orderly fashion.

Our current system of allocating capital outlay funds argues for setting legislative term limits. If pork money is so important to reelection, we should limit the number of times legislators can be reelected. In that way, legislators could focus more on what is good for the state rather than on taking home as much pork as possible.

In recent good economic times, over $1 billion of pork per year has been split up among each of the 112 legislators and the governor. That is money we certainly could use now to balance the state budget deficit of at least $600 million.

The vote in the Senate was 36-4 to take back $130 million of the $150 million originally in the take-back bill. The other $20 million was for projects that communities were able to produce sufficient documentation to indicate a contract already has been executed.

Four senators voiced objections to the cuts contending that rural and Navajo areas of the state received more than their share of cuts.

The current scarcity of building funds also presents an opportunity for the state to examine its tendency to overbuild.