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SANTA FE – The closing gavel of this year’s special legislative session also served as the opening gavel for next January’s 2010 Legislature.
The first round has been completed. And as in any heavyweight fight, the budget cutters and tax increasers spent their time feeling each other out.
Now that the combatants know each other’s tendencies, both can proceed to defend their territory and attempt to maximize their advantages.
As the battle of the budget deficit began, neither side was sure of what it was up against. Was this a deficit that could be addressed with short term solutions and would go away soon? Or would it take big tax increases and/or deep budget cuts to tame?
By session’s end lawmakers knew they were looking at something big. It was a deficit that had been growing at the rate of about $100 million a month and gave no indication of slowing.
Limited by restrictions imposed by the governor in his special session call, lawmakers concentrated on sweeping up the remainder of non-recurring revenues lying around and supplemented them with some rather major cuts to agencies under the governor.
But at this point, all 112 legislators appear to understand that painful cuts and/or hefty tax increases are the only alternatives remaining in January.
Which it will be is still to be determined. Most Republicans left the special session talking about Band-Aids on an open wound. Most Democrats left talking about kids, the frail and the elderly. No surprises there. The sides appeared rather evenly divided so the solution likely will be a combination of tax increases and government cuts.
Gov. Bill Richardson has signaled that he will appoint a working group of executive and legislative staff, representatives of business and education and other interested groups to develop recommendations for the January session.
That group is unlikely to get started for awhile because the governor has 20 days after the special session’s end to decide whether to sign or veto each piece of the Legislature’s work.
But regardless of when that working group begins its deliberations, all 112 lawmakers will be confronted daily with the realities of the 2010 session. There will be no dodging that.
The governor says he wants to hear from New Mexicans about the budget crisis. He has set up a website and is scheduling open office hours beginning immediately. Evidently he wants ammunition for what he signs and vetoes from the special session. That deadline is around Nov. 12.
Lt. Gov. Denish also wants to hear from you. She has a special telephone number to call with suggestions for governmental efficiency. She will also follow up on any reports of waste or abuse.
Denish got to participate in one of the more controversial votes of the session. An amendment to the budget bill called on three governmental bodies to designate $150 million in capital outlay projects, not yet started, to take from each lawmaker for use in reducing the budget deficit.
Often tie votes are created by senators to force lieutenant governors to take positions on difficult issues that might jeopardize their political career.
But this vote didn’t bother Denish in the least. She voted to approve the amendment and then issued a news release announcing her pleasure in helping reduce pork and promising future efforts to discontinue the system completely.
Not only do the governor and lieutenant governor want to hear from New Mexicans, interest groups and the news media do too. One poll already conducted by education groups shows registered voters don’t want public school funding cut and will support an increase in various taxes in order to keep it from happening.
At about the same time, the Rio Grande Foundation reported that New Mexico has the eighth highest per capita education spending in the country. That must mean we have significantly more students per capita than other states because New Mexico ranks 31st in expenditures per pupil according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
E-mail Jay Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org