Cut back the 30 cabinet-level departments

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE – What   will the next 20 days bring? Republican leaders say all $650 million of the deficit should be covered by cuts in government.

Gov. Bill Richardson has ruled out increasing any of the taxes he has cut during the first seven years of his administration.

Some Democrats say all of the deficit must be covered by additional taxes. Their reasoning is that since taxes were cut by a billion dollars during the good years of the Richardson administration, they should be reinstated now that the economy has turned bad.

And some conservative Democrats say it should be a mix of governmental cuts and tax increases. But first, they contend, there has to be some agreement that everything is on the table for budget cuts and for tax increases.

As this is being written, no agreements on anything have been reached. As the stalemate increases, one bright spot on the horizon may be the report of a committee on governmental efficiency Gov. Richardson appointed in December.

The committee, chaired by former Republican Gov. Garrey Carruthers, was asked to take a quick look at the structure of state government and make recommendations about streamlining state government and saving taxpayers some money.

With only a month to do its work, the committee was asked to make recommendations for changes that could be made relatively easily. The governor called it “low-hanging fruit.”

The result was a report that identified $129 million in potential savings. Included were mergers and consolidation of many state government departments and the elimination of 18 boards and commissions that have outlived their purpose.    

The recommendations also included changes in Medicaid benefits and public school funding.

Richardson says the recommendations make sense and he is ready to pursue many of the recommendations immediately during this legislative session.

Carruthers also appeared before the Legislative Finance Committee shortly before the session started. Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith said he was pleased with the recommendations because the Legislature has a tremendous opportunity to redefine state government.

That is a point in which Republicans also can agree. State government has expanded tremendously over the decades. During the first six years of the Richardson administration the state budget grew by 50 percent.

The efficiency committee’s recommendations may not be particularly easy to get through the Legislature. But nothing is going to be easy now that one-time sources of revenue for plugging the budget gap have been just about exhausted.

Elimination of 18 unneeded boards and commissions may be the easiest to pass. Many would like to see more of them go. Consolidating departments of state government will be tougher.

Since 1978, the state has doubled the number of cabinet-level departments. With some independent agencies added in, the governor’s cabinet is now at 30.

The efficiency committee’s recommendations essentially take the departments back down to their 1978 levels by returning the new departments that have been created since then back to their previous division status within other departments.

   All of the new departments were created with much effort to pass them through the Legislature. The interest groups that pushed their creation will be back to fight their elimination.

   An effort also will be made to consolidate some school districts. Back in the 1950s, school districts were pared down from more than 600 to 89.

   Since then, unsuccessful efforts have been made to trim that even further. It is a tremendous blow to a community to lose its school district and you can bet they will fight hard to prevent any future efforts.

   Actually the process already has begun. Sen. Smith has introduced legislation reducing the financial distribution to small and rural schools. So get ready for that discussion. Small districts already are organizing.

E-mail Jay Miller at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com