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Deficit going up? Where does the money go?

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE ­— We’re not out of the woods yet. Have you noticed that our state budget deficit grows about $100 million a month beyond projections?

Last March, the 2009 Legislature plugged a $500 million hole. The budget reduction was projected to get us through until July 2010. But by August 2009 we were already over $400 million further in the hole.

In September, that deficit rose to $550 million and in October, it was $660 million. At this rate, by January, when the 2010 Legislature convenes, we’ll be another $300 million deeper in the hole.

When will the slide end? New Mexico’s economy runs behind the curve so the national picture will have to start looking better first. The way it’s going, we’ll have to start rooting for $4 a gallon gasoline to return. Since our state’s revenues depend so much on the oil and gas industry, that should take us back to financial health.

Meanwhile Gov. Bill Richardson is pushing back at those who make him the culprit for New Mexico’s desperate economic situation. Even Democrats, most notably Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a lieutenant governor candidate, have criticized Richardson’s big-spending ways for getting us into trouble.

Republicans are gleefully quoting the Democratic senator’s remarks but Richardson reminds them that none of his bold initiatives could have happened without legislative approval.

Republicans loved the governor’s tax cuts for the wealthy and many voted for his big economic development programs. But lawmakers are disregarding that information and the governor’s contention that we’re in a national recession that all states are experiencing.

Richardson’s contentions are accurate although it must be added that some of the votes for the governor’s initiatives were strong-armed with vetoes of opponent’s pork projects. Pork is so important to nearly all lawmakers that they will acquiesce at the mere hint of a veto.

Why do lawmakers love their pork so much? Evidently nothing helps their campaigns for re-election more. Capital outlay projects are tangible evidence of a legislator’s effectiveness.

And do legislators really want to get reelected? You bet they do. They work very hard at it despite their protests that they shouldn’t share in any financial cuts because they don’t get a salary and can’t really live on the $159 a day per diem during legislative sessions.

Admittedly Santa Fe is expensive. Legislative per diem rates are tied to federal measures of the cost of living in the area. But off-season rates aren’t as high in Santa Fe and hoteliers are willing to give special legislative rates.

As for eating expense, a subsidized legislative snack bar is open all day serving very good food at reduced prices. In addition, there are a number of opportunities to be entertained by lobbyists or organizations over a meal.

Many lawmakers also say they lose a great amount of money from being off the job during legislative sessions and interim committee meetings. But something keeps them working very hard at getting reelected. Maybe it’s just the desire to do good for one’s fellow man.

On the positive side, New Mexicans are very fortunate to have one of the hardest working legislatures in the nation. Most states, in addition to paying their lawmakers a salary, also allow them to be in session for much of the year.

That means there’s no hurry. None of them are as lazy as the U.S. House of Representatives that meets Tuesday morning through Thursday noon, but they certainly don’t meet on weekends. National accounts of New Mexico’s special session mentioned with astonishment that the session was starting on a Saturday.

Federal stimulus money is available to help balance this year’s budget and provide jobs. But it won’t be available next year unless the federal government goes deeper in the hole and authorizes more.

Some 2,000 road projects are underway nationally. Many of those are in New Mexico. That is very obvious to anyone driving about the state these days.

E-mail Jay Miller at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com