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SANTA FE — Few legislators were in the Capitol when educators and union activists demonstrated against budget cuts to solve New Mexico’s growing deficit, but last week’s rally sent a clear political message that lawmakers will hear when they convene for a special session Saturday.
“Today we march. Tomorrow we vote,” the crowd chanted.
It was no idle threat.
Some of the rally’s organizers and supporters showed in the 2008 elections that they’re willing to aggressively campaign against incumbent lawmakers because of their voting records. A coalition of liberal-leaning groups helped defeat several House and Senate members who had voting records the groups considered too much in favor of corporate and business interests.
The winners of two Albuquerque-area races — Democratic Sens. Tim Keller and Eric Griego — were among the handful of lawmakers at the rally who spoke against cutting education and government services to balance the budget.
Their presence underscored the political perils of the upcoming special session and how votes to close the budget deficit — whether it’s cutting spending or raising taxes — could haunt some lawmakers next year.
All 70 members of the state House of Representatives are up for election in 2010, although the 42 members of the Senate don’t have to run until 2012.
The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation helped organize last week’s rally and their supporters plan to return to the Capitol on the opening day of the special session.
Union leaders are urging members to meet with lawmakers and to track how their representatives vote throughout the session, which likely will drag on for days.
So far, Gov. Bill Richardson and legislative leaders haven’t agreed on how to reduce the deficit. There’s not even a consensus among legislators on how to deal with the shortfall, which is projected at about $650 million in the current fiscal year. That’s up more than $200 million from a revenue forecast in August.
The educational worker unions are part of an alliance with public employee unions, religious organizations and social advocacy groups that are lobbying the Legislature to raise taxes rather than cut spending. The unions represent more than 57,000 state workers and teachers across the state.
The groups propose increasing taxes on corporations or repealing part of the personal income tax cuts enacted in 2003. Those tax cuts lowered top income tax rates, which meant the wealthiest New Mexicans received the largest benefits of the reductions.
Among the most difficult questions in the deficit debate: whether to reduce government spending and by how much, and whether to spare public schools and the state’s largest health care program, Medicaid.
Richardson contends the deficit can be erased without school cutbacks. Legislative budget leaders disagree, saying schools must be included in any solution because education represents the largest portion of state spending.
Rounding up enough rank-and-file House and Senate members to approve budget cuts will not be an easy chore for legislative leaders. School workers and parents of schoolchildren represent potential voters in every legislative district.
Although Democrats hold majorities in the House and Senate, the deficit reduction debate will expose fractures within party ranks.
As the rally illustrated, a vote for budget cuts potentially puts Democratic lawmakers at odds with their traditional political supporters such as teacher and government worker unions.