The financial decline isn’t over

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — “Being a legislator is a great job to have at a time like this.” Those were the words, or very close to them, of former state Rep. John Mershon, an Otero County Democrat, back in 1982.

At the time, New Mexico was plummeting into an economic downturn almost as severe as we have at present. Mershon was the longtime chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee and an ardent supporter of smaller government.

Rep. Mershon saw an opportunity to trim government programs that had continually been added to the state budget over the years. During those lean years, traditional state responsibilities such as education and law enforcement, increased as a percentage of the budget.

This time around, state lawmakers don’t seem to be looking at eliminating any recently added government services so much as they are in making across-the-board cuts.

There may be some hope, however. A newly created Government Restructuring Task Force will take a look at consolidating state agencies and eliminating some.  

It came about as a result of a group Gov. Bill Richardson appointed late last year to make recommendations on how state government can save money.

Former Gov. Garrey Carruthers headed the effort, which in one short month produced some restructuring suggestions that got lawmakers thinking. As Carruthers said at the time, “We should never let an economic crisis go to waste.”

And maybe it won’t go to waste. Something has to be done. New Mexico’s financial decline isn’t over yet. As one member of the restructuring panel warned, “We’re going to have to make some ugly decisions.”

Making ugly decisions isn’t something most elected officials like to do. But at this point they are all faced with tough decisions. It has reached the local level where school boards, city councils and county commissions will have to make drastic cuts.

This is budget-making time for all local governments. Their new fiscal years begin on July 1. And none seem to be enjoying their jobs right now. They live among the people whose jobs and services they have to cut.

One of their first big decisions is whether to raise taxes or reduce services. For school districts, it is a no-brainer. They can’t raise taxes for anything but building construction and maintenance. So they must cut services.

Municipalities and counties can levy additional gross receipts taxes. The only place, of which this writer is aware, that is even considering such a move is Rio Rancho. So all local governments are faced with making major cuts.

Some are starting at the top. In Santa Fe, the school board has cut its own payment for attending meetings and its travel budget. Top administrative salaries are being cut 2 percent.

In other districts, assistant principals are being eliminated, principals are being assigned more than one school to administer and administrators will have to take over some teaching duties.

In cities and counties, director positions are being eliminated, recreation facilities and libraries will have shorter hours and fire and police hirings will be frozen.

And here come the traffic cameras again. At least one city is contemplating installing them in order to take some workload off police.

Retirees who have returned to work and are drawing a paycheck and a retirement check are being targeted. In most cases governing bodies originally intended to dismiss them all but then discovered many are in positions for which replacements are difficult or impossible to find.

But the aforementioned cuts usually won’t do it all. Personnel will be affected. In most local governments, personnel are 80 percent to 90 percent of the budget so that is where the savings are to be found.

In most cases, it means employees will assume more duties. In schools, it means class sizes will increase.

E-mail Jay Miller at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com.