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Governor and legislators exchange fire

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — As predicted here, it’s as though the special legislative session never ended. Verbal assaults are still flying between Gov. Bill Richardson and legislative leaders.

Progressive Democrats are still upset the governor and their leaders prevented any consideration of tax increases. Moderate Democrats and Republicans continue to insist that deep cuts in all budgets are the only answer.

 The battle actually started well before the special session began. Conversation back in August centered around a $400 million deficit in a $5.5 billion budget. That was about a seven percent deficit. The governor talked about plugging half the hole with non-recurring money and making a 3.5 percent cut in state government spending.

By September, the deficit looked more like $550 million, which is a 10 percent hole in the budget projections. At that point, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, sent a letter to public schools and colleges, advising them to prepare for budget cuts as high as 10 percent.

By early October, the deficit appeared to have grown to $660 million. Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, then joined Jennings in another letter to school superintendents reemphasizing the possibility of 10 percent cuts.

An angry Gov. Richardson countered with instructions to the special session that education funding was not to be touched. The Legislature retaliated with legislation that barely cut schools but hit agencies under the governor twice as hard as any other agencies.

So Gov. Richardson shot back with a barrage of arguments and actions. He listed the cuts he had made during the past year in his agencies and noted that other agencies and the Legislature had not made similar cuts.

Richardson also froze $150 million in capital outlay projects on which no action has taken place, charging that the Legislature had not touched a dime of its pork.

 Legislative leaders fired back that they had passed legislation asking three different agencies to identify $150 million of dormant capital outlay projects and report back to the January session, at which time lawmakers might transfer the money into general fund expenses.

Legislative leaders claimed Gov. Richardson’s actions were unnecessary because the legislature already had taken action to identify projects to be cut. Richardson noted at least one of those projects, on which nothing had happened for two years, suddenly had activity following the Legislature’s action.

Immediately after the special session ended, Gov. Richardson established an e-mail address to receive comments from New Mexicans about the proposed legislative cuts. He also held an afternoon of open office houses with five minutes allocated to individuals and groups.

You can be sure Richardson is gathering all the ammunition he can to use as rationale for any vetoes he may choose to make by his Nov. 12 deadline for taking action on special session legislation.

Gov. Richardson also has asked all the executive departments under his authority to prepare a list of cuts that will be necessary with the 7.6 percent decrease the special session imposed.

 Those reports are beginning to come in and the information is being released from the departmental cuts that appear as though they will generate the most public concern.

The big question now is where they go from here. Will the governor and lawmakers still be polarized come January? Or will there be efforts to work out a package of targeted cuts and tax increases on which a majority can agree?

Gov. Richardson has announced his desire to gather a working group of government officials, legislative leaders, interest groups and others to craft some solutions. Let’s hope they can sheath their swords long enough to accomplish something.

But expect a heavy dose of political posturing even if they can agree on a few items. Republicans and Senate leaders will still see ample opportunity in targeting Richardson. And we know the governor loves a good fight.

E-mail Jay Miller at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com