Law makers answer tough budget questions

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By Jennifer Garcia

There’s no doubt all eyes will be on Washington next week as President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated.


But many eyes will also be on New Mexico, as the Legislature convenes for a 60-day session.


Not only has the national economy suffered tremendously, with layoffs and foreclosures affecting thousands of Americans, but the state economy has suffered as well.


This year, the Legislature is going into its annual session with the burden of balancing the budget, when the state is already at least $450 million in the red.


The League of Women Voters hosted a question and answer session Wednesday night at Fuller Lodge in which Sen. Carlos Cisneros and Rep. Jeanette Wallace answered questions about the upcoming Legislative session.


Cisneros represents Rio Arriba, Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Taos counties, while Wallace represents Los Alamos, Sandoval and Santa Fe counties.


“We’re going into a very disorganized session,” Wallace began, “the first week of the session will be spent trying to figure out how to balance the budget for this fiscal year. Loss will come from everywhere as far as agencies are concerned. You can’t balance the budget without taking from a few items.”


Wallace said each state agency will have to make a 5 percent cut. In addition, capital outlay projects will also be on the chopping block because though the money has been appropriated for them, in many cases, it hasn’t yet been spent.


“We’re looking at cutting education, clear down to aging and long-term care,” Wallace said. “We think we can balance the budget. We feel comfortable among the Legislative body on where we’re going.”


Cisneros said this Legislative session would prove to be challenging.


“Ethics, the environment and money issues will be talked about. It will be a challenging one for us in the Legislative process,” he said.


The swiftness in which the state economy took a downward spiral seemed to be astonishing to Cisneros, as well.


“We were in Chama in July talking about a $400 million surplus. We’re now $450 million in the hole,” he said.


He also said Legislators have become accustomed to operating the state budget on a surplus, but now they are faced with having to fix the huge deficit.


“The governor has agreed to ask agencies to propose a 2-5 percent reduction in agencies. That will take care of the $450 million shortfall,” Cisneros continued.


He said that if things do not get better, Legislators will be looking at significant reductions in state spending for the next fiscal year.


“Either that or there will be a tax increase,” he said.


One member of Wednesday night’s audience asked Wallace and Cisneros what percentage of the budget the shortfall represents.


“The total budget is $6.3 billion and the shortfall is $450 million, so it’s a little less than 5 percent of the total budget,” Cisneros responded.


Another audience member asked the duo about legislation for healthcare.


“The bill last year got hung up. Small business people were hit hard. By the time it got to the Senate, it was killed because of too much discussion,” Wallace said.


“It’s such a phenomenal endeavor to undertake. I’m still in support of the New Mexico Health Securities Act. It’s a good idea, but we’re not ready for it yet,” Cisneros said.


With a time limit on both questions and answers, Cisneros and Wallace answered as many questions as they could in the allotted time.


Members of the audience seemed most concerned with the budget shortfall and how Legislators planned to fix it.


At the conclusion of the session, Cisneros urged members of the audience to go to the Roundhouse and visit him and let him know about any interests they may have.