Lawmakers are between a rock and a hard place

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By Hal Rhodes

As we approach the season of good cheer, count me among those who wish members of New Mexico’s Legislature the happiest of holidays. If they’re smart they’ll sock a little of that happiness away so as to have something to draw on in the weeks ahead.

They’ll need it.

Only 18 days after the New Year dawns, state lawmakers convene at the Roundhouse for their 2010 legislative session.

It will be a so-called short session, 30 days, but it looms as a grueling and contentious 30 days where tempers flare and camaraderie dissolves into fixed bayonets.

We had an early look at what’s to come last week when key legislators publicly came unglued over Gov. Bill Richardson’s veto of certain spending cuts they made at their special legislative session in October.

Facing the governor and lawmakers at the upcoming regular session is a budget shortfall some estimate to run as high as $1 billion over a two-year period when anticipated expenditures and projected revenues meet face-to-face.

It isn’t pretty. Either substantial new revenue must be generated (think taxes) or drastic cuts in state programs (think education, health, social services, included) must be made during, or some combination thereof.

Such are the wages of the Great Recession that settled upon us a year and a half ago.

As a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report put it last week, “The worst recession since the 1930s has caused the steepest decline in state tax receipts on record.” Thus, at least 35 states, New Mexico among them, “struggle to find the revenue needed to support critical public services.”

It is doubtless small comfort to New Mexico legislators, but the situation in Arizona is so grim that lawmakers have actually considered mortgaging state buildings, even as they cut school and health care budgets.

The Associated Press reports that despite a shrinking tax base, Florida’s whopping $6 billion budget shortfall has compelled that state’s Republican Legislature and governor to hike taxes (including another $1-per-pack increase on cigarettes) while, simultaneously, cutting spending in all the usual critical areas.

Meanwhile, California’s budget nightmares have been front-page news throughout the country.

Californians, with their ballot initiatives, have imposed a veritable strait jacket on their lawmakers and governor through an initiative-passed law requiring super-majorities in the Legislature before any tax hikes are enacted.

It’s patently undemocratic, since it permits a relatively small minority to rule, not the majority. But there you have it.

The upshot for California has been budget cuts so severe that the University of California Board of Regents was forced to approve an unprecedented 32 percent tuition hike.

The ensuing protests by thousand of students, faculty and others in California who were outraged by such crushing tuition increases have also been front-page news nationwide.

And small wonder. For middle- and lower-income parents a 32 percent jump in tuition is a tax by another name. It wasn’t passed by their Legislature, but it will hurt no less than if it had been, since many of those parents will no longer be able to afford a college education for their kids.

Measured against the lunacy in California, New Mexicans can feel relief that their lawmakers and governor will approach budget shortfalls with the full arsenal of tools they need — the power to cut where cuts can safely be made, and the ability to raise additional revenues, if need be, without a relatively small minority in the Legislature standing in the way.

It isn’t pretty but it could be worse.