Legislative special session delayed

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Richardson hopes lawmakers will work out their differences

By Susan M. Bryan

SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson is delaying the start of a special legislative session so lawmakers can work out differences before returning to the New Mexico Capitol on Monday to hammer out a plan for financing public schools and state government in the coming year.

Richardson initially called for the special

session to begin Wednesday, but House and Senate leaders urged him to push that back so they could have more time to discuss potential solutions to the state’s $600 million budget deficit.

Richardson said a few more days of meetings among legislative leaders and his administration would benefit everyone.

“I’m somebody who wants to get this done as rapidly as possible,” the governor said during a news conference Tuesday.

The state is projected to collect $5.1 billion next year and it’s spending $5.7 billion in the current fiscal year. At least $200 million in federal economic stimulus money is available to temporarily plug the shortfall.

Making up the difference is what has stalled lawmakers. They face several unpopular proposals — from trimming government spending to raising gross receipts taxes on goods and services and taxes on certain foods and cigarettes.

Despite Richardson’s decision to postpone the session, some lawmakers said it’s a mistake to rush budget negotiations before getting more updated revenue forecasts.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who heads the finance committee, said he believes New Mexico’s revenue growth will be half of the projected 6 percent that lawmakers assumed when debating budget proposals that failed during the regular 30-day session, which ended last week.

That means the state could be short another $200 million if Smith’s estimate is correct.

Smith and other lawmakers had urged Richardson to push back the special session until April. Otherwise, they warned Tuesday that another session might be necessary in the fall to plug a shortfall if revenues are less than expected.

“The bottom line is we need to look at the revenues further down the economic road,” Smith said.

The director of the Legislative Finance Committee, David Abbey, acknowledged that revenues are showing “weakness,” but said it was premature to say whether the state will have a drop in revenue growth or remain stable.

House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe, said he is confident state finance officials are on top of revenue projections and that the budget issue needs to be settled sooner than later so the state and those who depend on state funding can get on with their business.

Richardson said the Legislature and his administration already had agreed to use existing revenue forecasts for building the state’s budget and waiting would not send a good message to financial markets. He added that pushing the special session back further would interrupt spring political campaigns.

“It makes no sense to wait,” the governor said. “I want our reserves in place, I want us to keep our high bond rating and I want the schools to know how much they’re going to have in this next period.”

Lawmakers said Tuesday they continue to get e-mails from groups that are asking to be spared from budget cuts or tax increases. Unfortunately, the lawmakers say, everything will be on the table when the debate resumes next week.

During the regular session, the House wanted to rely more on tax increases to balance the budget than the Senate did. Conservative, rural Democrats in the Senate — and Republicans in both chambers — advocated deeper spending cuts.

Urban, liberal-leaning House members strongly opposed cutting schools and services for the needy.