Mixed signals regarding Richardson

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — When Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed the food tax, he noted in the first sentence of his veto message that it would be the last legislative act of his two terms as governor.

That sounds pretty final. What does it mean? Is he leaving town for one of those cushy million-dollar jobs we’ve been hearing about? Or is he just not going to call any more special sessions?

The indications I’m getting say it is the latter. Gov. Richardson says he doesn’t want to call any more special sessions while House members are campaigning for office.

Not only is it time away from their businesses and campaigns, legislators are prohibited from soliciting campaign contributions while a legislative session is in progress.

So the governor worked out some provisions with lawmakers in case money runs too short. The immediate problem is getting through this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Next year’s 60-day session can handle next year’s fiscal deficit.

That won’t be easy because that deficit is likely to be awfully big by then and only six months will be left before the end of that fiscal year to make cuts or raise more money.

Gov. Richardson said a combination of the taxes he didn’t veto and the expenditures he did veto will help get us through. In addition, he is prepared to spend down our reserves.

On top of that, lawmakers gave the governor an unprecedented right to cut wherever he thinks best to balance the budget. Former Gov. Gary Johnson tried that once and legislators went to court to stop him.

And, if Richardson decides to leave before the end of the year, there is no constraint on his lieutenant governor regarding a special session at any time she desires.

That brings back the issue of whether Gov. Richardson will leave early. The chatter throughout the halls of Santa Fe government is that he’s on his way.

But the governor himself is giving different signals. Consistent with his style, he is planning to leave on a high note, tying up loose ends and fulfilling as many campaign pledges and “bold visions” as possible. My information is very sketchy but I know it involves plans for next fall.

Obviously everything will not be a bed of roses come next fall. Many of the cuts made by the recent special session will begin to be evident.

Lines at motor vehicle departments may be longer, waiting periods for all types of licenses and court dates may be longer but most noticeable of all likely will be changes in the public schools.

Protected for the last several regular and special sessions, the point was reached when there wasn’t any place left to cut. After all, public schools comprise nearly half the state general fund budget.

Athletics won’t be cut as much as the scare tactics of last year suggested but there will be changes in areas such as schedules, travel and junior high athletics.

The little people will be hit first. Expect fewer cleaning staff and classroom aides. Teachers will be cut and class sizes increased. And yes, even administration will be hit, especially in the area of assistant principles. There’s no word yet on assistant superintendents.

The most painful changes appear to be in the consolidation of schools and eventually of school districts.

I don’t know if all districts are similar to Santa Fe, but every time a school board member here suggests closing a school, a recall of that board member is not far behind. I learned that first-hand 35 years ago.

Things get even more emotional when talk turns to consolidating school districts. In the 1950s, New Mexico cut its school districts from more than 600 to under 100. State police stood guard at all meetings of the state Board of Education.

Closing a neighborhood school is tough on students and parents. Shutting down a school district comes close to killing a community many times.

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