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Republican minority urges budget cuts

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Leaders say crisis demands state funding diet

By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE — Cut inefficient state expenditures, reduce the number of state workers and pare services down to the bare essentials; with a $600 million deficit, steeply declining revenues and state spending barely propped up with a $400 million infusion of federal stimulus money, Republicans believe their ideas of minimal government have a useful place in the current legislative session.

Forcing a major makeover of state government priorities has become the minority strategy, according to House Republican leaders, outnumbered 45 to 25 by the Democrats. Their odds aren’t much better on the Senate side, where 27 Democrats have the advantage over 15 Republicans.

New Mexico House Republican leaders discussed their plans Monday during the first of what they expect to be a regular series of media meetings.

With seven days now elapsed, the 30-day session is already nearly a quarter of the way over.

Out of power, the Republicans don’t run the executive branch, which they say is frustrating because they don’t get enough of a picture of the details within the agencies to know what to fix. They can ask questions but that doesn’t mean they’ll get truthful answers, they said.

House Republican Leader Tom Taylor called for using the current budget crisis to prioritize state spending, while firmly holding the line against tax increases.

“That’s why Republicans are against tax increases, because we want to force that to happen,” Taylor said. He served as mayor of Farmington for 12 years.

“Government tends to reorganize rather than reform. We tend to add to what we do and never go back and say ‘that is no longer needed.’ You don’t have the impetus to do that until you run out of money.”

The Rail Runner Express, the state’s new $400 million commuter train is reportedly only paying for a fraction of its expenses with ticket sales and that was a case in point for the Republican leaders whose constituents don’t benefit.

House Republican Whip Keith Gardner said, “Speaking as an individual, I would say today should be the last run (of the Rail Runner).” The high profile mass transit initiative has been touted as one of the major accomplishments of the current Democratic administration. “Personally, I think today would be a great day to stop it,” he said.

“I’d have to agree,” said Rep. Anna Crook of Clovis, the House Republican Caucus Leader. “Roads are much more important in the rural areas.”

Later in the day, the governor’s office announced a last minute plan to preserve weekend train service by transferring funds from a federal stimulus account.

“The Rail Runner has boosted tourism and helped generate business for the state at a time when we need it most,” Richardson said in the announcement. “Now is not the time to cut services.”

By necessity, the Republicans have fought a number of rear-guard actions during the Richardson years. Taylor and Gardner have been final defenders against Democratic bills that pass through the committee process or the Senate and make it back to the House floor for final approval.

“Our offense right now is to fix things right and get the budget back under control,” Gardner said. He added that the present trauma would be even worse if Republicans hadn’t sounded the alarm as soon as the budget gap was diagnosed by the Legislative Finance Committee.

Ched MacQuigg, a retired shop teacher who blogs at Diogenes’six, pushed the Republican leaders for more help on the corruption issue, particularly for funding forensic audits for state projects or specifying a fraction of each project to pay for an audit or funding the state auditor to perform random checks on state projects.

A proposal for an extraordinary session to tackle corruption in the state was considered unlikely because of the cost, Taylor said, which would probably run $8 million for a 30-day extraordinary session.

“We’re losing hundreds of millions of dollars because we won’t fund that session,” said MacQuigg.

The Republican leaders were sympathetic but said the cards were stacked against them, because the Democrat-controlled Rules Committee would find such bills “not germane” to the current session.