Spreading the budgetary pain

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — Everyone will be affected by the next round of state budget balancing.

Thus far, lawmakers have been able to fill budgetary voids by sweeping money out of the cubby holes of state government and cutting back on agency spending.

But next time the pain will be felt almost everywhere. The easy cuts have been made. Further cuts will affect services. Some of those services are not really noticed.

Who wouldn’t like to see the budget of the Taxation and Revenue Department cut? Arizona did it and lost state revenues totaling many times the budget savings.

State employees felt the hammer on the latest round of budget cutting. Some 17,000 will have to take five unpaid furlough days.

Instead of spreading those days throughout the year and keeping state government open, the days will be designated by the State Personnel Board on Dec. 16 and state offices will be closed at those times. The recommendation to the board from the governor’s office will be for the days to coincide with upcoming holidays.

It will mean longer weekends but a lower paycheck may put a damper on how those days are enjoyed. The governor’s original proposal would have lowered three consecutive paychecks during and after the upcoming holidays.

Following numerous employee complaints, the schedule was revised to substitute a March furlough day in place of New Year’s Eve.

Another suggestion to close state offices the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and spread the docked checks through the rest of the fiscal year was not accepted.

As with the hiring freeze imposed by the governor a little over a year ago, there will be exceptions to the furloughs. About 4,100 essential employees will not be affected. Most of the exceptions are for direct patient care in hospitals, prison staff, state police and dispatchers.

Other employees will be required to take alternative furlough days in order to ensure they will be available for snow removal or to keep state parks open during popular holiday weekends in the spring.

Gov. Bill Richardson has announced the furlough plan will save the state $8.1 million. Another $8.3 million will be saved by the elimination of state exempt positions.

Those are the political appointees that the special legislative session told the governor it wanted removed. The Legislature set the number at 102. Richardson vetoed the number and said he would issue an executive order eliminating 84 positions.

Gov. Richardson fought tax increases during both legislative sessions this year but says they are inevitable at the session beginning in January. He has appointed a Budget Balancing Task Force to tell him the pros and cons of increasing the state’s various taxes.

The task force, which will hold its final meeting on Dec. 17, is considering over 30 percent tax increase proposals. Chairman Rick Homans says the group only wants to look at proposals that will raise meaningful revenues.

So far those proposals have included reimposing the gross receipts tax on food, which was lifted in 2005, raising taxes on liquor, cigarettes, cars, trucks and gasoline and imposing a surtax on upper-income earners.

Most of these tax targets have heavy-duty, highly-paid lobbyists, who will make passage of any tax increases very difficult. The two possible exceptions are the taxes on food and upper incomes.

Think New Mexico, a think tank with an effective lobbying program, will fight the food tax and propose in its place a tax on junk food, sugary sodas and candy. They just might succeed.

High income families aren’t organized to fight a tax but they do have Gov. Richardson on their side. Seven years ago, the governor successfully got the tax on high incomes reduced as a means of encouraging economic development. He still feels that way.

Corporate lobbyists will be up against the newly-found power of non-profit groups representing the poor.

   Something has to give.

E-mail Jay Miller insidethecapitol@hotmail.com