Task force warned of continued problems

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Group looking at ways to deal with lean finances in the future

By Barry Massey

SANTA FE — A legislative task force started Wednesday to consider how to reorganize New Mexico state government to deal with the likelihood of lean finances in the future.

The director of the Legislative Finance Committee, David Abbey, warned the study group that New Mexico faces more financial problems in the next few years despite tax increases enacted this year to balance the budget.

New Mexico’s revenue growth is expected to remain weak and lawmakers will have to find a substitute for $300 million in federal economic stimulus aid that’s paying for some state operations, he said.

According to LFC estimates, a budget gap of more than $230 million is possible in the fiscal year that starts in July 2011, even without spending increases on programs, agencies and public education.

Task force members acknowledged that tough political decisions must be made on consolidating agencies and programs and possibly reducing or eliminating governmental services.

Abbey suggested there be a full review of state government, including how New Mexico finances public schools, colleges and universities.

Legislators predicted plenty of opposition to trimming government.

The group will make recommendations to the governor and Legislature in December.

Members of the task force include legislators, Gov. Bill Richardson’s top budget official and members of the public, including retired government workers and former state Health Secretary Michelle Lujan Grisham.

In the 1970s, Democratic Gov. Jerry Apodaca pushed through a governmental reorganization.

Chris Krahling, who worked for Apodaca, told the task force there were 117 agencies that answered to the governor and those were consolidated into 12 cabinet-level departments. The restructuring worked, he said, because the Legislature worked closely with the governor and there was a mutual commitment to the goal of streamlining government.