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Sen. Bill Sapien was defending his bill to move money from higher education to early education, and the Senate Finance Committee wasn’t buying.
“We’re all trying to skin the cat for early childhood education,” said Republican Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort.
“The problem is,” added Democrat Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, “We’re all skinning the same cat.”
I like to make fun of political cliches, but I can also appreciate the power of a phrase, however overused, to communicate, especially in a session as charged and raw as this one. We heard a lot about “stepping up to the plate,” “kicking the can down the road,” and balancing the budget on somebody’s back.
The big question is: Did they step up to the plate? For the most part, yes. Job No. 1 was the budget. For months, the Legislative Finance Committee pored over numbers. Denied tax increases, they cut for the fourth consecutive year and in the process, unusual alliances formed and old ones fractured. All they could do was spread the pain, but they did fashion a budget that will pay for government operations without raising taxes or costing jobs.
This budget was possible only if state employees also stepped up to the plate by continuing to contribute more to their retirement accounts so the state could contribute $110 million less. Even though the money comes back to them eventually, it still means less take-home pay, and the pension accounts are still under-funded.
The bill, by Rep. Don Bratton, a Hobbs Republican, passed because everybody stepped up to the plate. But they stepped back on an amendment to assure the retirement funds’ long-term solvency by making the increase permanent.
“Sooner or later this will have to be made permanent,” said Sen. Steven Neville, an Aztec Republican, during a committee hearing. “It’s not politics, it’s not economics, it’s math.”
Republicans would rather be safe than sorry; Democrats prefer betting on a healthier economy and sparing those modest paychecks another hit. Call it politics if you want; it’s an honest philosophical difference.
Shoring up the funds was the subject of another bill that inspired so many comments about kicking the can down the road that one lawmaker called for a new metaphor.
This time, conservatives rose to support an Albuquerque liberal, Rep. Mimi Stewart, who co-chaired a task force on the funds’ solvency. Stewart opposed Bratton’s bill but introduced one of her own that would set a minimum retirement age and reduce cost-of-living adjustments for state employees on board less than five years. It exempted police and firemen.
Some Democratic heavyweights opposed the bill. House Majority Floor Leader Ken Martinez, who has hundreds of state prison jobs in his home town of Grants, said, “Everyone is in favor of shoring up the funds, but do we want to do it in this manner? I voted for (Bratton’s bill), and I will explain it to my constituents, but I’m not willing to tell people, ‘Your retirement isn’t as promised.’”
After more such opposition from fellow Dems, Stewart exclaimed, “Do you think I like to do this just for the fun of it? We’re in a crisis!” The bill died on adjournment.
I wouldn’t call any of the big money decisions a win or loss you could post on a political scorecard. I would say they stepped up to the plate.
NM News Services