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Tug of war nags state budget

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — Disagreements between Gov. Bill Richardson and the Legislature are making state budget cutting even more traumatic. Both sides are pushing hard on the limits of their authority to get the upper hand on what will be cut.

Our state constitution created a weak governor in order not to put too much power in any one person’s hand. But it does give the governor line-item veto authority. Gov. Richardson has been using that power to its fullest extent.

The clash between Richardson and Legislature has created some big questions. We know the governor cannot use his veto pen to increase an appropriation. Only the Legislature can appropriate.

But does the governor have the authority to decrease a budget cut? That is what he did when he line-item vetoed the Legislature’s 7.6 percent in spending for his agencies and then issued an executive order imposing lesser cuts.

And how much authority does Gov. Richardson have when he issues executive orders? He has vetoed several other bills in the past and then issued an executive order doing it his way. Eventually a court may have to decide that issue.

We also know that a governor cannot spend more than the Legislature appropriates for any item in the budget. His executive agency must make a special budget adjustment request of the Legislative Finance Committee before it can spend more.

But we also know that a governor can spend less on a budget item than the Legislature appropriates. Gov. Gary Johnson was famous for doing that. The big question now is whether a governor can cut less than the Legislature cuts. That may have to go to court, too.

Gov. Richardson used the same strategy to reduce the number of political appointees the Legislature directed him to cut. The Legislature wanted him to axe 102 appointees. Richardson line-item vetoed the language and vowed to cut 84 appointees.

Richardson accuses the Legislature of micromanaging state government. Lawmakers say he is overstepping his constitutional authority.

Since the governor gets the last word, the court system is the only place the Legislature can go to make its case. It has been done before and the Legislature usually has prevailed.

During Richardson’s seven years in office, lawmakers have tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. Will that continue or will they decide it is time to make a stand?

Evidence is building that lawmakers are reaching the end of their rope. Filing a lawsuit has been discussed. In all likelihood, it would go to the state Supreme Court on an expedited basis.

As promised, Gov. Richardson has appointed a Budget Balancing Task Force to consider means of plugging the ever-enlarging hole in the state’s budget. The group will provide the governor with pros and cons of various funding options.

The task force has met four times in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Santa Fe and Farmington. It will hold its final meeting on Dec. 17 in Santa Fe. Its final report will go to Richardson on Dec. 21. The final two meetings are being webcast in order to assure the public that there are no secrets.

The task force has no lawmakers, contrary to Richardson’s original statement of intent and the group’s report will contain no recommendations.

Legislative leaders contend that the Budget Balancing Task Force is merely intended to give Richardson ammunition to raise taxes and that the emphasis should be on expenditure cuts.

It appears there will be even less effort to reach any agreement between the governor and Legislature than there was before the recent special session.

The likelihood of seeing a replay of the special session and its aftermath becomes stronger every day and so does the possibility of seeing all this in court before it is over.

E-mail Jay Miller, insidethecapitol@hotmail.com