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When budget cuts won't reach and taxes won't go

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — This is a highly unusual special session. It might be over by the time you read this. But if it is, it will be because lawmakers gave up on solving the total problem.

The state is faced with its biggest deficit ever. Gov. Bill Richardson has complicated matters greatly by putting tax increases and public school classroom cuts off limits.

What’s left are cuts of over 10 percent to the rest of the budget. Since people are by far the largest part of governmental budgets, it is almost impossible to make 10 percent cuts without cutting people.

Some people’s cuts do come to many lawmakers’ minds immediately. Highest on that list is all those high-paid exempt employees Gov. Richardson has scattered throughout state government. Estimates of their numbers run as high as over 800, compared to less than 300 when Richardson took office.

Another pool of employees about whom few will shed a tear are mid-level administrators in public schools and higher education. At the public school level and to some extent in higher education, many of those additional positions exist because of state and federal regulations.

Accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act call for testing, reporting and tracking of students, which mean many pencil pushers need to keep track of what is happening.

Then there are the state retirees who return to work and draw full pay plus retirement benefits. Lawmakers tried to get rid of those two years ago but the governor vetoed the measure.

Reductions in all these areas should be made but they won’t even begin to solve a budget deficit of 12 percent.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces has introduced a resolution urging lawmakers to voluntarily reduce their per diem allotments so the Legislature also feels the pain. Many outside the Legislature have suggested that action too. It should happen but it’s also a drip in the bucket.

This is also the time for those in all branches of government to forego out-of-state trips. Again, it won’t help much but it should be done.

That’s most of the easy stuff. The rest is painful and many lawmakers don’t want to face it.  Remember, the Legislature already cut a half billion out of its budget last March.

One possibility being considered is doing the easy stuff now and saving the rest until the January 2010 regular session at which the governor can’t impose as many limitations.

In reality, Gov. Richardson can’t impose the limitations he has on this session. But since he nixed tax increases, Republicans and Democratic leaders aren’t complaining.

That’s a slippery slope. It establishes a precedent for future governors to do the same. Normally, conservative lawmakers would delight in rubbing the governor’s face in it. But they’re opting for expediency this time, saying they’ll have to wait until January.

Sen. Cisco McSorley says, don’t trust those Republicans. They’ll vote against tax increases in January too. He says he’s never seen a Republican vote for a tax increase.

Cisco, your memory is fading just a bit. When you first came to the Legislature in 1985, a coalition, run by Republicans had just taken over the Senate. The House already had a similar conservative coalition.

The bottom had fallen out of the oil, gas and minerals market two years earlier. It wasn’t as bad as this time because financial markets weren’t also in the tank. So less painful fixes had worked for two years.

But by 1985, painful fixes became a necessity and Republicans were in control. What could they do?

Sen. Les Houston had become the Senate President Pro Tem. He chuckled ruefully at the irony of it all when he confided to me that what he termed the largest state tax increase ever was developed on his living room floor one Sunday afternoon early in the 1985 Legislature.

There are times that Republicans find it necessary to vote for tax increases.

E-mail Jay Miller at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com.