Back to basics on the budget

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — The 2010 Legislature didn’t get its job done. Democratic leaders knew the unwritten rules. Begin secret negotiations between House and Senate Democratic leaders several days before the session’s end while publicly continuing to predict a train wreck.

It didn’t work this time. Democratic leaders said they just ran out of time. But the problem, in fact, is that none of them have confronted the reality of a recession that hasn’t bottomed out. They still cling to their insistence upon extending the hurt to everyone but themselves.

We aren’t going to get out of this until everyone gives up something. But until then, they fashion themselves as manly gunslingers defending their territory.

Part of the problem could be that they all are men. Maybe a little wise counsel from the distaff side of the party would inject some common sense.

Republicans also weren’t part of the private negotiations. Would their inclusion have helped? Probably not. Party members have unanimously insisted throughout the session that taxes can’t be any part of the solution. It must be all cuts.

But history tells us that if Republicans were in control, it might have worked differently.

Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s, Democrats were fractured at least as badly as they are today. In the House of Representatives, they named themselves the Mama Lucys and the Cowboys.

The Mama Lucys had a slight advantage in numbers so they ran the show until 1979 when some of the Cowboys formed a coalition with Republicans.

In this coalition, the Cowboys caucused with the Republicans. The Cowboys got to name the Speaker of the House but Republicans controlled the committees and called all the shots.

It was 1985 before Republicans took over the Senate with a similar coalition. The first order of business was a big tax cut. But then New Mexico’s economy turned very sour when the price of oil began plummeting.

In 1986 it became evident that something would have to be done to rescue New Mexico from its financial difficulties. Republicans put their heads together and came up with one of the largest tax increases the state has seen.

Today’s situation bears many similarities. The state has enjoyed 15 years of tax cuts under Govs. Gary Johnson and Bill Richardson. Over a billion dollars has been trimmed. But now we find ourselves in the position of needing some of that money back.

Could a similar scenario play out today? Not likely. The pot still needs to boil some more. The inclination to seek out government efficiencies should continue as part of a balanced approach to climbing out of our budget hole.

But it doesn’t appear we are close to that realization yet. Republicans, conservative Democrats and Gov. Richardson still insist that tax breaks given the wealthy in the name of economic development must continue.

And a majority of both the House and Senate want to keep the economic incentives being offered to attract big business to the state. The governor says those incentives have helped big time. But they aren’t keeping us afloat economically.

Without some cuts in economic incentives, further cuts in people are the only answer. We know that state government has grown by 50 percent during the Richardson administration.

Our state budgets were running about $4 billion a year when the Richardson administration took over in 2003. By 2008 they were up to $6 billion. But that doesn’t translate into a 50 percent increase in state employees.

Carter Bundy, a state employee union representative, dug out figures showing the number of state employees has grown from 22,933 to 24,715 during that period. But when compared to New Mexico’s increase in population over that period, we have fewer state employees per capita now.

Cutting more people does not appear to be the right answer.

E-mail Jay Miller at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com