Devastating budget cuts coming

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Legislative leaders call the decisions painful

Now the fun part begins. Former state Rep. John Mershon of Alamogordo isn’t with us anymore but that’s what the conservative finance chairman would say right now as state lawmakers begin to wrestle with devastating budget cuts.
Two years ago lawmakers implemented the easy cuts, raiding our hefty reserves, removing unused money from capital outlay projects and searching out hidden slush funds throughout state government.
Last year, it got more serious.
A hiring freeze began reducing the number of state employees.
Unpaid furlough days brought millions more into state coffers.
And then across-the-board cuts were made to all agencies.
Now it is time for the truly painful decisions about which programs are expendable and how to get the most out of each taxpayer dollar.
Legislative leaders, even the most conservative, call the decisions painful.
But I’ll bet in their private thoughts, these leaders are echoing Rep. Mershon’s sentiments that now the quest for government efficiency can really begin.
And it has begun, no more so than in the newly created Government Restructuring Task Force. This group, composed of legislative leaders and retired state budget experts, has a grueling schedule that began in April and ends on Dec. 31.
The panel will look at every function of state government, including public schools and higher education, with an eye on cost savings, government efficiency and government effectiveness.
The task force spent its early meetings studying the report of Gov. Bill Richardson’s Committee on Government Efficiency, which he appointed late last year for some quickie recommendations on “trimming low hanging fruit.”
But even that low hanging fruit was too controversial for this year’s Legislature to do much with other than to refer it for further study.
The task force also has looked at efforts in five other states that already had taken on the same task.
The law creating the task force directs the agencies of state government to cooperate in the work of the task force.
But that cooperation has only gone so far.
Nobody seems to like much of anything the task force is considering.
Several proposals to restructure state government have been endorsed at the last two meetings and task force members are expressing frustration that virtually all of them are running into heated opposition from agencies that are affected.
But legislative finance leaders Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Rep. Lucky Varela, D-Santa Fe, are adamant that cost savings will be recommended to the Legislature beginning in January.
By early December, task force members will have looked at every part of state government, every program, every board and commission, plus public schools and higher education.
There will be much unhappiness.
As far-reaching as the task force’s mission may sound, it can be done.
It has been done.
When former Gov. Jerry Apodaca was elected in 1974, he began efforts to streamline state government even before he took office.
At the time, there were over 100 independent state agencies, all reporting to the governor.
In a four-year period, Apodaca succeeded in consolidating them down to 12 departments, headed by cabinet secretaries.
Other states currently involved in consolidation efforts report that doing so in a time of financial crisis has its problems because of a tendency to rush to save money.
In the mid-1970s, Apodaca had the help of a booming economy to allow a full four years for implementation.
But he had a lot further to go. 
Currently, the number of departments has approximately doubled since Apodaca’s time so the streamlining won’t be as severe.
But the process will be even more traumatic. Cabinet secretaries really won’t be affected.
They are on their way out anyway. But from the top levels of career employees on down, feelings are white hot.

Jay Miller is a political columnist. E-mail him at insidethecapitol@hotmail.com