Legislators: We don’t want to be Congress

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By Sherry Robinson


Last year was about digging holes. This year’s recently completed legislative session was about filling holes – literally, figuratively and financially.

It was also about working together. “We don’t want to be Congress,” they said again and again.

During the 2017 session, budgeters frantically emptied the state’s reserves, school balances and other funds to fill a deficit caused by plunging oil and gas tax revenues. It was an unforgiving process.

In recent weeks, they’ve talked about “backfilling,” replenishing reserves and fund balances and restoring agency budgets.

Two of the big issues were crime and the unstable, man-made cavity beneath Carlsbad. Lawmakers finally stopped talking and approved funding to remediate the Carlsbad Brine Well. Even then I heard griping: Why should it be the state’s responsibility? Well, we’ve harvested boatloads of taxes from the industry for decades. We can’t suddenly wash our hands of its impacts. (Footnote: Debates about over-regulation suddenly fall flat when we have a spectacular failure of regulation, and in this case it was a failure of state regulation.)

Citizens of Albuquerque feel as strongly about their crime problem as citizens of Eddy County do about their hole in the ground, but it was a much harder sell. Although the governor supported Albuquerque’s plea for lots more money for the district attorney, the response was, everybody’s D. A. is under-funded, as are the courts, jails and public defenders.

All the complaints are valid. But Albuquerque experiences its cavern as bullet holes, knife wounds, the vacuum where your car used to be, and a prevailing sense of vulnerability. The city has struggled to recover from the recession because companies are reluctant to locate in a high-crime city. In the end, Albuquerque got some relief.

What’s notable is legislators did their hole filling in a spirit that went beyond bipartisanship. Here’s an example.

During a committee meeting, Rep. James Townsend presented a bill to tax fuels at the rack or fuel terminal instead of taxing the distributor. However, it would have phased out an agreement the tribes and state negotiated in 1999. The state gives tribes a tax deduction for gasoline sold on Indian reservations; this allows tribes to tax it at the same rate as the state. The federal Department of Transportation calls the agreement “tax peace.” It gives tribes a source of revenue, but it’s tax revenue the state doesn’t receive.

Townsend found himself in a roomful of tribal leaders who opposed his bill. It would devastate tribal economies across the state, they argued. They use the tax to fund roads and, in some cases, police and fire protection.

Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat, is a young freshman legislator from Sandia Pueblo.

“You had a similar bill in 2017,” Lente said. “What’s the motivation for you to make changes?”

The grey-haired Townsend, an Artesia Republican, explained that he was trying to achieve efficiency by taxing a few points at the rack rather than many points of distribution. 

“We have a roomful of tribal officers who can show they’ve used the tax efficiently,” Lente said. Some tribes have leveraged their tax revenues to receive loans from the state Mortgage Finance Authority.

Townsend said, “This bill needs a lot of work. The tribal deal has operated to the detriment of state roads.”

Lente said he appreciated Townsend’s honesty. The bill was tabled, but Townsend and Lente agreed to come back to the table in the future.

Townsend and Lente listened to each other and to tribal leaders. Townsend understood that the situation is more complicated than he expected, but both see room for negotiation.

We call it bipartanship when members of opposing parties agree on a bill. This was better. Each man left with a better understanding of the other’s position and a willingness to keep working.

If only Congress could do the same.