Spirits of budgets past

-A A +A

Forefathers surely glad it’s not their problem

By Sherry Robinson

All this talk about budget cutting conjures up images of Aubrey Dunn Sr. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee back in the 1970s, he kept a hatchet on the table to remind his committee members – and everyone else – what they were there for.
I’m imagining two ghosts of budgets past hovering over Roundhouse deliberations – Dunn and the equally no-nonsense John Mershon, once chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee. Both hailed from Otero County, both were fiscally conservative Democrats.
Lately I heard someone disparage Sen. John Arthur Smith as a Blue Dog Democrat who was too heartless to be a real Democrat. In my mind, Smith has become the adult in Never Never Land, a guy whose eye-on-the-ball scrutiny qualifies him to wear Dunn’s mantle.
So when Smith complains that every proposed cut has produced an opposing interest group, you have an inkling of how difficult the coming legislative session will be.
Take tourism, for example. Budget cutters want to roll tourism in with economic development, labor and workers’ compensation in one mega-agency. But the tourism industry campaigned hard to create the cabinet-level Tourism Department in 1991.
If the two are combined again, they say, tourism will again take a back seat to industrial recruiting.
A coalition of hospitality groups reminds lawmakers that their industry, second largest in New Mexico, has a $6.1 billion economic impact and employs 110,000 people,
Some rural and a few urban conservatives would like to get rid of the Rail Runner. Won’t happen. In the populous central corridor, it enjoys public, business and bipartisan support. It’s telling that the governor-elect left the Rail Runner and the spaceport off her complaint list during the campaign. Still, we can expect scrutiny and belt tightening, possibly increased fares.
Another hot button is the number of community colleges and branch campuses. We have 8 public institutions, 13 junior and community colleges, and 12 branches. New Mexico spends more money per capita on higher education than any other state.
So you have to ask, why does Rio Rancho need campuses of three institutions when students can drive across the river to attend classes in Albuquerque? And when New Mexico State University announces new construction in Hatch, is that serving student needs or is it empire building?
Look at a map and you see that most of our institutions and their branches are far apart, educating isolated populations. Most aren’t duplicating services, and they’re a source of jobs and a community resource.
Fine, says Smith, the spirits of Dunn and Mershon perched on his shoulders. Their communities should step up, he says, because the state can’t afford them.
Speaking of higher education, NMSU’s President Barbara Couture, with input from faculty, staff and administration (imagine that happening at UNM!), reduced the state’s portion of their budget by $16 million. By prioritizing functions and services, they preserved strategic research and instruction and avoided layoffs and across-the-board cuts.
The better NMSU looks, the worse UNM looks. The state’s flagship university seems more interested in preserving its large herd of sacred cows.
Another proposal would snuff more than 175 boards, committees, commissions and task forces. Some do necessary work, some do little, and some are tools used by their members to advance personal agendas or simply limit competition. But they all get mileage and per diem. Sharpen the hatchet.
Courtesy of the AFSCME Local 477, we hear more suggestions: Besides reducing the number of appointees and double dippers, thin out the state’s top-heavy management structure, and incentivize everyone eligible to retire.
Dunn and Mershon bottled up frivolous bills in committee and stretched some thin budgets to fit the state’s needs, but the spirits of budgets past are probably glad the current budget is somebody else’s headache.
Sherry Robinson
NM News Services