SANTA FE — New Mexicans got a big taste of high politics yesterday as President Barack Obama delivered his inaugural address followed by Gov. Bill Richardson’s State of the State address.
Obama’s speech was a bit more upbeat, which inaugural addresses need to be. Richardson had to be more cautious. After six years of burgeoning revenues, this was his first experience with a sharply declining state income.
Richardson credited himself with responsibly handling those big revenue increases, which makes the cutbacks possible without huge impact. But he has to know that any cuts are going to be greeted with stiff resistance.
Making the job even harder, the governor and Legislature must come up with cuts to this year’s budget, which ends June 30 and to next year’s budget beginning July 1.
Richardson initially said he wanted to make the cuts without affecting education since that is the state’s primary responsibility. But he soon amended the statement, noting that public schools and colleges comprise two-thirds of the state’s general fund budget.
But where does one cut education? Richardson’s proposals are bound to be controversial because he immediately tread into sacred territory. After years of trying to extend the school year and reduce class size, that’s where he went for his cuts.
The governor tried to soften the blow by calling the cuts temporary. But we all know that temporary often tends to become very permanent. Those in my generation remember when World War II barracks buildings were called temporary. We still see them 60 years later.
Another source of cuts that is going to be painful is the capital outlay projects that have been authorized over the years but never utilized because of construction delays, lack of matching funds or construction cost increases.
It is a logical place to go for emergency funds but likely all lawmakers have some project money that remains unused and to them the funds are sacred. The governor is the one proposing the use of capital project funds. To convince lawmakers, he needs to find some of his own unstarted projects to cut too.
There may be another problem. These pork projects use three different sources of funding. Some are financed with surplus money and some with severance tax bonds. But school and senior citizen projects usually are financed with bonds that voters authorize.
Is it legal for the Legislature to “deauthorize” projects approved by the public?
State officials are hoping that federal stimulus funds will become available in time to bail out some of these projects. The state doesn’t want to use any of its “rainy day” reserves this year because they are already in use getting better interest rates on bonds.
Besides the budget, lawmakers will be asked to pass the ethics reforms they’ve been ignoring for years. Nearly every year something happens to make ethics appear to be a “must do.” But every year there is a new excuse to forget about it.
Ignoring ethics reforms this year will be especially embarrassing but Senate leaders will find a way.
This will be a 60-day “long” session so any subject is fair game. Several new “progressives” have been elected. With all the cut-backs, they won’t be able to introduce the new spending programs they had in mind but look for them to try some initiatives such as eliminating the death penalty, gay rights and animal rights.
An additional appropriation should be directed to the Department of Workforce Solutions for additional staff, phone lines and bandwidth to handle unemployment claims.
Many of these items will be introduced today and tomorrow, two of the biggest days for bill introductions. Friday will be the last opportunity for many lawmakers from the far reaches of the state to get home for a weekend. It is tradition to take the first Friday off while the crush of bills is being printed.
And woe be to the cub reporter who criticizes lawmakers for the practice.
Jay Miller is a syndicated columnist in Santa Fe. He may be reached by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.