Sustaining budget a big priority

By David Irvin

Sustaining the state budget will be a central topic when the New Mexico Legislature convenes for its 60-day session Tuesday.
Local legislators said inflating health care costs and problems with financing Medicaid have become an increased burden to the state and its budget. The question of whether the budget and future budgets are sustainable is on the minds of several local legislators.
“We know there’s a lot of non-reccuring revenue that’s going to come in from oil and gas,” said Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis. “The real budget experts talk about how the budget has been balanced … using non-reccuring revenue.”
Harden said it wouldn’t be wise to spend non-reccuring funds based on the high market rates for oil and gas that is currently providing additional revenues.
Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, agreed.
“When you have a surplus, you need to always be planning for a rainy day,” she said.
However, Dave Contarino, chief of staff for Gov. Bill Richardson, said many of the revenue streams are sustainable, and the legislators shouldn’t worry too much about non-reccuring funds.
He said reserves are at 10 percent for this fiscal year and increases in revenues from income tax and gross receipts taxes are sustainable.
Richardson revealed last week his plans to repeal the nursing home bed-tax credit in order to resolve a potential $17 million federal funding problem for Medicaid, which provides health care for the poor, disabled and children in lower income families.
According to officials at the governor’s office, the $17 million budget gap appeared after the federal government rejected New Mexico’s method for raising the funds through a bed tax at nursing homes and then crediting that money back.
The principle also applies to the collection of taxes, legislators said.
Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said legislators need to be up front with taxpayers about proposed tax cuts, especially if they plan to increase taxes in a different area.
“We need to be fairly forward and honest with the people to make sure we’re not taking the money out of one pocket and putting it in another,” the longtime senator said.
Contarino said Richardson intends on increasing Medicaid by 16 percent in the coming year, even in the face of cuts from the federal government.
Other legislative issues to watch:
• Harden said this legislative session would include a laundry list of issues. He expects to see legislation for stiffer penalties for meth labs where children are present. Also, he said discussions on how to pay for No Child Left Behind will certainly come up.
• Contarino said the state has a $51 million surplus in the higher education lottery program, money the governor wants to put to use by expanding benefits to even more New Mexicans. However, Ingle said it might not be a good idea to open that program up too much.
“We need to be really careful not to overspend that,” he said. “Once you open that door you can’t ever close it.”
• Jose Campos, D-Santa Rosa, said it would be important to push for funds to finance the recently proposed recreational facility in Clovis. He would also like to see U.S. 84 expanded to four lanes going toward Fort Sumner, a move he said would help industry. He also said the repeal of the bed tax would be an important move.
• The legality of cock fighting in New Mexico is often challenged in the annual legislative sessions, and it’s sure to come up again this year, legislators said. New Mexico and Louisiana are the only states that permit cock fighting, seen by some as a form of animal abuse.
• Ingle said some things need to be done on voter reform to prevent weeks and weeks of ballot counting after an election. He also said it would be a good idea to have some sort of consistent voter ID to prevent voter fraud.
• The governor is taking an aggressive stance against drunken driving by looking at new ignition interlock devices and closing legal loopholes to prevent drunken drivers from getting out of jail on a technicality, his Web site shows.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.