Legislature learning how to say ‘no’ to Richardson

By Barry Massey

The Associated Press
SANTA FE — Leading up to this year’s legislative session, Gov. Bill Richardson proclaimed 2006 the “year of the child” for his policy proposals. The “year of the Legislature” might be a better description of the just-ended session, however.
More than any time during Richardson’s administration, lawmakers — particularly the Senate — exerted greater independence on a wider range of policy decisions.

A number of Richardson’s proposals died in the Legislature: a higher minimum wage; tax cuts, including an $18 million income tax credit for the working poor; most of his anti-corruption package; and a $250 million road construction program.

Even on the governor’s proposed spaceport, the Legislature didn’t meekly go along with everything in the administration’s plan. The failed road construction bill, for example, contained $25 million for the spaceport.
Lawmakers did approve the governor’s request for $100 million over three years for spaceport development, but the money came with conditions.

Bond financing for the project is allocated in three installments — up to $33 million starting in the current fiscal year, another $33 million in the 2007 budget year and $34 million the following year.

Before the first bonds may be issued, an environmental impact study must be completed, an operating permit must be obtained from the federal government and estimated construction costs can’t exceed the administration’s current projection of $225 million.

Later, the Spaceport Authority must submit quarterly progress reports to the Legislative Finance Committee showing how much money has been spent, the purpose of the expenditures and what economic development has or is expected due to the spaceport. The authority also has to certify that it will receive enough matching money from local government and private sources to complete the project.

That’s in sharp contrast to the Legislature’s open-ended grant of authority to the governor in 2003 for a planned commuter rail — a decision that some lawmakers regret as cost estimates for the train climb higher than anticipated.
Even with the commuter rail, the Legislature tried to regain some control.

Tucked away in a budget bill is a provision intended to cap spending on the project at $393 million, which is the current cost projected by the Transportation Department. Lawmakers made part of the department’s budget contingent upon the agency not exceeding that cap for the commuter rail.

Richardson, at a news conference shortly after lawmakers had adjourned, called it “the least productive session that I’ve had as a governor.”

In assigning blame, Richardson didn’t use the rhetoric that had angered many in the Senate days earlier when he said “some senators seem more preoccupied with pork than paying for children’s health insurance, education or safety programs.”

“The communication was good,” Richardson said at his post-session news conference. “You know, it appears the Senate wants to be independent. That’s fine. But what did that accomplish? No increase in the minimum wage. No tax cut for working families. No investments in rural New Mexico in roads and highways.”

Legislators don’t necessarily see the session as a half-empty glass, as Richardson might. On highways, for example, lawmakers approved $90 million for projects across the state as part of a $762 million capital improvement package.

Editor’s Note: Barry Massey has covered state government and politics in New Mexico since 1993.