Legislators brace for budget cutbacks

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

The New Mexico Legislature starts Tuesday, and freshman Rep. Dennis
Roch has heard, “that I have no idea how far behind I am already.”

Or is he ahead of the curve? Roch, a Tucumcari Republican who was
elected to fill the House seat left vacant by Brian K. Moore, said one
state senator told him a poor budget outlook is the best time to have
your first session.

“Everybody’s who’s been in already is having to tighten the belt,”
Roch said. “They’re used to having all this money to give out. You’re
coming in when it’s tough, and it’s only going to get better for you.”

In what he’s termed the “year of fiscal restraint,” Gov. Bill
Richardson projected a shortfall of $450 million for the $6 billion
2009 budget.

Deficits may happen in Washington, D.C., but the state constitution says they don’t happen in Santa Fe.

“We’ve got to get control of the revenues that are coming in, make
adjustments to make sure we have a balanced budget,” said Senate
Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who predicts the first 10
days of the 60-day session will be dedicated to the budget. “If we
don’t do that, we can’t do anything else.”

Legislators are just as worried about 2010, with a $293 million shortfall predicted by Richardson.

“We’ve been sheltered (from the country’s economic problems), in my
opinion,” said Rep. Joe Campos, D-Santa Rosa, who is concerned about a
potential 2010 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process looking
again at Cannon Air Force Base. “I think we’re going to get hit next
year.”

Campos has concerns, especially with Richardson indicating he
doesn’t want to touch education, health care or public safety. That’s
85 percent of the state budget, Campos said, but he is optimistic $500
million can be found in the remaining 15 percent.

Third-term Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Roswell, is more skeptical.

“Because we’ve seen 20 percent increases in the past two years in
the budget versus 3 to 4 percent increases in the revenue, it’s caught
up,” Gardner said. “We’ve got to look long-term, how we’re going to
handle this.

“I don’t think anything’s taken off the table, to be honest.”

Ingle would like to see individual departments have the final say
over what they need to cut. Because, he said, they know their areas
better than a legislative body.

He would also like to avoid possible mandates, like a potential
switch to lethal injection euthanization in animal shelters. During the
governor’s vist to Clovis Thursday, Ingle suggested shelving any such
proposal, using the money instead to help finish the Hull Street
Overpass.

Richardson has pledged to set aside $1 million from his capital
outlay for the bridge, which closed in July due to safety concerns and
will require replacement.

“The money ( for animal shelter renovations) that’s going to cost
… you could use that for bonding” for the overpass, Ingle said, which
Clovis city officials estimate will require $8.5 million to replace. “I
hate to see state government mandate things on cities and counties
because they have to pay for those.”

Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, has concerns about capital outlay and
the warning from Richardson that money may be revoked for projects that
aren’t off the ground.

“Each of us are going to be very protective of our local
communities,” Harden said. “The justification of what capital outlay
will be taken away from communities and used for this one-time fix will
be a lot of discussion.”

Richardson is trying to keep tax increases off the table. “I’m more
optimistic,” after hearing that, said Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, who
has likened the upcoming session to a lean Christmas.

“I was fearful there would be tax increases,” Crook said. “When he
said he wanted to cut expenses and not raise taxes, that made me more
optimistic.”

Crook and other Republicans want to change pit rules requiring oil
and gas companies to haul soil to permanent disposal sites rather than
spread it back over the land following a well’s closure.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said many oil companies can handle
disposal on site, and mandated haulings would be an unnecessary expense
with more possibility of environmental damage.

“If we’re going to have economic development,” Kernan said, “we need to make sure this is a business friendly state.”

Roch wants to make it an education-friendly state. During his
campaign, Roch said he wanted the state to dedicate 50 percent of its
budget to education, because the constitution requires the state
educate its children.

“Part of it’s that, and an investment in education is going to pay
dividends later,” said Roch, the assistant superintendent for the
Tucumcari Municipal School District. “We’re either going to pay the
state now or later. How much more will be acceptable later if we
neglect it now?”