Richardson: Act despite budget crisis

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

If you mostly listened for the new projects and programs that Gov.
Bill Richardson pitched to lawmakers in his State of the State speech Tuesday, you could have missed the part about the state’s money crisis.

Richardson wants to build a “green grid” to harness solar and wind power.

He proposes a new research center that would put technologies developed with federal funds into the state’s commercial sector.

He hopes to extend the hybrid vehicle tax credit and create a new Pecos Canyon State Park.

Along with urging investments and programs that can create jobs, the
governor said he wants to build a “major” new food warehouse for the
RoadRunner Food Bank.

In his half-hour speech on the first day of the 60-day session,
Richardson just a few times mentioned the budget crunch, a gap between
revenues and expenses that is projected to be almost a half billion
dollars this fiscal year.

“A cold financial winter has come,” Richardson said. “And our state faces a serious budget shortfall.”

The Democratic governor, who has dubbed this the Year of Fiscal
Restraint, also said the state had “made the wise choices to prepare
for such a winter.”

Not everyone agreed with the governor’s assessment of state
government’s finances and the ideas laid out in his speech, however,
including some Democrats. Some said he sent a mixed message by
proposing new projects when the state doesn’t have the cash to keep
some existing ones.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat who chairs the Senate
Finance Committee, described the speech as “long on hope and need, and
short on funding.”

Others said they were not surprised by Richardson ambitious speech in the middle of the budget crisis.

“The governor has very active imagination,” said House Minority
Leader Tom Taylor, R-Farmington. “That’s part of his M.O. since he’s
come into office. He’s just a machine that thinks about New Mexico and
creates all sorts of programs.”

Richardson in his speech worked to downplay the critics.

“Some are offering a pessimistic view of the future. But pessimism
never built a road, never taught a student and never immunized a child.
It never protected our streets, never created a job, and pessimism will
not solve this crisis,” he said.

Not all the governor’s proposals cost money — or a lot of money —
however. He wants to give same-sex partners the same rights as married
couples, create a state equal-pay task force and make changes in some
state college affordability funds so that 100 percent of the money goes
to students with financial needs, he said.

Also during his speech, Richardson pointed to the jobs the state
has created under his leadership, the children educated in the state’s
pre-kindergarten initiative, the renewable energy projects built.

Despite the successes of projects the governor listed, lawmakers
said they are focused on cutting $450 million from the current budget
in the next week. They then will tackle the 2010 budget.

“I don’t know what we can do new. We can barely take care of what we
have now,” Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said.

“We’ve got a heck of a lot of revenues not coming in. Gross receipts
are all off,” he said. “We had six great years and when it softens,
it’s going to soften a little bit. It’s not going to come back in six
months.”

Ingle said Republicans are not likely to go for any tax credits this year, which is one part of the governor’s agenda.

Richardson is proposing to increase the state’s tax credit for
renewable energy production, as well as those that would help biomass,
wind, solar and geothermal production.

House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Nambe, said he likes the renewable-energy projects.

Lujan also said he liked Richardson’s speech, saying it was “very bold and to a certain extent, very progressive.”

“I liked that fact that he says we have to be optimistic,” Lujan
said. “Pessimism will not be the vehicle that brings back the economy,
and I think we all concur with that statement.”

As part of his speech, Richardson proposed changing the state’s
funding formula for schools. A study in 2007 found the state’s schools
are underfunded by $350 million.

Ingle said that while the change “would be a great thing to do, I
don’t know how or where we’re going to get the money. I don’t see how
we can do that this year without raising taxes and we don’t want to do
that.”

Richardson said such a big change should be sent to voters for a decision, which could happen as a Constitutional amendment.

As part of his education plan, Richardson also wants to keep the
financially ailing College of Santa Fe in the capital city. Operating
what is now a private four-year college could cost the state up to $16
million a year.

When he ended his speech, Richardson acknowledged how tough it will be for lawmakers to make cuts in the current year budget.

As part of dealing with the budget crisis, he proposes the state draw down its reserves from 8 to 10 percent of its budget.

“We have a difficult climb ahead, filled with tough choices and
great sacrifices,” Richardson said. “We will weather this storm.”

Contact Kate Nash at 986-3036 or knash@sfnewmexican.com. Read her blog at www.greenchilechatter.com.