Putting a Happy Face on the Status Quo
Reflections on the 2005 Legislature
The reviews on the past 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature are in, and they tend to be fairly favorable. Well, maybe it's better to say they aren't too negative despite inaction on some fairly significant legislation.
A statewide cockfighting ban failed to pass the Roundhouse for the 25th year that I'm aware of. A proposed statewide smoking ban in restaurants—modeled on Albuquerque's "Clean Indoor Air Act"—also lacked political lung capacity.
The irony, however, is localities can act on either high-profile policy if they choose. In fact, Albuquerque already has tackled both. Maybe these items ultimately fall into that new "it's a local issue, not a state issue" category we're hearing so much about lately.
Nevertheless, there were other headlines besides smoking and cockfighting. First and foremost was the state budget and latest round of "tax cuts"—which are more accurately labeled (at best) "tax shifts."
Despite rhetoric about slashing various programs, legislators approved a $4.7 billion state budget that increased spending 6.7 percent over last year. In the case of Medicaid, spending actually soared 16 percent. Given that inflation is running around 2.5 percent in the Land of Enchantment, state spending isn't just keeping up with the cost of living—it's almost tripling that rate.
The 6.7 percent increase represents almost $300 million in new state spending. While I was on the City Council, Albuquerque's general fund budget hovered around the $300 million mark. To give real size and shape to the state budget increase consider this: The new spending the state just approved is about what City Hall runs on.
Keep in mind, New Mexico has 262 state government employees for every 10,000 residents. By contrast, Colorado has 152, Texas has 126 and Arizona has 123 for every 10,000 residents—well less than half our number. For those who care about these things, not only does our state start with a big bureaucracy, given our spending increases it's just getting bigger.
Perhaps that's why the much-vaunted 2003 tax cut won't actually go into effect this year—political promises and awards from the CATO Institute for "cutting taxes" to the contrary.
At the behest of the executive branch, the Legislature deferred $60 million in personal income tax cuts in order to pass a $20 million tax cut for people making $29,500 a year or less. Lowering taxes for lower incomes is a good thing, but when you delay $60 million in tax cuts in order to enact another $20 million, did you really "cut" taxes? After all, there's $40 million that won't be going to taxpayers.
So what about paying for tax cuts out of the $300 million in new spending? There'd still be $220 million in new revenue left over. The answer is there isn't a real commitment to cut taxes—it's a political shell game.
My prediction? The tax cuts are gone (or delayed indefinitely) should the state hit financial turbulence—as it inevitably will. Given the choice of reducing taxes while reining in spending or raising taxes while spending goes through the roof, bet on the latter being chosen every day of the week.
Well, that's not a fair critique of the federal government. In Washington, D.C., they cut taxes, increase spending and just charge the debt to future generations.
There were a couple of other bills that deserve mention.
The so-called voter ID/election reform bill allows a copy—not an original—a copy of a utility bill to serve as proof of identification. Now there's a slogan: "A copy of your gas bill. It won't get you on a commercial airline, but it will get you in a New Mexico polling booth!"
The legislation that established a "student wellness fund" for juvenile health issues (like obesity) is worth noting because of the fund's financing. Basically, the state will charge a permit fee to fast food franchises that sell junk food in the public schools. Under this logic, selling cigarettes in the schools would be OK as long as the permit fees go to address teen smoking.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the session, though, was the pre-kindergarten proposal—which could have been a real educational opportunity. New Mexico ranks dead last in fourth grade reading test scores and is tied for last place with Alabama and Mississippi in fourth grade math scores. Despite these appalling rankings, pre-K proponents—for whatever reasons—fought efforts to include "aspects of reading" and "early childhood literacy" in the legislation's proposed curriculum.
In one of the more surreal moments of the session, state Education Secretary Veronica Garcia actually opposed the amendment adding "reading" to the proposed legislation because pre-K "wasn't an academic program." Huh? Then what is it?
Well, what's done is done. Perhaps the best news is that the 2006 session—while still nine months away—will only last 30 days.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a state representative from the Northeast Heights, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.