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 V.16 No.22 | May 31 - June 6, 2007 

Ortiz y Pino

Marty the Street Fighter

The story behind the mayor's tax cuts

Let’s run through this one more time. Maybe then it’ll make some sense to me, ’cuz I gotta say, so far this brouhaha over cutting the city’s share of gross receipts taxes seems like mayoral foolishness and not much else.

Five years ago our city government was feeling the budget pinch. Revenues simply weren’t keeping pace with civic need. Faced with yet another cycle of cutting back services, the City Council at the time decided to bite the bullet and ask voters to approve a tax increase instead.

The mayor at the time, a man named Martin Chavez, opposed the tax increase. He instead favored reducing services: closing libraries for more hours each day and additional days each week, switching to biweekly garbage pickups, laying off “non-essential” city workers, cutting contracts for social services and other similar “belt-tightening” measures.

I remember that in the midst of that debate, I’d written a column in which I questioned the wisdom of the mayor’s position. Albuquerque was not taxing itself to the full extent authorized by state law, and its tax burden relative to other cities, even in our state, was not excessive. The services proposed for the chopping block were badly needed and the rationale for doing so seemed faulty.

I wondered if the mayor was simply engaging in an exercise in image-repair. He’d lost his bid for the governor’s seat four years prior when Republican Gary Johnson succeeded in painting Chavez as a tax-and-spend liberal who’d gleefully spend New Mexico into the poor house … if the voters were foolish enough to elect him.

Chavez, who started that race ahead in the polls, slipped badly and lost. The experience seems to have left him vowing “Never again!” To prove his fiscal conservative bona fides, the mayor seemed determined to demonstrate he was more comfortable wielding the tax cutter’s blade than the pen of the tax raiser.

Over his strenuous objections, the City Council went ahead and put the tax increase on the ballot for voters’ consideration, billing it a “Public Safety” tax to gain support from the powerful police and fire unions. It passed by a comfortable margin and the city ended the lean years and entered the tall grass country it has enjoyed so much ever since.

Ironically (or it would be ironic if we weren’t talking politics, where there is no irony), in his subsequent campaign for re-election, Chavez dwelt only on the good that had resulted from the tax increase, never mentioning his original opposition to it. He won handily … and has apparently begun another effort to capture the governorship in four years.

With the restored services made possible by the added revenue from the tax he opposed, our mayor has since launched a series of expansions in government programs that have refurbished his image as an activist mayor. His strategy, however, includes another demonstration of just how tough a manager he can be.

His “I don’t need no stinkin’ taxes” posturing has to be aimed at impressing voters in remote precincts of the state, places where libraries are opened by volunteers for three hours on Sunday afternoons, where “after-school” programming extends no farther than year-round football practice and where city-provided social services include a 12-step program at the jail and not much more.

Alternatively, it could be that he has painted himself into a corner. He has to cut the taxes or else the Council will use the revenue to help pay for the city inmates in the county jail.

When it comes to the argument over running (and financing) the jail between his office and the county, he can’t see or think straight. His characteristically astute strategizing collapses and he reverts to “Marty the street fighter,” throwing punches with both hands.

The jail is at the heart of this tussle between Mayor and Council. When the new facility opened, Chavez wanted the city to operate it, sharing costs with the county. (Don’t ask me why—no one ever looks good running a jail. It’s the ugly duckling of civic enterprise, and the state constitution specifically says counties have to operate them, not cities. Besides, its exploding costs were threatening to bankrupt the city.)

The county turned down the offer to have the city run the jail but came up with a counter offer of its own: We’ll run it, but you guys can help finance it, since it turns out that we don’t want to be bankrupted either.

This was definitely not something the mayor wanted to do. Essentially his position is, “OK, if you want the jail, you can have it … along with the entire tab. No more cost-sharing.”

Now that’s a perfectly sound, legally defensible position for him to take, albeit a somewhat petulant one, since cooperation between our two layers of local government would make all of us who pay for their overlapping ownership a lot happier than does their constant bickering.

When the Council, in a goodwill gesture intended to express gratitude (survivor guilt?) for having been relieved of the enormous drain the jail represents, worked out a deal to send $9 million to the county this year only, the mayor flipped out. He’d rather cut that money out of the budget entirely by eliminating 1/8 cent of the local tax than see the county benefit from it.

Perfectly understandable behavior … for an 8-year-old. For a would-be governor, it’s just foolishness.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

 

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