On Tuesday, Jan. 15, the New Mexico Legislature will convene for this year’s 30-day session. These “short” sessions in even-numbered years were originally intended to deal with budget issues, which lent a spare quality to its work, a sort of pared-down character that used to make it more of a sprint than the longer, 60-day “regular” sessions that were often endurance marathons.
Then Bill Richardson got elected governor.
Dedicated activist and incorrigible improver of state government that he is, Richardson has managed to take advantage of the constitutional loophole opening up short sessions to non-budgetary items suggested by the office of the chief executive.
Did I say loophole? More like an interstate highway. In the last “short” session, the governor sent nearly 100 non-budgetary messages (read: bills for consideration) to the Legislature, leaving that body practically paralyzed by the sheer volume of work involved.
This year the expectation is that there will be fewer of those items tacked onto the agenda, but only when measured against the earlier Richardson track record. Compared to governors of the past, he continues to expect a great deal out of the lawmaking branch of government and has been decidedly unsympathetic to whining and kvetching about “overload.”
For example, the governor’s Health Reform Proposal, optimistically titled “Health Solutions,” is being trundled out for action this session. This 98-page bill has been stitched together from a variety of sources by Human Services Secretary Pam Hyde. Its basic design was suggested by an advisory group appointed by Richardson. It uses some of the findings from a study of alternative approaches to health care financing reform that was completed by a Washington, D.C. firm, Mathematica.
“Solutions,” whatever its merits, will be a huge mouthful to digest. Many of those who have followed the matter closely in the months since Mathematica’s findings were released suggest it might be wiser to put off something as complex as health care reform for the 60-day session next year or even to hold it for a special session that could deal with it exclusively.
There is also a list of items left over from last year’s special session that we can anticipate the governor will resurrect for action this year, including ethics reform, domestic partners legislation and a package of highway construction measures.
And Mr. Richardson has promised to send the Legislature an “anti-crime” package aimed at reducing gang-related and domestic violence crimes and expanding state efforts to control drunk driving.
So the legislators heading for Santa Fe this week are girding their loins for a month-long event that promises to be far more demanding than a simple 100-meter sprint to a balanced budget.
Just balancing that state budget could prove a lot harder than it’s been in the past three years. While still robust, state revenue growth has slowed in the face of the wall into which our new residential housing industry has plowed. Thus, the 10 percent growth figures of the past have been halved this year.
This doesn’t mean state government faces cutbacks of the sort that characterized the Gary Johnson years, but it means the raises provided teachers, state employees and higher education personnel will all be much more modest than the 5 to 6 percent increases they’ve received lately.
There may be a protracted fight over highway construction priorities contrasted with the cost of the Railrunner. There may be attempts to roll back some of the progressive legislation for immigrants. There may be pushing contests over enlisting New Mexico in the fight against global warming.
But one thing we can be certain we will not see this year is any sort of tax increase, even in the face of the drastic fall-off in federal highway funding and the steep increase in the costs of building roads, bridges and other infrastructure. The need for a reasonable and sustainable revenue stream capable of financing repairs to and expansion of our highway system exists—but will not be enacted this year.
Why not? It’s an election year and all 112 legislative seats will be subjected to voter action this fall. You don’t need an advanced degree in political science to recognize that increasing taxes, even badly needed taxes, is not the straightest pathway to electoral success.
Of course, the problem won’t go away if it is not addressed, so the Legislature is simply buying itself a year’s grace with this evasion. At some point in the near future it will have to confront that explosive issue.
It’s clear that one immediate consequence of spending a trillion dollars on the occupation of Iraq and the fighting in Afghanistan is to pinch off the flow of federal highway dollars to the states. Since the feds are broke, the individual states have a stark choice: Find the money to fix the roads yourselves … or get used to driving across deeper potholes.