Richardson: Act despite budget crisis

By Kate Nash: The New Mexical

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.