Richardson: No to food tax, state layoffs

By Steve Terrell: The Santa Fe New Mexican

Gov. Bill Richardson, who recently had said he was leaving open the possibility of reinstating gross receipts taxes on food, made it clear Tuesday he will oppose bringing back the food tax.

During his final State of the State speech before a session of the state Legislature, Richardson said, “We cannot ask working New Mexicans to pay more for groceries when too many are struggling to make ends meet.”

But he warned lawmakers against cutting the budget too much to deal with the $600 million budget crisis, saying that could lead to state employee layoffs.

“We have already cut hundreds of millions of dollars in state spending,” he said. “While we can make more targeted cuts, it is important to note that most state agencies have been cut to the bone. Any further cuts would mean certain layoffs, closing facilities and ending public services when our citizens need them most.”

The Legislature convened at the Capitol for a 30-day session which will be spent mainly on dealing with an ongoing budget crunch.

Snow and slushy roads greeted those traveling to the Roundhouse for the opening of the session. And the winter weather might have put a damper on the turnout for various political rallies and protests outside of the Capitol before the session started.

Richardson said last week that he would consider taxing certain grocery items such as candy, soda and junk food. But he didn’t mention that idea during his speech.

“I will also oppose any tax increase that hurts our efforts to keep the state economically competitive and create new jobs – such as increasing personal income taxes, rolling back our capital gains tax cuts or decreasing business tax incentives or credits that are working to create jobs,” Richardson told lawmakers.

Richardson said he would support “a temporary revenue increase that automatically expires in three years or less.” However, he has yet to say what kind of tax or revenue increase he’s talking about.

The governor made several suggestions on how to cut spending. These include cutting $158 million in spending across state government, eliminating stalled capital outlay projects and ending the practice of “double dipping” — hiring retired state employees as exempt employees who collect salaries on top of retirement pay.

Richardson said the state would save $25 million by consolidating state agencies, boards and commissions, as recommended last week by a task force headed by former Gov. Garrey Carruthers.

Although Richardson promised a short State of the State, the speech lasted just under 35 minutes.

Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, told reporters, “I lost 10 bucks. I bet 20 minutes.”

Reaction to Richardson’s speech from lawmakers was polite.

Republicans, predictably, were not eagerly embracing Democrat Richardson’s proposals. “I think the sentiment that’s prevailing in the Senate, not just our caucus, is a great deal of skepticism about raising taxes without first understanding … how big a problem it really is and what we’re going to have to look at closing if we don’t get it all done now,” Senate Republican Whip Bill Payne, R- Albuquerque, said. Payne said he thinks the state’s revenue projections could be worse than the $600 million deficit figure.

If anyone forgot it was an election year, the presence of several gubernatorial candidates at the Roundhouse served as a reminder. Two Republican candidates — Rep. Janice Arnold-Jones, R-Albuquerque, and businessman Doug Turner — participated in anti-tax rallies on opposite sides of the building before the session started. Turner appeared with former Gov. Gary Johnson. Also at the Roundhouse was GOP candidate Susana Martinez, who was a guest of House Republican Whip Keith Gardner, R-Roswell. All three said that the Legislature should cut spending, not raise taxes.

Lt. Governor Diane Denish, the lone Democratic gubernatorial candidate, released a statement in which she also took something of an anti-tax stance.

“Instead of debating which tax increase to embrace, legislators must focus their attention on which reform measures to implement,” Denish said. “For example, it’s time to eliminate double-dipping, reform capital outlay, reduce the number of political appointees and squeeze every last dime that we can out of government efficiency. … Major reform proposals must be debated and passed long before the legislature gives any consideration to raising taxes on regular families.”

As lieutenant governor, Denish presides over the Senate and votes only in case of a tie.

In addition to the tax and budget issues, Richardson proposes several other bills including various ethics reforms and establishing domestic partnership rights for unmarried people living together, including gay and lesbian couples.

“A committed couple, who agrees to spend their lives together, deserves equal protection under the law. And as I’ve said before and I will say again — As a state whose diversity is its strength, we cannot accept discrimination in any form,” Richardson said.

But Republicans, who in the past have voted overwhelmingly against domestic partnership bills, said such issues will be “distractions” during the 30-day budget session.

“We do not need distractions, we need to get serious about the budget this time,” Payne said. “We need to get the budget right on a long-term basis.”

Even Richardson has admitted that domestic partnerships — an issue he’s pushed for years — will be tough to pass in the Legislature, mainly because of the continued opposition of the state’s Roman Catholic Bishops who claim the bill granting legal status to unmarried couples would lead to gay marriage.

In the area of ethics reform, lawmakers on Tuesday introduced at least two bills that would establish a state ethics commission.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com

Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com