Lawmakers prepare to tackle budget deficit

Kevin Wilson

The phrase goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

The state budget shortfall will be covered by the New Mexico Legislature from Jan. 18 to March 19, because it must be by law.

The way that gets done? We’ll see, veteran and rookie legislators say.

“It’s going to be a tough show,” said Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. “We’re going to have to look at every aspect of government. We can’t raise taxes. We’re not going to get half the money we think we would anyway.”

A budget deficit was feared to be around $450 million just months ago, now potentially estimated between $200 million and $400 million.

The state cannot run a deficit.

Democrats narrowly control both houses, with a 24-18 edge in the Senate and a 37-33 edge in the House of Representatives as they send bills to Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

George Dodge of Santa Rosa is the only freshman House Democrat, and the only member of the Democratic Party who represents Curry or Roosevelt counties.

The rest are Republicans, and all logic indicates a Republican replacement for Keith Gardner of Roswell, who left his post representing Roosevelt County to become Gov. Susana Martinez’ chief of staff.

Gardner said he and Martinez are waiting for recommendations from the Chavez, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt county commissions before making a selection.

“I think walking away successfully,” said Dodge, “is making sure we have a bipartisan approach to the budget, making sure our needs are taken care of and making sure our schools are not harmed.”

Dodge isn’t sure yet where he’ll aim to make cuts, but Republicans want to pare away at the executive branch.

“We’re going to have to cut government to begin with,” Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, said. “We’ve got so many state employees we’ve accumulated in the last eight years.”

Sen. Clint Harden of Clovis said at a legislative breakfast in Clovis that he’s not a proponent of across-the-board cuts, and Crook echoed his sentiments.

“ I don’t think across the board,” said Crook, who noted aims to protect education and public safety. “There are some things that aren’t as painful and they can be more easily made. There are services we just have to have.”

Harden has more on his plate than other local legislators right now, as he has already filed six pieces of legislation dealing with issues like easing restrictions on home inspectors and credits for renewable energy transmission.

“We’ve got great green energy,” Harden said. “Wind is certainly an important part of eastern New Mexico. As good as it is, we’ve got to get it out to market.”

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, is hopeful she can strike out regulations she says are hindrances to businesses.

Martinez said during her campaign that she intended to balance the budget without tax hikes or cuts to education and Medicaid. Harden has a bill that would add registration fees to generate money for the livestock board. He acknowledged it could be seen as a backdoor tax hike.

“I know people say if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck,” Harden said. “But I don’t know how to fix their finances (otherwise).”

Numerous legislators say they need to hold education harmless, but Kernan is hoping there are ways to make education more efficient without hurting kids.

She’s hoping to carry a bill that would repeal two-year-old legislation that requires school districts to have 180 days on their calendar. Many rural schools, she explained, would prefer four longer days per week than five short ones.

“They were getting all of their hours in 175, 176 days,” Kernan said. “Every time you have to add a day to your school calendar, it gets very expensive.”