Monday, October 12, 2009

Heather: She's Inching Closer; We Tell You How & Why, Plus: State Money Crisis; Can We Talk? Suggestions For Special Session From This Peanut Gallery 

Wilson vs. Denish?
Republican Heather Wilson is ratcheting up the rhetoric against Lt. Governor Diane Denish, appearing to move closer to a 2010 run for Governor. In her most recent media interview the former five term ABQ area congresswoman insists she has not made up her mind on a run, but lashes out at Denish with an emotional intensity that differs from anything we have previously heard. We aren't psychoanalysts, but we can read tea leaves. If Heather isn't running, she sounds as though she wants to be. Here are the money quotes. First, her latest statement on whether she will run:

I haven't decided. I won't be coy about it when I do decide, but actually it's a difficult decision...Obviously, there are things I am passionate about and care about for the future of the state...At the same time, I am enjoying having a life doing things in the private sector, so it's a very difficult decision...

And here's the full throttle hit on Denish from the KUNM-FM radio interview:

...There is an attitude of complacency about ethics...a belief that if you create some kind of ethics commission that that is sufficient, and it's not. What is required is strong leadership and the thing I criticize Mrs.. Denish about is that she has been largely silent for eight years. When did she walk in and say to the Governor or anybody else...'I am drawing the line here and you either fix this or stop this or I am going public.' When did she ever do that? What we have is single party rule in Santa Fe and that needs to change. There needs to be a check and balance in this system...

Heather has been weaving that "Mrs. Denish" reference into her talks of late. It reminds us of how she called Attorney General Patricia Madrid "Mrs. Madrid" in their heated 2006 US House duel. It's another sign of Heather defining her potential foe and comes across as a subtle put down, seemingly meant to diminish the stature of her opponent.


Democrats think they have a handle on the current GOP Guv field and that Denish would be the odds-on favorite to defeat any of them. But Wilson is a different story. She has shown the ability to infiltrate the Dem and independent camps. She has survived the decimation of the state GOP and her 2008 US Senate primary loss. A nasty US Attorney scandal still lingers, but not with R base voters.

Also, recent events may be breaking Wilson's way. RJ Berry has become the first Republican to win the ABQ mayor's office since 1981. That has engaged the R's in Wilson's home area. They hold the key to the GOP nomination. More significantly, the projected state deficit is now approaching $700 million, a startling number that may start to resonate with average new Mexicans who up to this point have not been keenly away of what has been happening in Santa Fe. They could get on a hunt for new leadership.

The economy and the accompanying budget disaster is a broad appeal issue. Combined with the multitude of state ethics scandals, it could give Wilson the ammo she needs to make a credible and appealing argument for change. Wilson could argue that Denish is beholden to interest groups that have paralyzed her ability to act on ethics or in dealing with the fiscal emergency. She could make the case it is time for a governor independent from Santa Fe, giving her entree to the larger electorate she will need to take the win.


This Guv race is a moving target. What we've outlined is where we stand today--over a year out from the election. If the state's fiscal crisis fades and there are no more ethics eruptions, Wilson could face a steep climb.

The biggest obstacle in Heather's way is one she has no control over. If Gov. Richardson is given a diplomatic post with the Obama administration, Denish becomes governor and the favorite to win the election. That threat will hang over the campaign well into the summer.

A question. If it looks as though Wilson could have the wind at her back in a Guv contest, does pressure grow on the White House to get Bill out of here and get Di in his chair?

One imagines Wilson doing extensive polling in the weeks ahead. She could get in the race anytime, but it would seem the later the better. Once she became a candidate she would be a target.

Denish seems to have dodged a bullet when it comes to drawing primary opposition, but Heather Wilson has her finger on yet another trigger. When and if she pulls it could be the defining moment in the race to replace Bill Richardson.

Jennings & "Dr. No"
We're closing in on Saturday's start of a special legislative session to solve what is now an astounding $650 million shortfall for the budget year that started July 1st, and it could go even higher. State Senator John "Dr. No" Smith is quoted in the press using the "B word." That would be a billion dollar shortfall--up to $750 million for this budget year, plus a fresh $240 million hole that was discovered from last year. We await new projections this week, but they have been consistently too optimistic. That's why the Doc is talking up to $750 million when all is said and done. Meanwhile, Big Bill's plea that public education be spared from any cuts is going by the wayside. House Speaker Ben Lujan threw in the towel on that when the deficit blew up.

With the session nearing, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings is now headed where we've been residing for months.

"All I'm saying is 85 percent of everything we do is in salaries. How do you cut that kind of money and not get into salaries? It's impossible...We thought we were getting hiring freezes, salary freezes and those have been nonexistent...We've gained record amounts of new employees in the state and some really big salaries have gone to a lot of people. Even teaching salaries have gone up a great deal."

Could not have said it better, Senator. We would add that trying to keep the state's cash reserves at the artificially high level of 10 percent would add unnecessary pain. The old level of 5 percent should be adopted in this extraordinary environment.

Now, may we humbly weigh in with our ideas for our 112 elected lawmakers?
  • A proposal to cut the salaries of state workers by 2 1/2 percent across the board needs examining. Should low paid workers shoulder as much as the burden as high paid workers? Why not exempt employees making $35,000 or less and have the highest paid workers, many of whom are making salaries inflated by the munificence of Big Bill, shaved more? How about employees making over $80,000 a year making up the difference so we can still hit the legislative target?
  • Voters narrowly approved at a 2003 special election increasing the payout from the state's Land Grant Permanent Fund to give salary increases for teachers and institute other reforms. Our state no longer ranks among the last in teacher pay. So how about cutting hundreds of administrator salaries, not those of teachers? And don't worry about losing those administrators if you cut their salaries by 10 percent. Many will still have some of the highest paid jobs in the state, even after a 10 percent cut. Besides, have you seen the unemployment rate in the USA lately?
  • We won't bother to beat our favorite horse to death--at least not too much. But it is ripe for the axe. The University of New Mexico president pulls down nearly $600,000 in salary plus numerous perks. Another top UNM dog gets in excess of $425,000, the UNM football coach takes home $750,000 and the UNM basketball coach tops out at $1 million annually (although the coaches salaries are not entirely funded with state money). And what about that $10,000 a month freelance PR contract the UNM prexy signed? Can that still be going on? If the Legislature wants to get serious, why not mandate that no state employee can pull down more than $500,000 a year?
  • Hopefully, the state can avoid layoffs, and one way to do it is through furloughs. Some of the more well-heeled state workers may actually welcome the chance to take time off without pay, but not lose their jobs. State agencies can start asking now. UNM already has such a program underway. Let the savings begin.
  • About that "hiring freeze." Who is enforcing it? And where is the Legislature in calling for accountability? Can't the Legislative Finance Committee get on the stick on this and give a public report? Why is the state work force continuing to grow even as we allegedly freeze positions? If, as Senator Jennings says, salaries are at the heart of the state's budget plight, why is no one lowering the boom on the fake freeze?

  • Will the Legislature lead by example? Where is their sacrifice? Will they cut their "per diem," the money they get each time they meet and that is used to defray food and hotel expenses? Senator Jennings and Senator John "Dr. No" Smith have been in the fore calling for budget savings. Will they take a bold move and argue legislators per diem should be shaved? Will they cut the legislative budget deeper than other state agencies? Legislators could use the credibility after sanctioning an historic spending spree that plowed through hundreds of millions in state surplus.
  • Who will be the brave legislators from the middle and conservative wings of the political spectrum who will start preparing the state for a tax increase? It's off the table for the special, but tax rates on the wealthiest New Mexicans--cut substantially beginning in 2003--will need to be addressed in the regular session in January. So will the many tax credits. They were nice--when we could afford all of them.
  • Liberals are arguing to return right away to the pre-2004 tax rates across the board. They claim that would generate $400 million annually. Would it? In an economy not growing much? But even if the liberals and the unions are correct, they are missing the big picture. So far, they have not fully faced up to the bloating of state government that took place in the then-glorious bull market, nor the new economic reality we face. We can't raise taxes to finance excess. First trim the excess, then look at the tax structure.

Governor Richardson seems to be treating this crisis as a temporary affair, not at all embracing its urgency. His line in the sand on public education cuts--seen more as political posturing than a serious play--has now been erased by the gargantuan deficit. Is his administration going to get serious about streamlining state government for the long-term or just leave it to the next governor? And what is with the constant travel by the Guv? Talk about sending a message of apathy and disengagement.

During the fat years when Bill was politically blessed with huge surpluses, we sometimes wondered aloud what kind of governor he would be in lean times. We're finding out. The Legislature is moving to fill the void and seems to have the upper hand going into the special--if the governor cares. He, his inner circle and the capitol's permanent bureaucracy may be surprised that the public-at-large, if not the special interests, may be ready to side with the cost-cutters. Remember, it last was ABQ Mayor Marty Chavez who also refused to deal with economic reality. Now he will soon be former Mayor Marty.

Experts say the New Mexican economy is in in a secular slowdown, which means it is going to last for years, not several months. Oil and gas royalty revenues have gone kaput with the energy bear market and the retail economy here is especially vulnerable as low income families have their credit cards canceled or cut them up. It is the lower income tier--the one that dominates this state--that is getting especially slammed by the credit cuts and job cuts. They are spending and working less--by the thousands. New credit cards and new jobs are not right around the corner.

Leading economic thinkers say the turnaround will be a multi- year process which is why the Legislature and the Governor need to get going on a restructuring that will eliminate unneeded boards and commissions, slim down money for pork projects and gradually pare down the state work force.

Sacrifice is going to be the new "in" word around the Roundhouse in coming years. The question is whether it will be sacrifice that spares the political class at the expense of the working class.

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