Friday, October 23, 2009

Lord, You Gave Us A Mountain: The Autumn Wind Comes Roaring In; Jobless Jump; Energy Tax Collapse; State Investment Officer Out; Special Session Pain 

  • The New Mexico Legislature adjourned its special session at 7 p.m. Friday after approving a measure to shore up the state's $650 million projected deficit. Governor Richardson is indicating he may be veto portions of the bill. He has 20 days in which to decide.

The winds of historic economic change roared against the storied walls of the Santa Fe Roundhouse Thursday, promising even more pain as lawmakers grappled with the state's most vexing budget crisis since The Great Depression.

First came the new jobless numbers revealing that unemployment had spiked to the unheard level of 8 percent in the government-dominated economy of the ABQ metro. The official statewide rate jumped to a new high of 7.7 percent, although experts warned the actual rates are likely in the double-digits.

Then came another whip of wind. The land commissioner reported revenue flowing into state coffers from oil and gas royalties--so important to the state budget--had plunged in the July quarter by a startling $100 million, compared to one year ago.

And the hurricane force wind of change that will permanently alter the political landscape of the New Mexican government--and perhaps the culture of the state--blew yet again. The state investment officer--responsible for investing billions from the state's permanent funds--resigned amid yet another pay to play scandal, prompting a war of public words and the specter of a long legal battle.

The jocularity and knowing cynicism that dominates political conversation here has been replaced by a stony sobriety. At the Capitol late Thursday, as a final budget deal was being hammered out, KOB-TV veteran political reporter Stuart Dyson, in the game since '74, told us that only in recent hours had citizen legislators really begun to come to grips with the enormity of the crisis they face.

"The old hands knew, but these guys--regular guys from around the state--are frazzled. They're stunned. They are hearing deficit numbers that simply can't be comprehended when it is your task to deal with them..They are life-changing numbers, Joe, and the talk has already shifted to the next session when reality must be dealt with..." said the newsman.

The late, great country singer Marty Robbins made famous the song, "Lord, This Time You Gave Me A Mountain," and last night--a historic night in our Capitol--our mountain was finally confronted.

The volunteer politicians took to the floor to debate the budget compromise in what sometimes seemed like group therapy. They uttered the unutterable numbers; shook their fists at the fates; confessed their love for their state and mourned the end of an economic era the likes of which will not be see again in our lifetimes. It brought to mind that timeless phrase: "To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart."

The 70 House solons were all of the Irish persuasion last night, all with broken hearts for the place we and they call home.

House Speaker Lujan
The post-traumatic stress disorder that reporter Dyson described as afflicting many of the lawmakers had them constructing a budget deal about as permanent as a sand castle. They kicked the can way down the road. The final House bill that will go to the Senate for approval today cuts public education by less than one percent. The revenue it uses to plug the gargantuan $650 million shortfall for the budget year that began July 1 and ends in June of 2010, is mainly one-time money, including hundreds of millions of Obama stimulus. That means for the budget year that starts July 1, 2010 we will start with a deficit of at least $700 million and possibly much, much more.

You can smell the fear and loathing even before you reach the Santa Fe city limits.

But legislative leaders, helpless in the face of deep divisions and prohibited by the Governor's proclamation from raising any taxes, will be pleased to get the Band-Aid and send it up to the Fourth Floor today. There, Governor Richardson is expected to give it his approval but not before he probably vetoes a provision that would force him to trim some 80 political positions. (Are those jobs like cockroaches after a nuclear war--the only things to survive?)

The state will be in dire need of statesmanship come January. There will be no escape from reality then. There will have to be spending cuts, tax increases and sacrifice from our political leaders, chief among them the Governor. Like many of our citizen legislators he has been hesitant to confront the deficit mountain. But faced with unions storming the capitol, lawmakers divided among themselves and a populace that feels both fearful and betrayed, Richardson must rise to the occasion for this, his final major political act on the state stage.

History will probably neither condemn or praise the Special Session now concluding. It will pass it off as shell shock. When the Governor and the legislators reconvene in the dead of winter, they will have one last chance to give a final, painful, bipartisan burial to a bygone era and set us on course for a new one.

They can climb that mountain, but to get to the top they will have to climb it together.

The changing of the guard at ABQ's City Hall is going to pick up steam as we get closer to Mayor-elect Berry officially taking over December 1st. Among the high profile names who won't be around to serve in the new Republican administration is Republican Greg Payne, head of the city's transit department under Mayor Chavez. Payne, who is is a former state rep as well as a former city councilor, says he has tendered his resignation and will leave Nov. 30, one day before Berry takes over.

Payne, 42, points to the upgrading of the city bus fleet and the Rapid Ride bus program as two of his major achievements. He is also pleased that voters approved continuing a quarter cent sales tax for transit at the recent city election.

Payne was a member of the mayor's inner circle of advisers in the recent campaign, so it's no surprise that he won't be one of the department directors staying around. As for what he will do after leaving his $109,000 a year job, Payne is not ruling out a return to politics, but says he has no immediate political or employment plans. Look for him on the ski slopes.


Our use this week of the time-worn phrase "country club Republicans" got the goat of former ABQ GOP State Rep. Rory Ogle who vented via email:

I can assure you that 1) I am a die hard right wing conservative Republican and 2) There are probably 10 times more Democrats that belong to country clubs that I will never see the inside of. If I played golf and could afford to belong to a country club I would not be out here in the middle of nowhere at White Sands Missile Range doing the 5PM to 3 AM shift. Having said that I will also remind you that when I was up in Santa Fe I never voted for one of Big Bills budgets and did not care if my capital outlay got vetoed...


Attention fellow conspirators. Republican Guv candidate Allen Weh has his offices in the same ABQ NE Heights strip mall where for years former ABQ GOP Congresswoman Heather Wilson headquartered her campaigns. From the email:

Dear Volunteer: Just to let you know, Allen Weh needs help with mailing, phone calls, etc. His office is located in the strip mall where Heather Wilson's office was and also Laffs Comedy Club.

So if Heather decides to get in the Guv's race, will Weh move over and Heather move in? She likes the neighborhood, doesn't she? (Do you think anyone will mistake Laffs Comedy Club for Allen Weh's headquarters?)


The office of ABQ DEM US Congressman Martin Heinrich was excited by this development late Thursday:

Heinrich announced that he was able to secure language to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) in the House version of the health insurance reform bill.

“Our country desperately needs health insurance reform—but our pursuit of reform cannot leave Native Americans behind. I represent tens of thousands of Native Americans in central New Mexico, and my constituents have made it clear that they cannot wait any longer for health care reform in Indian Country.The first step is reauthorizing IHCIA, which governs the Indian Health Care System (IHS). IHS is the provider for many Native American patients. Unfortunately, IHCIA was last reauthorized in 1992, and that reauthorization expired eight years ago....

Heinrich was helped in this effort by the House leadership which is doing all it can to give the freshman lawmaker a boost as he faces his first crucial re-election test in 2010.

Email your news and comments.

Not for reproduction without permission of the author
website design by limwebdesign