Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Building A Budget That May Soon Be Blown Away, Plus: Something Uplifting In Santa Fe--The Mayor's Race, And: More On The Egolfs And The PR Game 

The Capitol
If you build a house in the hurricane zone don't be surprised if it gets blown down. That tells the story of the budget being crafted in Santa Fe during the worst economic downturn in generations. Not only does the budget assume state tax revenues will grow by six percent in the year starting July 1, it also assumes that $200 million in federal aid is a done deal. It's a fair bet that either or both of those assumptions will get blown away like a house in that hurricane zone, leaving us in what will seem like a perpetual state of budget crisis.

But Santa Fe appears to be getting more obstinate, not wiser, even after overestimating for several years the price of oil and natural gas and the amount of money those resources would generate for the general fund. Now they are at it again, pretending the current economic downturn will turn up at any moment.

Maybe they should switch their legislative sessions to the downtown St. Francis Cathedral. That seems a more appropriate venue to get prayers answered than the legislative chambers of the House and Senate.

The House today is expected to vote on a final budget approved by the Senate. A conference committee will then meet to hammer out differences between the two bodies. Time now looms with the 30 day session running out of that precious commodity at noon Thursday.

But Santa Fe is operating like it's 1999. How else to explain Senate passage of a bill that bans double dipping, but does not ban it for the 1,500 government workers currently getting both a government salary and drawing a government pension? (The current dippers will be required to again make payroll contributions into the public employee pension fund.)

It's like Superman's Bizarro World. Maybe there's another legislative session going on in a parallel universe where they believe there really is a $500 million shortfall and tough decisions need to be made.


No real attack on the bloated administrative structure of the public schools or the University of New Mexico; no action to reduce the ranks of the hundreds of politically protected under Big Bill; no elimination of even one board or commission; no repeal of even one of the dozens of tax credits--some questionable--that cost the state millions; no new appropriations for the state auditor and attorney general to aggressively pursue fraud in the Medicaid health program; no personal income tax increase for the well-off--not even a temporary surcharge on their income after their rates were nearly halved during the Great Bill Market.

We would mail this list to the legislators, but we think we'd have a better chance of getting it filled during our next stop at Whole Foods.


Back to that $200 million Santa Fe is using to plug the half billion dollar budget shortfall projected for next year. Reports from DC say there's a chance it may not come through. But even if it does come through, what happens the year after that? Congress is already under pressure to close the state money faucet. Oh, we forgot. The Legislature is going to ask Archbishop Sheehan to pray for a miracle. Well, they might want to make sure that tortilla tax is dead before they disturb him. He's none too happy about that. But then he's a fella who actually sees the thousands of poor people populating this state.


The last time New Mexico was in a political pickle anything like this was back in '86. The "Big Mac" tax cut was passed in the early 80's and soon after oil and gas prices collapsed. The Legislature was forced to raise taxes. Sound familiar? For the most part it is, except for one key element. Back then they actually raised personal income tax rates, something that is the off the table this session by decree of the Democratic Governor and key Democratic Senators. From the AP:

According to the Legislative Council Service, one of the largest tax packages in New Mexico history came in 1986 when income, gross receipts and other taxes were raised by $150 million--representing nearly 11 percent of the state budget then.

Those in the business community demanding efficiency and major budget cuts in Santa Fe are so right. And they are so wrong to try to exempt themselves from sharing in the economic pain that is ravaging this state. That's the difference between then and now. They weren't better people back then, but perhaps wiser.

Asenath Kepler
We know the polls show it to be a runaway, but we can't help but think the Santa Fe mayor's race is going to tighten.

Former city attorney and city manager Asenath Kepler, running behind Mayor David Coss, is exceptionally smart, experienced and energetic. She is also relentless and not giving up in the face of the discouraging polling. There's meat on the plate when she unloads on Coss:

This administration had four years to implement an economic development plan and instead chose to rest on the laurels of projects that were set in motion long before the mayor was even a city councilor, including affordable housing programs, the Rail Yard redevelopment, the Rail Runner Express and the Community Convention Center...

Kepler is on Coss's back over crime and the economy--the two central issues. The Creighton law school grad, a self described fiscal conservative and libertarian on social issues, is lifting and leading the debate to a level not usually seen in a city election. The polls may not show it, but she has her rivals on the run.

And Coss is no slouch. He is running a crafty campaign. While Asenath pounds him over his jobs program being a mirage, Coss's can-do optimism and creativity stands out in this dreary business climate.

The jobless rate is exceptionally high in the capitol, the overall economy is foundering and the property crime rate has soared, yet Coss continues to connect with longtime Santa Feans who see a long record of public service and a mayor who has not run and hid.

Coss is an unabashed liberal in a town that loves them. He has lined up the endorsements of not only major unions, but from small business owners up and down Cerillos Road (Coss was denied the police union's backing. They went for Kepler). Coss also has no ethical black marks on his record, a cause for celebration in scandal-plagued New Mexico.

The third candidate in the March 2 race is Councilor Miguel Chavez, but Coss and Kepler dominate.

The Santa Fe's mayor race is not besotted with campaign cash and has moved beyond trite, electronic media slogans. It has been helped along by penetrating and in-depth news coverage.

You have to look hard to find a campaign not dominated by personality and pettiness these days. The Santa Fe mayor's race is not perfect, but Kepler and Coss are reminding us that there is still room for critical thinking in the age of the nanosecond.


Our Monday blog about an email sent by Kelly Egolf, wife of Santa Fe Dem State Rep. Brian Egolf, seeking more publicity for the freshman lawmaker and his community bank bill, brought some of our critics out. Here's a sample from the Roundhouse:

Your piece on Egolf's wife was in bad taste. Her email was sent to a small number of friends. I usually get where you are going. I am not sure on this one.

Let's review the video tape. Kelly Egolf sends out an email to supporters of her husband saying he has been shortchanged when it comes to getting his name mentioned in the media and she seeks to influence the coverage of ABC News and other media outlets regarding her husband and his banking bill. Egolf had earlier scored national coverage for his efforts from the Huffington Post.

Now that's not an earthshaking development but Kelly's email does reveal, in a candid way, the two tracks our politicians operate on. And if the wife of a public figure is going to advocate publicly for him, what she says is part of the public dialogue. Now that may not be news for a general circulation newspaper, but for a specialty publication on New Mexico politics it's a curiosity that easily qualifies for attention from the political community.

But we won't be too hard on our Roundhouse critics. Anyone who has been hanging around a place where mature adults think taxing tortillas is the way to solve a half billion dollar budget crisis has good reason to become disoriented.


And look at what popped up on the news wires following our blog on the Egolfs. It's a news release from Dem Lt. Governor Diane Denish about that legislation:

Lt. Governor Denish today said she supports using local, community banks to serve as fiscal agents for some of the state's accounts. This would keep taxpayer dollars in New Mexico and allow community banks, many serving rural areas, to increase their lending during a time when credit has been constricted...Denish recently outlined this position in a letter to Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve.

However, Di never mentions in her news release or her letter to the Federal Reserve chairman that the sponsor of NM legislation to deposit more state money with community banks is none other than Rep. Brian Egolf.

Looks like Brian and Kelly have some PR work to do not only with the news media, but also with Di. Or they could just forget about it and let the big dog eat.

And so goes this game of ours...

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