Monday, January 10, 2011

After Tucson: What Will It Mean? Plus: The New Southern Muscle, And: What Budget Problems? Susana's First Tax Break 

Back in the 60's, when political upheaval was the order of the day, activist H. Rap Brown declared that "violence is as American as cherry pie." Forty years on and Brown's declaration holds depressingly and shockingly true as we take in the news of the assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the murder of a federal judge and the beyond comprehension killing of a nine year old girl and the wounding of numerous others.

Brown's era and this one share a similarity. In both times you heard isolated calls in the media echo chamber calling for violence to resolve the nation's political ills. Back then it came from the radical left whereas today it comes from the extreme right.

We worked our way out of that period by resolving the issues that tore at America's fabric. Eventually we were out of Vietnam and key civil rights legislation took hold but not before we lost Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to assassins.

We will get through this period, too. But how and how long we will be in it is unknowable. Tuscon could easily be the end or the beginning of this extraordinarily divisive time in our history.


New Mexico politics has gradually become more media centered and a much less personal affair as our state's population has neared the two million mark and more of our residents live in good-sized cities. Tucson (and technology) will likely accelerate the personal distance between individuals and politicians here.

Will we be able to approach our congressmen and senators at the local coffee shop? Will we even see them there? It would have seemed silly last week if, for example, you saw Congressman Ben Ray Lujan walk into a restaurant in Clovis or Chama with an armed security guard and a couple of aides to keep anyone from getting too close. But that depressing possibility is now on the table.

ABQ Rep. Martin Heinrich got a taste of the new political climate when he was badgered to conduct numerous "town hall" meetings in his first term. He ended up holding one on friendly territory at the University of New Mexico, but crowd control was a major concern.

Former Governor Bill Richardson holds a hand-shaking record for an eight hour period and he probably holds the record for the number of town hall meetings he conducted when serving as a northern NM congressman. Is such public interaction to become a relic of a quaint past? If so, what does it mean?

In the sorrowful aftermath of Tucson we are left with the ultimate existential question: What does any of it mean?


Home is where the heart is and in the case of our new Governor that is clearly the south. After only a week at the helm Susana Martinez has restored southern pride by packing her cabinet with picks from south of I-40, announced her first major economic initiative in her home county of Dona Ana, fired all the members of the Environmental Improvement Board--a bow to southern oil and gas interests--and even caused a stir among her homies by not cheerleading the southern-based but Bill Richardson backed Spaceport.

Contrary to perceptions north of I-40, the south is still part of New Mexico although culturally, politically and geographically they are like two different states.

Las Cruces, with about 95,000 residents is now the state's second largest city and Dona Ana County has surpassed the 200,000 population mark.

While Martinez's southern comfort level may cause consternation among the north and ABQ, it is hard to argue that the south could not use some love. Dona Ana County is an economic basket case. The census bureau reports the poverty level remains sky high--at over 23 percent cent of the county's residents--nearly double the 13 percent in big Bernalillo County (pop. 642.000) and far higher than the state's 17 percent.

On the East side, population has been shrinking so much that the area will lose a state Senate seat in the upcoming redistricting. Rural towns and cities across the south have been especially ravaged by the Great Recession, reports Terry Brunner, State Director of USDA Rural Development in New Mexico, who has traveled the area extensively this past year.

New Mexico's southern politicians are rejoicing at their new found strength in Santa Fe, but can they translate it into progress for their sometimes overlooked region? Dona Ana County legislators who are attempting to unseat northern state House Speaker Ben Lujan with fellow Dem Joe Cervantes of Las Cruces are already taking hits over their motivation. They have revealed their intense personal dislike for the Speaker and his style, but it has not been accompanied by an intellectual framework for tackling the economic decay in their own backyard. If Cervantes joins with the R's to coup the northern speaker, would it matter much to his southern constituents or would it only amount to sweet revenge?

The last GOP led conservative coalition in which a southern Democrat took the speakership was in the early 80's. But that had an ideological basis coming as it did at the beginning of the "Reagan Revolution." It was a direct reaction to legislative liberalism.

Taking power for the sake of power is allowed. It just doesn't have much meaning beyond personal score cards.


Susana's southern stamp was on full display Friday when she announced the revival of a long planned expansion of the El Paso operations of the Union Pacific Railroad into Santa Teresa, NM.

The $400 million railroad hub has been in the works since 2006 and Dem US Senator Bingaman secured road money for the project. But there's a big catch--Susana wants the Legislature to approve a big tax break for the railroad by exempting locomotive fuel from the state's gross receipts tax. The trouble is neither the railroad or the Governor will say how much that tax break would cost the already empty state coffers.

Legislators may also be wary of this tax break after being burned by a deal with Burlington Northern and its New Mexico tracks:

Just as state officials grapple with a huge budget shortfall, here comes a multimillion-dollar bill for 200 miles of railroad track the state of New Mexico has no plans to use. Records show that the state Transportation Commission voted in August to set aside $2 million in next year's budget for capital improvements along the stretch of train track from Lamy to the Colorado border. That's on top of the $5 million the state promised to pay BNSF Railway Co. to purchase that same stretch of track...


It was an eventful first week for the new Governor as she successfully put her imprint on state government through a series of small measures that had the cumulative effect of letting everyone know there was a new sheriff in town. That's how we described it to KOB-TV's Jeremy Jojola who came with this piece on those first seven days.


By the end of Susana's second week we should have a better handle on the outlook for the state's troubled finances. The Legislative Finance Committee came with its proposed budget Friday and the Guv comes with hers today.

There are encouraging signs from Santa Fe on dealing with the shortfall, but that will be put to the test in the upcoming 60 day legislative session. Still, LFC co-chairs State Senator John "Dr. No" Smith and State Rep. Lucky Varela are getting credit for coming with a level-headed budget plan to get the conversation rolling.

The biggest fly we see in the ointment is getting a deal on Medicaid. The health program for the poor is a budget buster. The LFC appears to be kicking the can over to Susana to solve. How she kicks it back will be interesting.

The good news from the capitol is that the shortfall is not going to soar further. The LFC calls for cuts of about $200 million plus the renewal of previously approved cost saving measures for the budget year that begins July 1. If Martinez is basically on board with that outlook, much strife may be avoided.

And in light of Tuscon, this quote from the Governor's office strikes us as more poignant than it might ordinarily:

The governor's budget proposal will take a somewhat different approach to making spending cuts and reducing the size of the government, but she looks forward to working with the Legislature to craft a bipartisan, balanced budget...

Whatever one thinks of the weekend's events we can all agree it's time for cooling off the political rhetoric by all sides. The word bipartisan need not be a stranger.

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