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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Leaderless Legislature And Untested Governor Embark On Uncertain Journey, Also: More On Day 1 Of Session '11, Plus: Berry And The Budget 

A rudderless Legislature and an untested Governor meet up for a sixty day legislation session in Santa Fe today as a wary and pessimistic public put them both on a short leash as the state continues to grapple with a seemingly endless recession and a persistent decline in educational results.

The subject du jour, as it has been the past several years, will be more budget cutting to downsize government to meet the size of the times. But Mr. and Mrs. New Mexico are looking for something else after nearly two and a half years of grim news. They are looking for some hope-- some silver linings in the dark clouds.

Governor Martinez has already shown she can be an effective chief accountant, but she will have to broaden her rhetoric beyond jeremiads over taxes if she is to have a governorship of consequence. Her state of the state address today offers her the opportunity to go beyond her chastisement over past practices and offer a vision of the future that doesn't look like Bob Cratchit's office.

In the Legislature the 112 lawmakers will struggle without strong leadership. That is evidenced by the soap-opera like machinations over who will be the next Speaker of the House. Over in the Senate, a conservative coalition muddles along, but there is no big thinking going on there. It's like an assembly line without a supervisor.

Longtime observers fault the state's patrón politics as one cause for the leadership vacuum. They note that Speaker Ben Lujan never groomed a successor and has felt compelled to hang on to power to the bitter end. Fearful and uncertain, the Democratic caucus bumbles along, seemingly unperturbed about the possibility of handing power to the minority Republicans or a close facsimile thereof.

The leadership malaise was overlooked when the bull market bounty was flowing into state coffers. Now in the lean times, it is laid bare.

LATEST BETTING LINE

The betting line moved against having a coalition speaker late Monday as word circulated that NM Tea Party groups urged House Republicans not to cross over and vote for Dem State Rep. Joe Cervantes as Speaker. But the line has been all over the map and uncertainty still reigned. House R's met for three hours at the Roundhouse last night. We'll know the results shortly and we'll update them here.

WATCHING THE ACTION


Governor Martinez will make her state of the state address probably around 1 p.m. but it could be later if the House takes longer to settle its speakership battle. KOB-TV will broadcast the address live as will KNME. KRQE-TV will have a stream of the address and we will be on their Web site during the speech with UNM political science professor Lonna Atkeson to do some live blogging. The Governor's office will also stream the address from its site.

The House proceedings will be broadcast at the Legislature's site so you should be able to get audio (no video today) as the speaker drama unfolds there starting at around 12:30. The House and Senate will both be gaveled into session at noon.

IS THAT ALL THERE IS?

If the Journal's weekend piece on the Spaceport was supposed to be a hit on the project, it landed like a soft jab. The piece, seemingly influenced by Spaceport sceptics in the new administration, pointed out some of the delays that have impacted the construction project (not unusual for one this size) as well as some minor management issues. As Peggy Lee crooned, "Is that all there is?"

The piece ended with this money quote from former GOP Governor Garrey Carruthers:

"I think the opportunities for this to be successful have actually improved. The space tourism thing always gets the sizzle but we've had...a number of launches out here of experimental materials sent into space."

In other words, the fundamental mission and promise of the Spaceport to provide jobs, opportunity for the state's youth and perhaps provide a new economic paradigm for southern New Mexico remains fully intact.

All you guys and gals gathering in Santa Fe today, ask the tough questions and do the due diligence. But remember, this is your baby now, not Bill Richardson's.

The Las Cruces Sun-News told its southern readers they, like us, have no problem with a Spaceport audit but the ball must be kept rolling:

With the first phase of construction 80 percent complete, and with the second phase getting underway, Spaceport America should be ideally positioned to be a major player in commercial space travel and even exploration. Unease about the spaceport could be detrimental. The governing board must be stabilized, a new facility director found...and the money matters found to be satisfactory. Then...beam us up!

ALL THINGS RICHARDSON

As the 60 day session gets underway today there is still a bitter aftertaste over the Richardson years in many a lawmaker mouth. That's doubly true for the incoming administration and segments of the New Mexican press. This, hopefully, will fade in the coming months and all things Richardson will not suffer knee-jerk condemnation. The emotion is so high that former Governor Carruthers in commenting on the Spaceport felt it necessary to remind everyone that the project had its beginnings before Richardson.

Legislators are still smarting over the bullying Big Bill gave them and some of the press is still emotional because they think he stole the state and fooled them in the process. Gov. Martinez is Governor today largely because of the public enmity toward Bill.

But previous Legislatures and Governors have put down some building blocks that should not be torn down out of personal animosity or revenge.

HOW MUCH DID YOU SAY?

The dialogue in the press over the state budget shortfall has become increasingly politicized, with the Martinez administration asserting it is tackling a $400 million plus budget shortfall. But how come she is proposing less than $200 million in cuts? And the same goes for the Legislative Finance Committee budget. Veteran GOP State Rep. Larry Larranaga explained in an appearance on KOB-TV's Eye on New Mexico:

There's a difference in the way the deficit is calculated. If we take credit for the cuts that we did last year...we are $210 million short. If you take the assumption that we want to put those funds back in again from the cuts we did then, it is a little over $400 million. We (the Legislature) are making the assumption that we're going to keep those cuts that we did last year and then continue with the budget. That's the only way that we can balance the budget without reducing other items in the budget itself.

Question: So we're really only looking at $200 some million in cuts right now?

Larranaga: That's correct...

So when referring to the shortfall for the budget year that begins July 1, it is correct to say lawmakers are tackling a budget shortfall of about $200 million. Finance Secretary May wants the current administration to get credit for curing a $400 million shortfall, even though the budget cuts to get to that number are already on the books and simply have to be renewed.

Obviously, the administration wants the higher number out there so when it comes campaign time they can take credit for solving it. At her news conference Monday Martinez continued to claim her budget addressed a hole of $450 million.

If either the Legislature or the administration really want to take on a larger shortfall, there is a way to do it. They can both put in their budget assumptions the costs of increased enrollment and expenses for the state Medicaid program. Both budgets kick that can down the road, pretending that the program won't need another $50 million or more in the 12 months beginning in July. But these are politicians doing the math and it doesn't get fuzzier than that.

THE BERRY PATCH

ABQ Mayor RJ Berry is still struggling to get a handle on city finances, despite a big trim to this year's budget that included across the board salary cuts for city employees.

Berry is now saying he is coming up $40 million short for the budget year that beings Juy 1 because city expenses continue to rise as gross receipts tax collections remain in a slow growth mode.

Among other things, Berry cites rising utility and insurance costs and the expense of opening a new multi-generational center. The budget is set to rise from about $450 million to $490 million. Upon receiving that news, Diego Arencón, President of the city firefighters union, put the needle in the Republican mayor:

How does the budget grow from $450 million to $490 million in one year after imposing pay cuts on all city employees? This means a 9% increase in spending while unemployment is rising! What happened to the Mayor's plan to shrink government spending and creating jobs? There is a disconnect between the rhetoric and fiscal reality. The question Fire Fighters have is: Why is there money for certain people, programs and new projects and none preserving essential services?

Those are some points we might see made as the city council gears up to tackle the budget.

Berry's fiscal prowess was praised in his first year, but former City Councilor Greg Payne said Berry should have taken bolder steps to reorganize city government and cut expenses. Payne is making noise about challenging fellow Republican Trudy Jones for her ABQ NE Heights council seat in this October's city council elections.

Some of Berry's political foes on the council are also skeptical that the budget shortfall is actually $40 million. They see it as coming in at half that amount or less. But, like Governor Martinez, they think Berry may be painting a bleaker budget picture so he can appear to have resolved an even larger shortfall.

THE BOTTOM LINES

All those new social and cultural conservatives taking up their legislative posts in Santa Fe for the first time today are being greeted with the news that the capitol city has been named the second "gayest" in the USA. Maybe they will read the gay dictionary to familiarize themselves with their new environs? Not...

We can't confirm it, but one of our Alligators claims that the House R's moved their caucus last night to the Governor's offices. Why? They thought some Dems were listening in on them. Now we know why the two parties have been sounding so much alike lately...

This is the home of New Mexico politics.


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