Wednesday, December 07, 2011
Old But Not Out; Octogenarians In The Senate Prep For More, Plus: Speaker Lujan's Legacy, And: Why Santa Fe's Fiscal Hawks Are Fighting The Last War
Mary Kay Papen turns 80 in March and John Pinto is now 86. Will both state senators seek re-election in 2012? Papen says she is a go for a fourth term. "My health is good." She declared.
The Dona Ana County lawmaker is concerned about her vote not to eliminate driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. She's sending out a questionnaire asking what her constituents think. Republicans are sure to fire both barrels at her for that vote. Maybe even a Dem primary opponent surfaces. But the Papen name has a lot of goodwill. Her late husband Frank was a major political player. Papen has a reputation as a crusty, straight-shooter. And she's no wall flower, either. She sits on the powerful Senate Finance Committee as well as the Legislative Finance Committee. Republicans or a Dem challenger will have their hands full in trying to take out this soon to be octogenarian.
As for Pinto, you wade into Indian Country politics at your own risk. The Gallup area senator said last year he would seek another term in '12, but insiders are watching him carefully. We went with a blog not long ago that Pinto was preparing to end his long career. He said last spring, "I have no intention to quit." But when you're 86 intentions are subject to change at any time.
Longer life spans are definitely having an impact on legislative age. Back in the day, it was rare to have many lawmakers hang around after they turned 75. House Speaker Lujan and Reps. Varela,Nunez and Saavedra all will be well over that mark when they seek another two year term next year. Speaker Lujan has not made an official announcement, but the betting is he goes for one more.
Newsman Steve Terrell reports this week that Carl Trujillo who gave Lujan such a scare in the 2010 Dem primary will challenge the speaker again. Will that deter Lujan? Under redistricting the Alligators expect him to have a district a bit more friendly. They say he may shed some rural voters and pick up more city of Santa Fe voters to replace them. More importantly, the absence of Big Bill probably helps Lujan who can now run against the policies of GOP Gov. Martinez and not be shadowed by Richardson as he was two years ago.
Lujan became Speaker in 2001. He hits the ten year mark next month. That's the second longest run in state history. Raymond Sanchez served as speaker in '83 and '84 and again from 1987 until 2001 when Lujan took over the gavel.
THE SPEAKER FILE
Lujan's iron hand has been softened by the slim margin the Dems currently have in the House and by the election of a Republican Governor. But the Speaker actually started to cede power when Bill Richardson took over in 2003. Not long after Lujan agreed to historic personal income tax cuts that Richardson pushed to enhance his resume for his 2008 presidential campaign. New Mexico's top personal income tax rate dropped from 8.2% to 4.9 percent over 5 years. The state tax on capital gains (stock sales, etc.) was slashed by 50%.
Lujan, a lifelong working man's liberal, was scored by critics for caving in to Richardson. The cuts cost the state treasury hundreds of millions of dollars of annual revenue and today make it even more dependent on tax receipts from the oil and gas industry. Richardson said taking the rate down would attract high income individuals to the state and spark business expansion. Evidence to support either contention is highly dubious.
It's true that since the cuts the state's personal income ranking improved, but much of that was due to federal spending on entitlement programs and the massive military/national security complex here.
Richardson provided a huge political boost to the career of Congressman Ben Ray Lujan, the son of Speaker Lujan. He endorsed him for the Democratic nomination for a Public Regulation Commission seat. Ben Ray won. And Bill was there yet again, taking Ben Ray's side in a crowded 2008 Dem primary for the northern congressional seat.
If Lujan's son was not pursuing a political career would Speaker Lujan have resisted Richardson and proposed less sweeping tax cuts? That's one the wall-leaners of this era and the next will long ponder.
The latest state revenue projections are anything but rosy, but at least they are not going down as they have for three years running, The state Republican Party says the latest projected surplus of $250 million for the budget year that begins next July can be credited to Governor Martinez. But the real reasons are the 2010 tax increase the Legislature passed, the continued high price of oil which has benefited state coffers and a state hiring freeze that was implemented under Governor Richardson. Martinez can take credit for fostering an atmosphere of frugality and leading the charge with largely symbolic moves like firing the Guv's personal chef, slashing away at cell phone bills and renegotiating state leases on office buildings.
But the $250 million will get chewed up quickly. Medicaid costs continue to explode so kiss $50 million goodbye for that and another $50 million for state employee retirement funding. Now you are down to an extra $150 million in a $5.7 billion budget. That's not a whole lot of wiggle room and certainly not cause for yet another round of tax cuts as the Governor is proposing.
It could be, however, time for tax reform. That means cutting taxes in one place (like the gross receipts tax) and raising them elsewhere (like the income tax on top earners). If Martinez can advance a revenue neutral tax bill, fine. If she can't, tax cuts will be dead on arrival at the January legislative session.
The state's widespread poverty (18.6% of the population in 2010 and 17.5% in 2000), the lack of health insurance (nearly 22% of the population) and a public education system that has yet to make a dent in the high failure and drop-out rate among Hispanics and Native Americans
means continued high demand for Medicaid and every other public assistance program. More tax cuts aren't going to dig us out.
The state needs to give a push to the demand size of the equation. That's why so many of us are urging lawmakers to push the envelope when it comes to a capital outlay bill. Get that construction money coursing through the economy by repairing and renewing the state's infrastructure. (Worthwhile projects, please, not political pork).
FIGHTING THE LAST WAR
What we have in Santa Fe is a fiscal majority that is fighting the last war--the overspending that took hold in the last bull market. We pounded the table as hard as anyone when those hundreds of millions in surplus dollars were rolling in, arguing against cutting tax rates too much and holding the line on Big Bill's tax rebates. But the cops (and the economic crash) long ago cleaned up that party. The state payroll has dropped dramatically and with it the state budget. And the fiscal hawks continue to weed out waste. But that's not going to get us moving. Heck, we're not sure a big capital outlay bill of $400 million or more will do the trick, but it could be a spark that sets the fire. Otherwise, we drift for certain.
And while they're at, the Legislature can ask the citizens of New Mexico to amend the Constitution to allow targeted spending from the state's permanent fund for early education and care for children five years and under. Breaking the generations-old cycle of dysfunction that prevents the state from moving forward is our major challenge. Changes we make today may not have any impact for decades, but at least our generation can get the ball rolling.
THE BOTTOM LINES
On a more prosperous note, ABQ Sunday brunch steps up to the big city level at the downtown ABQ Hotel Andaluz. It includes a made to order omelet station as well as a prime rib stop. The repast ends with an array of desserts and a well-made frothy cappuccino. Your visit is topped off with good service, a quality often lacking in the local restaurant scene...
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