Legislature back at it Monday

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico lawmakers who want tax hikes as part of a plan to fill a $650 million budget gap suffered a setback Sunday when a Senate committee ruled such increases can’t be considered during the special legislative session.

The Committees’ Committee ruled tax increases must be left out of the discussion because Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson specified there should be none when he issued the official proclamation for the special session.

The panel’s decision doesn’t mean there won’t be debate, however.

When the committee’s action is reported to the full Senate, likely on Monday, the issue could be opened up for more discussion.

Richardson in his proclamation outlined steps for reducing the budget deficit, saying they “shall not include” tax changes.

“There is an underlying constitutional question as to whether the governor gets to come in and say, ’This is how you’re going to do it,”’ Sen. Peter Wirth, a Santa Fe Democrat, told the panel that decides whether bills are germane.

Democratic lawmakers who favor tax increases — on alcohol, tobacco and soft drinks, on out-of-state corporations, and on high-income residents, for example — say they’re obliged to consider revenue increases as well as cuts in state spending.

The governor says it would be irresponsible to rush into tax hikes that would have little impact on the current budget year, which started in July.

Tax talk can wait until the regular session in January, Richardson said.

“If we don’t have the courage to talk about revenue enhancements now, I don’t know how we’re going to have the courage to discuss them in January,” said Sen. Cynthia Nava, a Democrat from Dona Ana County.

Legislative leaders agree with the governor that taxes should not be on the table during the current session, which is expected to last several days.

The $650 million shortfall is the equivalent of about 12 percent of the $5.5 billion the state budgeted to spend this year on public schools, higher education and general government operations.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat, complained that the Richardson administration didn’t put the brakes on spending when it became clear a deficit was looming.

“He doesn’t want to be the bad guy. He wants us to be the bad guy,” the lawmaker said.

The deficit reduction package is expected to include some combination of cutting spending and freeing up one-time revenue. The governor says he doesn’t want layoffs, furloughs or salary reductions.

Tax hikes are backed by teachers’ and public employees’ unions and social welfare advocacy groups that are trying to stave off cuts to public schools and needy New Mexicans.

Educators are armed with a poll that shows 81 percent of respondents want the budget balanced without cuts to public school funding. Eighty-eight percent said teachers’ and other school workers’ salaries shouldn’t be cut.
The survey of 400 registered voters was conducted Oct. 13-15 by Research & Polling Inc. of Albuquerque and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.

Responses to questions about raising taxes were varied. Seventy percent, for example, favored increasing revenues for public schools by increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco products, while 61 percent favored raising taxes on out-of-state corporations for more school revenue.