The Associated Press
SANTA FE — Gov. Bill Richardson warned Tuesday of possible government worker layoffs in the coming year if state agency budgets are slashed and he declared his opposition to reinstating the sales tax on food to deal with New Mexico’s financial problems.
On the opening day of the Legislature’s 30-day session, Richardson mapped out an ambitious agenda for lawmakers to pursue in addition to balancing the state’s budget during a time of slumping revenues.
“How we respond to tough times like these is a test of who we are as a people,” Richardson said.
He proposed a package of ethics and campaign finance reforms, allowing domestic partnerships for unmarried same-sex couples, tougher penalties for drunken driving, a statewide ban on cell phones while driving and measures to promote clean energy development.
But the budget will dominate the session. Revenues next year are projected to fall $600 million short of what’s needed to cover the current level of services and spending on education and general government programs, including health care for the needy.
To balance the budget, lawmakers are looking at spending cuts and possible tax increases to raise more revenue.
Richardson said “while we continue to cut spending and look for ways to make government more efficient, we must not turn out backs on our most vulnerable citizens, nor should we be reckless with budget cuts.”
He said lawmakers should “take the middle path, a balanced approach that combines targeted spending cuts and short-term revenues with strong accountability measures.”
Most state agencies “have been cut to the bone,” said Richardson, and “any further cuts would mean certain layoffs, closing facilities and ending public services when our citizens need them most.”
The governor opposed a proposal by a legislative panel to cut teacher salaries by 2 percent to help deal with budget problems.
“Even in a time of shortfall, I insist that education must remain our top investment,” said Richardson.
It was Richardson’s final speech to a joint session of the Legislature. His term runs through December and he cannot seek re-election.
The governor has not yet endorsed a specific tax proposal to help plug next year’s budget shortfall but he told lawmakers he opposed reinstating the gross receipts tax on food. The tax was lifted in 2005, but the state could gain $228 million if it’s imposed again.
“We cannot ask working New Mexicans to pay more for groceries when too many are struggling to make ends meet,” Richardson said.
Anti-tax protesters rallied outside the Capitol and among them was former Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican who prided himself on keeping a lid on state spending during his eight years in office.
Johnson was dressed in a heavy down jacket as he stood in a snowstorm, waving a placard, “No New Taxes.”
“I am outraged. This does not have to be happening and it is,” Johnson said of the possibility of tax increases.
Johnson said the Legislature should solve the budget problems by cutting spending, which has grown by 35 percent — even after recent cutbacks — since Richardson took office in 2003.