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Editorial: Governor right to veto raid on cash reserves

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It was fiscally irresponsible — but politically expedient — for the New Mexico Legislature to raid the Tobacco Settlement Permanent Fund to keep the lottery scholarship program in the black for another year and help pay for early childhood initiatives.

Really, why make tough decisions regarding scholarship eligibility that would ensure not only long-term solvency but also college success, and why require hard evidence that a Pre-K program will have lasting effects before you fund it, when you can simply rob Peter to pay Paul?

So it is appropriate Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the second half of this funding scheme, which would have diverted $50 million from the state’s cash reserves to the tobacco fund to make up for money taken from that fund for the lottery and early childhood programs.

There was no third act to make the reserves whole, and as the governor says, “keeping that money in the (cash reserves) provides greater flexibility to respond to an unexpected decrease in revenue.”

As opposed to financing an expected decrease in political will to make the tough decisions.

Some anti-cancer advocates are upset the governor did not put money back into the tobacco fund. They should direct their energy at the Legislature, which diverted the money intended for tobacco education and other health-related programs in the first place. In fact, a Legislative Finance Committee analysis found lawmakers routinely find other uses for tobacco settlement money that’s intended for the permanent fund.

Those advocates should also ask why a fund, set up in 2000 to get one half of the payments from a multi-state settlement with Big Tobacco, has gotten less than a fifth of the $532 million sent to the state and no money since 2008. It now amounts to just over $100 million.

The state’s Tobacco Permanent Fund is a cautionary tale for those tempted every session to increase diversions from the state’s other permanent funds. Its bottom line shows just how temporary a fund can become when lawmakers keep raiding it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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