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Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Governor's Opposition to Tax Increase for Train Baffles Some Lawmakers
By Jeff Jones And Trip Jennings
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writers
Gov. Bill Richardson's trouncing of a tax-increase plan for his Rail Runner Express commuter train puzzled some lawmakers, who saw him put his name to that very idea less than four years ago.
The governor's 2004 news release announcing his signing of the tax legislation specified it would allow for a tax boost "to fund commuter rail operation."
So, when the governor panned the idea last week, it surprised Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell.
"Maybe the governor's just distracted," Jennings said, referring to his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. "I think he wants to be known as the tax-cutting governor, not the tax-raising governor."
Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said Tuesday it wasn't contradictory for the governor to shoot down the tax proposition despite having signed legislation allowing such a tax.
"It was (in 2004) a potential option down the road," Gallegos said Tuesday. He added that now, the tax idea is "off the table forever."
The 2004 legislation would allow voters in newly formed transit districts to approve new taxes to pay for transportation projects. It has been described by train planners as a way to pay the operating costs of the $400 million-plus Rail Runner commuter train.
Transportation Secretary Rhonda Faught last week floated the tax vote proposition for 2008.
One day later, Richardson who was out of state campaigning for president said he would support no such increase for the train.
Jennings said he recalls lawmakers and Richardson administration officials talking about the plan in 2004.
"They pretty much said, 'We're going to have to do this,' '' Jennings said in an interview Tuesday.
The Rail Runner now runs between Belen and Bernalillo at an operating cost of about $9.5 million a year. More than $8 million of that is paid by the federal government, but that funding disappears in 2009.
That will happen just as operating costs are projected to rise to $20 million a year with the extension of service to Santa Fe.
In his statement last week, Richardson said he was flat out against the tax increase included in the proposal floated by Faught.
It would allow voters in Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Sandoval and Valencia counties the counties the train is to pass through to vote on an eighth-of-a-cent gross-receipts tax increase to pay operating costs.
Each county first would have to agree to join a regional transit district.
Gallegos called Faught's tax proposal "premature," and said Richardson didn't want "his hands tied to a particular option, especially on something as significant as this."
The taxing idea is a common funding mechanism for similar rail services elsewhere, including the Sound Transit line in Seattle and the Trinity Railway Express in Dallas.
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the bill in 2004.
Chasey said she was surprised to hear Richardson had shot down the taxing idea after approving the enabling legislation.
"I'm sorry that we don't have someone leading the charge whether it's the governor or whether it's the Legislature saying, 'Think about it, folks we are all going to benefit,' '' Chasey said in an interview this week.
Faught in February 2004 called the bill's passage a "huge win," and the measure was among several signed by Richardson at a ceremony in front of a crowd of business people in Albuquerque.
Planners at the time had warned failure of the legislation could have pushed back plans for the Rail Runner, which began rolling in July 2006.
A governor's task force is studying long-term financial options for New Mexico's ongoing road needs and also might consider ways to pick up the costs of the Rail Runner.
Gallegos said Richardson didn't have any other options in mind for picking up the train's operating tab.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said the state needs to find a funding source and quickly.
New Mexico is struggling with a huge funding gap for its highway system, estimated by some at half a billion dollars. Critics of the Rail Runner project fear operating costs will eat into money better used on road construction and maintenance.
"The administration is saying it will find other sources," Smith said. "Who's going to be sacrificed? I'm submitting that it will be the state's roads."
The finance committee chairman also said he was "sort of taken aback when the transportation secretary was taken to the woodshed for flagging something that was already on the books."