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Legislators Have the Money to Work With; It's Just a Question of How They'll Spend It

By Trip Jennings And Gabriela C. Guzman
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— The same question that dogged New Mexico legislators last year is returning to nip at them this year: What to do with all that money?
    The state's 112 part-time lawmakers will also grapple with the usual abundance of New Mexico issues— from DWI and cockfighting to ethics reforms and water laws— in the 60-day session that starts Tuesday.
    But the big pot of money— both to spend on government services and to return to taxpayers— will undoubtedly be the central attraction, as well as a tricky balancing act.
    Higher-than-expected revenues from oil and gas, as well as corporate and personal income taxes, will pump an estimated $720 million in extra money into New Mexico's checking accounts.
    Gov. Bill Richardson and the Legislative Finance Committee have recommended spending about $5.7 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1. That's up from $5.1 billion this year and would represent an 11 percent increase in state spending.
    The "new money," as lawmakers and bureaucrats call it, could go toward everything from tax cuts to higher state worker and teacher salaries to expanding pre-kindergarten, more state health care and dealing with overcrowded prisons.
    Richardson, who is a Democrat, and the Democratic-majority Legislature are in general agreement about the needs. Debate is likely to be over directions and details.
    Richardson, for instance, is planning on $125 million in tax cuts, while the Legislative Finance Committee is so far contemplating $75 million.
    The governor wants to give schoolteachers an average 7.4 percent raise and other school workers a 5 percent bump. The Legislative Finance Committee, the lawmakers' year-round budget committee, is looking at a 4.25 percent increase for most public education employees.
    "The programs we are all behind. How we get there may be a little different," House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said earlier this month.
    In addition to the projected "new money" for ongoing state programs, the state is also expected to have roughly $1 billion available in one-time revenue for brick-and-mortar projects, such as road improvements, senior centers and recreational complexes.
    This is the money often referred to as pork and, despite a record amount, it still might not be enough to sate the appetites of lawmakers and their 112 districts. Most of them want new schools, parks, senior centers and soccer fields, and see plenty of opportunity in the big barrel of capital outlay money.
    As always, a central mission and test of lawmakers is the bacon they bring back home.
    Rep. Edward Sandoval, D-Albuquerque and chairman of the House Capital Outlay subcommittee, said he expects he'll have to wade through some $10 billion in requests from legislators, state agencies, towns and cities and tribal governments. Richardson will want his share, too, for statewide projects— maybe too big of a share, according to lawmakers in the recent past.
    As for the temptations of the new money for ongoing programs— not the bricks-and-mortar ones— all the participants say they want to prevent overspending.
    "We still need to guard against overspending, like what happened last year," said Richardson spokesman Gilbert Gallegos. He was referring to the governor's veto of hundreds of millions in spending last year, saying Richardson had to balance the budget.
    House Minority Whip Dan Foley, R-Roswell, said it will all boil down to "what programs are going to grow and which ones aren't."
    Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, co-chairman of the Senate Finance committee, said he hopes his fellow lawmakers keep the extra money in perspective.
    "We're hoping that everyone keeps a long-term eye instead of an instant-gratification thing," he said.
    Spending too much now could require cutting programs or raising taxes in the future, said Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, and chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee.
    Dramatic changes in oil and gas prices, meanwhile, could pull the rug out from the income assumptions underlying any new spending plans.
    Politics, both presidential and a more homegrown sort, will also figure prominently.
    Richardson is expected to announce plans to make a presidential run just as some New Mexico lawmakers predict he will face a more assertive Legislature.
    Some have complained about the governor's so-called "imperial style" and have viewed the Legislature as too lax in its oversight of the executive branch.
    Richardson's vetoes last year of hundreds of lawmakers' projects still sting.
    "When the governor destroys an appropriation through a veto, we can accept it or we can override it," Varela said recently. "Why haven't we taken a stronger position?"
    Richardson promised in the fall that he would consult more with lawmakers as he worked to push his priorities through the Legislature.
    Richardson and lawmakers will also debate how to respond to recent scandals in the state Treasurer's Office.
    Former Treasurer Robert Vigil was convicted last year on one criminal count of attempted extortion. His predecessor, Michael Montoya, pleaded guilty to one count of extortion.
    Meanwhile, an ongoing federal probe into the construction of the Metro Court, state District Court and Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque has former Senate leader Manny Aragon in its sights.
    The Treasurer's Office problems led to calls for ethics reform.
Coming Monday: The Year of Water

E-MAIL writer Trip Jennings And Gabriela C. Guzman