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State Staffers Would Have to Take Train

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE— A $6 billion budget is heading to the Senate with a provision intended to force state employees to use the state's commuter rail system for government travel.
    The budget (HB 2) by the Senate Finance Committee also would cut money and legal staff for two state agencies that have drawn criticism from some legislators for proposed tougher regulations on the oil and gas industry and vehicle emission standards.
    The committee approved the budget Monday and sent it to the Senate for consideration.
    The measure is similar in total spending to the version passed by the House last week. It provides for an increase of about $349 million— or slightly more than 6 percent— for public education and general government operations in the fiscal year that starts in July. That's roughly $2.2 million higher than the House-passed budget.
    The committee trimmed about $495,000 from the budgets of the Environment Department and Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to eliminate six full-time staff positions— all lawyers. The jobs and the money would be transferred to the Attorney General's Office.
    Eliminated were all the lawyers in the Oil Conservation Division, which had proposed tightening rules for disposal pits at drilling sites. The oil industry and some legislators have sharply criticized the proposal.
    The Environmental Improvement Board has adopted more stringent vehicle emission standards. The budget would transfer two lawyers from the Environment Department to the Attorney General's Office.
    "The budget cuts look like an effort to retaliate against tough but fair rules and regulations implemented by the Richardson Administration to protect the environment," Allan Oliver, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement.
    The committee added money for some programs and reduced spending in other areas. For example, $700,000 was added to budget for rate increases for child-care providers, $400,000 for a planned substance abuse treatment center in Los Lunas and $500,000 for behavioral health services.
    About $2.4 million was trimmed for a boost in employer contributions to a financially troubled educational retirement system. The House-passed budget had overestimated how much was needed for the payments into the retirement plan. About $1 million was pared from higher education by assuming that colleges and universities would raise tuition to collect that amount of money.
    The commuter rail provision was sponsored by Senate Republican Whip Leonard Lee Rawson of Las Cruces. It would prohibit the use of money in the budget for mileage reimbursements to state employees or travel in government vehicles between cities served by the Rail Runner train. The proposed restriction would not apply to police and emergency vehicles.
    Currently, commuter rail operates between Belen and Bernalillo. Construction is under way to expand service to Santa Fe, and that's to be finished late this year. The rail system is projected to cost $400 million.
    "Now that this expensive Rail Runner is a reality, I do not want our New Mexico taxpayers to have to pay additionally for state employees who now should be riding the Rail Runner when they are on state business," Rawson said in a statement.
    The Senate is expected to debate and vote on the budget proposal this week, possibly as early as today.
    Gov. Bill Richardson could use his line-item veto powers to reject the commuter rail provision if it remains in the final version of the budget.
    "The governor encourages Sen. Rawson to ride the Rail Runner and see why an overwhelming majority of New Mexicans recognize the benefits of efficient mass transit," said Pahl Shipley, a spokesman for the governor.