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          Front Page  upfront

Horses, Kids and Stimulus Money

By Thomas J. Cole
Journal Staff Writer
          We learned this week that Gov. Bill Richardson wants to use $2.9 million in federal stimulus money to create a wild horse sanctuary near Santa Fe.
        Richardson has also approved the use of $100,000 in stimulus dough on a contraception program for wild horses in northwest New Mexico.
        Meanwhile, New Mexico's poverty rate is at its highest point in a decade and the state continues to bleed jobs, according to the most recent data.
        State government is trying to deal with another round of budget reductions and bracing for more cuts next year.
        Some struggling families are being denied state child care subsidies because of the budget troubles and increased demand for the assistance.
        Might make you wonder whether now is the time for the state to spend money on a wild horse sanctuary and whether federal stimulus dollars couldn't be put to better use.
        The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 appropriated money for governors to spend at their discretion on public safety and other government services.
        Richardson got nearly $58 million to dole out, and all but $5.5 million has been allocated.
        The money has been spent on a range of programs, from prisons to education to tourism. There have also been appropriations for food banks and child care services for the homeless.
        Richardson on Thursday announced a plan to purchase about 12,000 acres known as the Ortiz Mountain Ranch to expand the Cerrillos Hills State Park about 16 miles south of Santa Fe.
        Cerrillos Hills is now a day-use park. The expansion, according to the administration, will enable it to offer camping and lodging, activities related to wild horses and other opportunities.
        "I am pleased that the recovery act has provided the means for a long-term investment in the land that will provide the public with opportunities for recreation, and support our local economy by supporting jobs, and promoting tourism," Richardson said in a prepared statement.
        In an apparent attempt to defend the use of stimulus dollars on a wild horse sanctuary, the statement went to great lengths to point out the contributions that outdoor recreation makes to New Mexico's economy.
        Senate Finance Chairman John Arthur Smith — the man Richardson calls a doctor of "no" for challenging the governor's spending plans over the years — is opposing the ranch purchase with stimulus dollars.
        "The state is simply not in the financial position to invest in recreational opportunities," Smith, D-Deming, said in a commentary distributed to newspapers.
        Medicaid, the state's health care program for the poor, is projected to be $80 million short this fiscal year; the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides cash and services, is expecting a $25 million shortfall; and services for the developmentally disabled are running $9 million in the red, Smith said.
        As for the expansion of Cerrillos Hills State Park, the senator said the state barely has the money to keep its parks open and doesn't have the funds to hire more staff at Cerrillos Hills.
        Smith said money from a state fund for natural heritage conservation could be used to finance the ranch purchase, allowing the stimulus money to be spent instead on social services.
        "In these times, we must focus on protecting our children and the most vulnerable New Mexicans," the senator said.
        Richardson's concerns about his legacy could have been a factor in the plan to buy the ranch.
        The governor, who leaves office at the end of the year, has made it clear he considers his conservation work to be among his hallmarks.
        Cerrillos Hills is one of four state parks created since Richardson took office in 2003. The others are Vietnam Veterans Memorial near Angel Fire, Eagle Nest Lake and Mesilla Valley Bosque.
        The governor was honored this month by the National Association of State Park Directors, and Sandy Buffett, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, has called Richardson the state's best-ever governor on conservation issues.
        Richardson's plan for the state purchase of the Ortiz Mountain Ranch isn't a done deal.
        The state Board of Finance must approve any government land purchase, and it is scheduled to consider the ranch deal at a meeting Tuesday.
        The governor is the president of the Board of Finance. Another member is Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, the Democratic nominee to succeed Richardson.
        Denish broke ranks with Richardson at a board meeting last month to oppose 3.2 percent budget cuts for most state agencies, and she could be forced to oppose the ranch purchase.
        Otherwise, Denish could find herself the target of yet another TV ad from Republican gubernatorial hopeful Susana Martinez, this one accusing her of putting horses before kids.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Thom Cole can be reached in Santa Fe at 505-992-6280 or at tcole@abqjournal.com.
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