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Wednesday, January 22, 2003

'Give Me the Tools,' Gov. Says

By Loie Fecteau
Journal Politics Writer
    SANTA FE Gov. Bill Richardson promised results Tuesday while taking aim at school reform and the repair of an outdated tax system in his first State of the State speech to the Legislature.
    But, as New Mexico lawmakers began a regular, 60-day gathering at the Capitol, the new Democratic governor also urged them to "give me the tools in this session to jump on our problems.
    "We need to move now, not next summer, not next fall," Richardson told a joint session of the House and Senate, with a standing-room-only crowd watching from the public galleries.
    "Give me the tools, and I'll give you and New Mexico results."
    With the Legislature's help, Richardson said he could deliver "better schools, better jobs and more money in our people's pockets" through tax cuts.
    "Give me the tools, and I will put New Mexico on a path to progress," Richardson said in the nearly hourlong speech.
    Outlining other goals, Richardson pledged to crack down on drunken drivers and people who commit domestic violence, calling them "criminals who savage our society."
    "Whether the bullet is .45 caliber or 4,500 pounds, your behavior will not be tolerated," Richardson said.
    Richardson New Mexico's fifth Hispanic chief executive since statehood touted the state's cultural and ethnic diversity, which he called "the strength of our state."
    "He's a mover, a shaker, a doer," Senate Majority Whip Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, said after Richardson's speech. "He knows how to get things done to move New Mexico forward, from education to job creation to increased trade with Mexico."
    However, Republicans, and even a few Democrats, questioned whether it would be possible in lean economic times to give public schoolteachers hefty pay raises, cut taxes and balance the budget.
    The chief responsibility for Richardson and the state's 112 part-time legislators during the session is fashioning a $4 billion budget to pay for public schools, higher education and state government operations, from the Governor's Office to prisons and health care.
    "I still have a question how does he balance all of this?" asked House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs, R-Albuquerque. "How do you have tax reduction, a large personal staff and more Cabinet secretaries and yet balance the budget?"
    Richardson defended his expanded Governor's Office staff, saying he needed "professional people to do a professional job."
    Richardson wants a Governor's Office staff of 37 people, including a proposed Washington, D.C.-based office. That number is 10 people more than his predecessor, former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, had in his immediate office.
    Hobbs said he is skeptical that Richardson will be able to find $90 million in government waste and fraud to help pay for his ambitious agenda.
    Richardson contends his administration also can collect about $50 million in delinquent taxes, which he wants to use to pay for $44 million in tax cuts and other economic development incentives.
    Hobbs and other Republicans said they liked Richardson's income and capital gains tax cut proposals, which Richardson said would cost $25 million the first year.
    Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, chairman of the influential House Appropriations and Finance Committee, questioned if it will be possible "to do a substantial tax cut" with only an anticipated $115 million in new revenues.
    Richardson pledged to work with the Legislature to achieve his goals. "For the first time in eight years, you're honored as a co-equal branch of government," he said.
    The new governor was referring to frequent standoffs between his predecessor, Johnson, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature during Johnson's two four-year terms as governor.
    House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said he likes the "can-do" attitude of Richardson's administration. "We will not agree on everything, but we will work together," Lujan said.
    Richardson asked legislators to support his proposed 6 percent pay increase for teachers. The governor also wants to abolish the state board of education and create a Cabinet-level education secretary.
    "I hope to be known as the education governor, and I want to be held accountable," Richardson said.
    Richardson said he plans to appoint a commission to recommend a complete overhaul of New Mexico's tax structure in a special session this fall.
    But he said he wants to cut the state's top personal income tax bracket from 8.2 percent to 7.7 percent as "a quick first-aid fix," which he said would cost $18 million. Richardson also wants to cut the state tax on capital gains, at a cost of $7 million.
    In other opening day action, an admittedly nervous Lt. Gov. Diane Denish became the first woman to preside over the state Senate as lieutenant governor.
    "I still have butterflies about learning the rules," Denish said afterward. "But it was fun. I enjoyed it."
    Denish noted that all 24 Democratic senators and all but two Republican senators voted Tuesday to re-elect Sen. Richard Romero, D-Albuquerque, as Senate president pro tem.
    The near-unanimous vote for Romero was in stark contrast to two years ago when Romero first became pro tem when he and two other Democrats joined with all 18 Senate Republicans to boot now-Senate Majority Leader Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque, from the Senate's top position.
    "We're all on board with Richard Romero now," Garcia said. "We want to work with this governor to get things accomplished. United we stand, divided we fall; and none of us wants to fall."
    In the House, Lujan was re-elected speaker, the top position in that chamber, by acclamation.