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Thursday, March 20, 2003

Gov. Awaits Moneymaking Measures

By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
    SANTA FE Gov. Bill Richardson is applying pressure to the Legislature to finish work on two revenue-producing measures to help cover proposed spending in the budget.
    Richardson, at a news conference on Wednesday, said he might have to veto a budget package unless the Legislature soon gives final approval to a bill to increase the cigarette tax and a proposal to make more tobacco settlement revenues available for general government expenditures.
    "I am not a rubber-stamp governor to a Democratic Legislature, as I think many are finding out. I am vetoing bills," Richardson said.
    He appealed to the Legislature "to fulfill its obligation to send me a balanced budget and one that addresses the pressing needs of New Mexico's children, our schools and our water-planning efforts."
    The governor also is unhappy that lawmakers didn't provide as much money as he requested for several of his initiatives, including expanding child-care assistance to lower-income families, creating a teacher in-centive program, truancy prevention grants and new judgeships to handle water cases.
    Richardson faces a Friday evening deadline to sign or veto the main budget bill, which allocates nearly $4.1 billion for public education and government programs ranging from courts to the governor's office. There's a Saturday morning deadline for a bill that provides for about $70 million in spending on programs and services this year and next year.
    Without the legislation to provide extra money, Richardson said, the budget is out of balance. Spending in the main budget bill exceeds projected revenues next year by about $60 million. The state would have to dip into its cash reserves to cover the proposed spending unless the revenue-producing bills are enacted or economic growth generated greater-than-anticipated revenue collections.
    The governor's top budget official, James Jimenez, secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration, said the problem was one of timing. The governor must make decisions on the budget before the Legislature adjourns at noon Saturday.
    Lawmakers assembled the budget on the assumption that several tax and revenue bills would pass, providing as much as $107 million next year.
    The cigarette tax increase would raise an additional $35 million for the state's general budget account. A proposal to change the handling of tobacco settlement revenues would provide $43 million this year and $37 million next year.
    Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, chairman of the House committee that handles the budget, said he expected the cigarette tax bill to win final approval. House and Senate negotiators are still trying to reach an agreement on a tobacco settlement revenue compromise.