February 20, 2003
Richardson Still Enjoying Honeymoon With Legislature
By Barry Massey
The Associated Press
SANTA FE Midway through his first legislative session, Gov. Bill Richardson's winning streak continues.
"I think the honeymoon is still relatively there, although it's starting to fade a little bit," Richardson said this week.
The Democratic governor has plenty of reasons to be pleased with the reception his initiatives are getting in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
He quickly achieved a major victory with enactment of a five-year, $360 million package to cut personal income taxes and lower taxes on capital gains.
Still to be decided in the last half of the session are a series of significant issues on which Richardson is trying to negotiate agreements with the Legislature:
Medicaid and the proposed use of tobacco settlement money to pay for growth in the program: So far, the governor has met the most resistance to his plan to raid tobacco revenues to pay for Medicaid and other budget increases.
A public school improvement package and financing for public education: The package includes the governor's proposal for 6 percent pay raises for teachers and a requirement for school districts to tap into their cash reserves and re-allocate a portion of their budgets for classroom spending.
A budget to finance general government operations in the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Proposals to help curb drunken driving, including tough penalties for repeat offenders.
"So far I am pleased with the pace," said Richardson.
The administration has 70 bills in the Legislature. "All of them are moving in some fashion, some faster than others," said Richardson.
Anti-smoking groups and some House members are fighting Richardson's proposal to divert all tobacco settlement revenue into the state's general budget account a move that would allow the money to pay for Medicaid and other general government programs in the future.
"I think, unless the tobacco settlement funds are addressed properly, we're going to have serious problems with our budget," said Richardson.
Enactment of the tax measure the centerpiece of the governor's plan for economic development came 24 days after the Legislature convened its 60-day session. Typically, lawmakers approve a budget and then wait until near the end of the session to approve tax cuts.
Even Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., expressed a bit of surprise with the way the tax cut raced through the Legislature.
"I would have never thought that in 45 days the cornerstone would be in place. It is. That is the reform of the tax code," Domenici said at a news conference with Richardson to promote economic development initiatives.
Richardson signed the tax bill 45 days after he took office. For most of the previous eight years, Democrats in the Legislature objected to income tax reductions proposed by Richardson's Republican predecessor, Gary Johnson.
"It was a very, very intensive honeymoon. Now it's just a honeymoon," said Richardson.
Former Gov. Toney Anaya said Richardson has succeeded partly because he offered an extensive agenda to the Legislature and has kept the focus of lawmakers on his initiatives.
"If you provide leadership, the Legislature will respond favorably. You've got the honeymoon. Take advantage of it," said Anaya, a Democrat who served in 1983-86.
Anaya also credits Richardson with being an "excellent political operator."
"He needs to keep open the dialogue with the Legislature, and he's done that," said Anaya. "That's one thing Governor Johnson would not do, for whatever reason."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Barry Massey has covered state government and politics in New Mexico since 1993.