COMMENTARY: In January, I voted for a state budget totaling $6.2 billion for the fiscal year of 2017. When I explained my vote on the Senate floor, I predicted that volatile oil and gas prices, as well as unrealistic revenue forecasts by the governor and Republican budget drafters, would force the Legislature to come back in a special session to fix an unsustainable budget.
Recently a report on our fiscal outlook revealed that New Mexico had a $150 million funding shortfall for the fiscal year that just ended on June 30. That means the state spent money that it did not actually have. And the outlook for FY 2017, which began on July 1, appears to be even worse, with an expected shortfall of between $300 and $500 million.
The New Mexico Constitution does not allow for a budget to be unbalanced. We cannot spend money we do not have.
The trouble began when the House of Representatives Republican majority passed a budget that was not balanced. More money was allocated to state expenses than projected revenue would support. Senate Democrats afterwards were tasked with trimming costs in areas the House refused to address. Democrats worked successfully to make sure that the budget protected our priorities of education and health care, law enforcement and corrections.
The governor’s budget experts assured us that there would be $200 million more available than in the prior year, and that the budget would be balanced. These were the circumstances under which the current state spending plan for fiscal year 2017 was agreed to.
Only the governor has the power to call the Legislature back into a special session to address the budget problem. Along with many legislators of both parties, and citizens from every part of our state, I say she must do it now and without delay. To put off our problems until the January legislative session is a disservice to the people of New Mexico who elected us, and who expect us to be responsible.
As a Democrat representing Senate District 37, I will work to ensure that the budget is not balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable families and children. I, along with my Senate Democratic colleagues, will protect public schools and higher education from any further cuts.
We understand that our children must get a high quality education to have the opportunity to compete for the jobs of tomorrow. Innovative companies that offer attractive jobs require an excellent public education system in order to thrive. It is essential that we deliver.
We must also protect health care, mental health services, and child care. If we are truly committed to lifting New Mexico from the bottom of most lists relating to poverty, education and child well-being, then we must protect the essential programs that address these issues.
The governor and the House of Representatives must come to understand that we cannot tax-cut our way to prosperity. New Mexico is experiencing a budget crisis that rivals the crisis we experienced during the Great Recession. We can find solutions if the Senate, the House and the administration work together to find common ground. The Senate is ready to act.
Bill Soules, a Democrat from Las Cruces, represents District 37 in the New Mexico Senate.