COMMENTARY: With oil and gas revenues drying up, our state government’s budget is tanking. We still have to figure out how to make up for money we spent last fiscal year that we didn’t have. This year’s shortfall is shaping up to be in the range of $300 million to $500 million. And the longer-term outlook, because we’ve failed to diversify our economy beyond oil and gas, remains “gloomy.”
Enter the election-year posturing.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, hasn’t agreed to call a special session to address our budget woes even though it seems plainly obvious we need to do that. If we call a session, she apparently wants a closed-door deal worked out in advance so lawmakers can meet in public for a few hours, rubber stamp the deal, and go back home.
No transparency. No opportunity for public scrutiny. No public involvement in finding solutions to problems that so dramatically affect the public.
No opportunity for anything but budget cuts to creep into the solution.
As a group, Democrats are doing only a little better. Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, authored a commentary stating that New Mexico “is experiencing a budget crisis that rivals the crisis we experienced during the Great Recession.” He’s right. But he put the onus on the governor to call a session without mentioning the fact that the Legislature can call itself into session as well.
So-called extraordinary sessions require the votes of three-fifths of legislators in each chamber, the House and the Senate. That means some Republicans would have to be on board — particularly House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro. I realize Democrats might not be able to get such agreement so the Legislature can act in the governor’s absence, but if the situation is so dire, why aren’t we trying?
Is the budget situation really that critical, or is this just another way to try to tarnish Martinez’s legacy before the 2018 election, when some suspect she may run against U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat?
The Democratic Party of New Mexico even went so far as to criticize Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, a Republican, on Wednesday for not calling a special session while Martinez was out of the state and he was in charge. When Democrats could instead be working to organize a session themselves.
But back to Martinez for a moment. Absent any agreement to hold a special session to rubber-stamp a deal hashed out in secret, the governor issued a directive on Tuesday to executive-branch agencies under her control to “immediately prepare for and begin reducing” general fund spending by “at least” 5 percent.
She also urged legislative, judicial, and executive agencies not under her control to do the same.
Five percent is a massive amount of money. What’s going to be cut? Will there be layoffs? We don’t know. Again, no public vetting of the decision, no opportunity for transparency, input, accountability. Though New Mexico State University’s efforts to cut $12.1 million from the school’s budget have been far from perfect, at least there’s been some level of public involvement in that process.
On a deeper level, the need to make cuts now — whether through executive action that isn’t well thought out, secret negotiations with legislators, or a public legislative process that involves New Mexicans — is one more sign of how bad things are in our state. The fact that we’ve reached this point represents an immense failure on the part of government.
We had lots of extra money a decade ago. We had an opportunity to diversify our economy so we could better weather an oil-and-gas downturn that was inevitable at some point.
And, to be fair, we tried, through offering film incentives, building a spaceport, incentivizing renewable energy, developing an industrial park along the border, and loads and loads of tax cuts. The results are mixed. The benefits, to date, aren’t nearly enough.
The situation is as serious as Soules and others claim. Martinez seems to be admitting that as well with her order to reduce spending. There’s a way forward, but it’s not what we’re doing now.
The self-proclaimed most transparent governor in history needs to drop her resistance to sunshine and embrace a special session where lawmakers publicly deliberate how to move forward. Some legislators, including Democratic Sen. John Arthur Smith of Deming, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, also need to drop their resistance to transparency.
Democrats need to treat the situation as the serious problem it is instead of an opportunity to score political points. Instead of criticizing others for not calling the Legislature into session, organize the efforts to convene yourself.
This isn’t middle school. We’re talking about people’s jobs and pensions. Funding for police and behavioral health services and schools and health care is at stake. What you’re doing matters.