COMMENTARY: The most recent special session is the result of a budget crisis unlike anything before in New Mexico’s history. There isn’t enough money in the treasury to cover the bills from 2016 that ended in June, and the revenue forecasts for 2017 are well below the amount of money that was budgeted.
Unlike the federal government, we cannot print money and we cannot have a budget that spends more than it takes in. The administration knew the budget wasn’t balanced in March and the extent of the problem became obvious in the following months. Democratic legislators have been calling for a special session to “fix” the problems since this past May and June.
For several weeks Democrat and Republican leaders from the Senate Finance Committee worked to craft fixes to the state’s budget problems. These leaders repeatedly asked the governor and the House Republican leadership to join with them to come up with a budget-balancing plan that would put New Mexico back on solid financial footing. The response from the governor and House Republicans was to reiterate their no-tax-increase pledge.
That isn’t a plan. To be responsible the Senate had no choice but to move forward with a bipartisan plan to resolve our budget crisis and protect New Mexico’s credit rating.
Budget cuts are never easy. The Senate Democrats met to discuss the difficult budget cuts. Everyone understood that all programs would be up for discussion. Everyone had to be open to compromise.
Special sessions are unlike regular sessions. Bills are being drafted and changed on the fly. Amendments are proposed and approved or discarded. The process is very fluid, with lots of trust being put in those who are in charge of negotiating these budget issues.
Unfortunately, it is a terrible way to make laws or balance a budget; there is less public participation, and things get missed, overlooked, snuck in, or just poorly written. It is why a special session should only deal with a very narrow set of issues relating to the budget crisis.
On the first day of the Special Session, the Senate passed a package of budget bills that responsibly address the current crisis in the state. All but one of the bills was passed by the overwhelming majority of the Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike. The Senate fulfilled its responsibility in a little over 12 hours by working in a bipartisan manner for the good of the state.
The Republican-led House was in session for seven days at a cost estimated at $50,000 a day, passed seven of the twelve Senate budget bills with four coming in the last 24 hours. Rather than work on the budget crisis, the governor and House Republicans saw an opportunity to use the budget crisis for political gain in the November election. They chose to use the ugly and heinous crimes to children and police officers as a way to divert attention from the budget crisis toward emotional issues.
By adding the “death penalty” and other crime bills to the special session, the focus on fixing our constitutionally mandated requirement of balancing the budget shifted to debating emotional social issues without allowing for adequate public input.
But that was their intent all along. This is an election year, and “tough-on-crime” bills can be used as a wedge issue for political advantage in the November election. It is unfortunate that House Republicans decided that holding hearings on the crime bills, which can and should wait until January, was more important that dealing with the budget crisis.
The Senate reconvened to consider changes the House made to the budget bills and move the state forward in a responsible and thoughtful manner. The final four bills were passed in 30 minutes after the Senate concurred with House amendments. Hopefully, the governor and House Republicans will abandon their “all-politics-all-the-time” strategy and work with the Senate to find the best solution if the fiscal climate in New Mexico continues to worsen and our economic crisis continues unresolved.
Bill Soules, a Democrat from Las Cruces, represents District 37 in the New Mexico Senate.