COMMENTARY: It will be a relief to leave 2016 behind – the ugly, never-ending national election, the state revenue news that just got worse as the year went on, Zika, Brexit, and on and on. But we’ll be carrying a lot of the baggage of 2016 into 2017.
Indeed, New Mexico is just starting to see the consequences of what might be the state’s worst budget crisis. Lawmakers have shifted funds, cancelled projects, and cut, cut, cut.
But even as they pore over the spreadsheets calculating how much to squeeze, budget drafters know, abstractly, those cuts are going to hurt someone.
Now the abstract is reality. Recent cuts to services for the elderly mean some homebound elderly will have to wait to get delivered meals. It is possible those on the waiting list have family or others who can help. But for how long?
In some parts of the state, indigent defendants, already at a disadvantage in the legal system, can get no legal help because the public defender says it cannot provide new clients with their constitutionally guaranteed “effective representation.”
And those are just the immediate problems. The courts themselves are stretched so thin that some court officials – perhaps more candid than administrators in the executive branch – are concerned the justice system will soon be neither a system nor just.
With almost every agency stretched just as thin, the consequences are just as dramatic: too few protectors for vulnerable populations, too few officers on the streets or in the state prisons, too few inspectors to watch water and sewer systems, too few quality teachers in the classroom, too few health providers.
In addition, there is a very gray area between “nice to have” and “gotta have.” State parks might seem like a luxury but not to the communities that rely on the economic activity. State museums might seem like an indulgence but New Mexico’s rich heritage is priceless.
New Mexico has never been a state of luxury or indulgence. With the politically influenced special session resulting in only band-aid solutions and with no way to solve these problems quickly, lawmakers will be forced to scramble through another solvency plan during the regular legislative session in January.
But New Mexico public officials should resolve for the New Year to also work together on a bipartisan plan to solve this budget crisis and put New Mexico on sound financial footing for the future.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairs the Legislative Finance Committee.