When the 2011 Legislature is gaveled to order Tuesday, there will be a new
governor, a new, more conservative House of Representatives and a chance of a
new speaker of the House. But all present will face an old, familiar problem
-- a gaping shortfall in the state budget.
Both Gov. Susana Martinez and the Legislative Finance Committee have unveiled plans that would fund government without new taxes or layoffs of state workers. That means a new round of spending cuts and belt-tightening on top of pullbacks already forced by the recent economic recession.
Though the two plans are relatively close and both sides last week appeared open to compromise, there are bound to be areas of contention. Nonetheless, while both chambers of the Legislature remain controlled by Democrats, Republican Martinez is expected to face a friendlier session than the ones endured in recent years by her predecessor, Bill Richardson.
For one thing, an incoming governor typically enjoys a "honeymoon" period. Richardson, despite a few minor spats with lawmakers, enjoyed excellent relations with the Legislature during his first session -- and almost all of the major bills he backed eight years ago won passage. In an interview last month, Richardson said that first session was so successful that "I remember thinking, 'Anything is possible.' "
The composition of this Legislature appears more compatible with Martinez than Richardson. The Senate, despite the Democratic numerical advantage, is a relatively conservative body. And the House, thanks to the November election results, will have more Republicans than it's had in decades. There will be 37 Democrats and 33 Republicans.
Every odd-numbered year, the Legislature meets in a 60-day session, as opposed to 30-day sessions held in even-numbered years. Bills introduced in those shorter sessions are supposed to be confined to budget and financial matters -- except for specific topics identified by the governor. But anything goes in 60-day sessions. Legislators can introduce legislation pertaining to any topic.
As in previous years, conversations over dollars and cents will overshadow most other discussions during this session. With a projected shortfall for the fiscal year that starts July 1 estimated at anywhere between $200 million and $452 million, New Mexico is struggling to balance expected revenues and expenses.
Both the governor and the Legislative Finance Committee -- the Legislature's budget arm -- have recommended cutting spending by around 3 percent, including asking state workers to contribute more to the funding of their retirement plans.
Martinez won big in November after saying she wants to cut government, leaving many New Mexicans unsure what to expect from her first budget proposal. In the end, both she and the Legislature recommended spending levels of around $5.4 billion, with her proposal weighing in at $42 million more, a difference of less than 1 percent.
"I think we will be able to come eventually to a meeting of the minds and make sure that New Mexicans are taken care of," Martinez said when she unveiled her plan.
Rep. Luciano "Lucky" Varela, D-Santa Fe, who chairs the Legislative Finance Committee, said much the same thing. "This is a start," he said. "I'm hoping that by the time we get to the end of the session that there will be
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