New Mexico’s New Legislature Faces Immediate Budget Battle

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The dust from Election Day has settled and New Mexicans now know who will be in positions of power in the New Mexico state legislature.

Democrats returned to their familiar place as the majority party in the New Mexico House of Representatives. Republicans watched their 2014 house majority slip away this past election with Democrats now holding a 38-32 seat advantage. Until 2014, Democrats had a 60 year run holding the majority.

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Senate remains in Democratic control, but that won’t make lawmaking easy when the legislature convenes next month.

“The budget is the overwhelming priority,” said House Representative Antonio Maestas (D) during a phone interview.

According to the New Mexico Political Report, the state is looking at a $69 million deficit this year and it could increase in the future.

New Mexico relies heavily on oil and gas revenue for the state budget, according to the State of New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee. Oil and gas revenue is down this year to $232 million from $293 million in 2015.

All taxes go into a general fund. Rep. Maestas said the state normally has 10-to-12 percent of money in reserve from that fund. With taxes on oil taking a hit and the state trying to keep the government running, the reserve amount is currently around 2 percent.

“It’s possible that oil and gas will come back up, but at some point you got to diversify the revenue sources,” said Sandra Fish, data journalist for New Mexico in Depth. “You can’t be totally dependent on oil and gas revenue.”

Fish says the coming legislative session will be preoccupied with budget issues.

“The economy is faltering, unemployment is high,” Fish said. “At some point there needs to be some bigger thinking here too on how you improve the economy and what kind of business you want to attract here.”

As Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, it’s likely they’ll look at cutting expenses but may also be looking at raising new revenues, including an internet sales tax.

But that may not go over well with the governor, Republican Susana Martinez, who has resisted tax hikes during her six years in office.

“What’s killing state government and what’s hindering our ability to move the economy forward is the no new tax pledge,” Maestas said.

Maestas says this is from years of politicians running on a platform of not raising taxes. He says now that the bills are due, changes have to be made.

Gov. Martinez cannot run for another term and Fish says it may take “some of the politics out of it” when it comes to the two parties working together.

Rep. Maestas said because raising taxes has not been an option, New Mexico has been in the habit of cutting budgets across the board. The legislature cut 2-to-3-percent from the higher education budget earlier this year.

“Every percent we cut higher education, it raises tuition a percent and a half,” Maestas said.

One of the issues Maestas says he wants to focus on is funding the criminal justice system in Albuquerque.

“Crime is a big issue in Albuquerque but yet we cut the criminal courts 3 percent,” Maestas said. “We cut the district attorney’s office 3 percent.

Maestas says these cuts are not good government at this particular time.

“Do you want to fire teachers and let prisoners out of prison?” Maestas said. “It’s almost to that point.”

Ideas Maestas has in regards to how raising taxes could help the state budget include a 3-to-4 cent tax increase on gas, raising income taxes on individuals who earn over $150,000 and closing other tax loops throughout the state tax code.

“If we can’t consider reasonable tax increases on the margin to fund basic governmental functions then we have no business being in state government,” Maestas said.

Adding to the challenge of governing New Mexico, says Maestas, is that house and senate positions are part time jobs.

“We’re the last of the citizen legislators,” Maestas said, noting the ability other state legislatures have to do their jobs on a full-time basis.

Maestas said it is a challenge to accomplish everything he wants to do without a full-time office or staff assistants.

Maestas says he feels that government has to play a strong role in New Mexico, from education to developing the economy.

New Mexico can either go the way of Wisconsin or Minnesota, he says.

“Wisconsin refuses to raise the minimum wage, refuses to tax people. They cut taxes and their economy is stagnant,” Maestas said. “Minnesota raised taxes on the super affluent, raised minimum wage. Minnesota’s economy is moving forward. Wisconsin’s economy is stagnant.”

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