After 30 days in Santa Fe, the one thing the Legislature was charged with doing — passing a balanced budget — was left undone. It wasn’t entirely their fault. Gov. Bill Richardson hit them with a long list of non-budget proposals — everything from gay marriage to embryonic stem cell research. They became distracted and failed to address the difficult and critical task of closing the state’s $500 million to $600 million budget deficit.
That said, not all the blame for the special session — or the sorry state of the budget debate in Santa Fe — goes to the executive branch. The House of Representatives refused to reduce spending in order to pass a balanced budget. Instead, the House passed a slew of anti-growth tax hikes that would have raised taxes by $400 million.
To keep spending at unsustainable levels, the House voted to raise the gross receipts tax rate statewide by half a cent, increasing the state income tax by 10 percent for couples making over $200,000, eliminating an income tax deduction for payment of federal income taxes available to New Mexico residents who itemize returns, and requiring companies to withhold taxes on out-of-state individuals who earn income in New Mexico, but don’t currently pay taxes on those earnings. The House barely found the stomach to cut spending at all in its $5.6 billion budget, but rolled out plans to increase New Mexicans’ tax burdens by 6 percent in the toughest economy in generations.
The more fiscally conservative Senate did not embrace the economy-harming tax hikes passed in the House. The Senate would have cut spending by about 3 percent while forcing consumers to pay higher gross receipts taxes on certain food items and a regressive, $1 per pack tax hike on cigarettes.
This train wreck produced not a budget, but a special session at $50,000 a day. Little in the way of agreement is on the horizon, while a lame-duck governor (who once labeled himself a “tax-cutter”) tries to shove the House budget down New Mexican throats.
House members should duly note that Richardson does not face re-election. On the other hand, all 72 members of the House must face the voters in November at a time when the mood in New Mexico has turned against higher taxes and big government. State representatives who vote for irresponsible tax hikes will face an unprecedented level of scrutiny and electoral opposition.
Aside from the budgetary fiasco, the untold story of the 2010 legislative session is the presence of a new breed of citizen lobbyist in Santa Fe. Past sessions saw government employees and others looking for more government spending show up in Santa Fe with their hands out. This year, members of various statewide Tea Parties were actively involved in the legislative process. They made their presence known, every day, in the committee rooms and on the Internet.
This did not always sit well with those who are used to controlling the process in Santa Fe with only a few familiar and friendly observers. But these new citizen activists can be proud that they made a positive difference.
For starters, Rep. Gail Chasey’s office told callers it was going to bring in security because callers to her office said they were going to make posters critical of her position on same-day voter registration. In a separate instance, Speaker Ben Lujan left a committee hearing because it was being recorded by Tea Party monitors. Though Lujan left, citizens opposed to high taxes and runaway spending held their ground, and returned day after day without break.
The House in particular should recognize that change is in the air. Just as the phenomena of Barack Obama swept “progressive” Democrats into power in 2008, another wave is building in the deep currents of public opinion. This time we could easily see a wave of anti-tax sentiment sweep out of office those who defend bloated government and vote for more taxes. This purging tide may be just as powerful as the tide so-called progressives rode into office 16 months ago.
Paul Gessing is the President of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.