New Mexico Vetoes Denounced as Political Payback

Published June 1, 2006

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) recently used his line-item veto powers to cut $269 million in spending out of the state’s FY 2007 budget. Richardson issued his vetoes on March 8 in what he called “an effort to restore fiscal responsibility.”

Lauded as Fiscal Conservative

To the governor’s supporters, the vetoes were an example of Richardson living up to his reputation as a fiscal conservative.

James Jimenez, Richardson’s secretary of finance, made that point in a post-veto op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal on March 17. Jimenez wrote, “Tough choices had to be made to restore fiscal balance to the state’s budget because the Legislature’s budget package would have spent needed reserves down below 5 percent; created a $133 million deficit in the appropriation account; and misdirected funds already dedicated to education reform, emergencies and disasters.”

Critics of Richardson, especially those whose projects were cut by the line-item vetoes, took a very different view. In a March 17 article in the Farmington Daily-Times, Sen. Rod Adair (R-Farmington) scoffed at the governor’s veto claims and called him a “congenital liar.”

Adair charged that under Richardson, “school children are not considered as individuals. The criteria [for the vetoes and approved spending] were whether they live in a district whose legislator is a Democrat or a Republican.”

Gov. Doles Out $414M

Legislators in both parties noted Richardson himself distributed $414 million in funding, while 102 legislators had to split about half that amount among themselves. They said this indicates the lawmakers, not the governor, were acting in a fiscally responsible manner.

Rep. Dan Foley (R-Roswell) said he was “particularly incensed” over Richardson’s veto of $57,000 to provide global positioning systems for New Mexico’s National Guard troops in Iraq while Richardson called for and received $75,000 to fund a state Office of Music.

Adjutant Gen. Kenny Montoya of the New Mexico National Guard said of the vetoed funding, “While legislators had good intentions in passing the appropriation, procedurally it was incorrect and it was unnecessary because it is the responsibility of the federal government to equip guard troops in overseas combat.”

Veto Pen Punishes, Rewards

Foley consistently has been the most outspoken Richardson critic among state legislators, and he apparently paid for it by losing 67 percent of the targeted spending he requested, more than any other legislator. But he was by no means alone, according to an analysis of the governor’s vetoes published March 26 by the Albuquerque Journal.

According to the Journal‘s analysis, Sen. Tim Jennings (D-Roswell), who strongly opposed Richardson-supported legislation that would have raised the state’s minimum wage to $7.50 by 2009, lost 44 percent of his projects. Sen. Bernadette Sanchez (D-Albuquerque) opposed a payday loan bill supported by the governor and lost 47 percent of her projects.

Conversely, those who supported Richardson throughout the legislative session held on to all or most of their projects.

Priorities Puzzle

The inconsistency of the vetoes struck many observers as evidence of political motives.

Richardson stripped out $50,000 for educational technology in Roswell, but approved $1 million for a flight simulator at Balloon Fiesta Park. He vetoed $90,000 allocated for Berrendo Middle School in southeastern New Mexico, but approved $300,000 for an NFL “feasibility study.” And he vetoed money for new computers at a school in Lovington, in the southeast corner of the state, but approved $4 million for new filmmaking facilities and programs at other schools across the state.

The governor’s proposed 2007 budget called for an increase in general fund spending of more than 8 percent–well above the combined rates of inflation and population growth in the state. His top priorities included $318 million for a new commuter rail project, $100 million for a first-of-its-kind spaceport to be used by space tourists, and $12 million to build an indoor-outdoor equestrian facility for rodeo and horse events.

Paul J. Gessing ([email protected]) is president of the Rio Grande Foundation in Tijeras, New Mexico.