Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Signal Problems

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Saturday morning my blogging buddy, video assistant, “BOB” beast of burden, Ched MacQuigg and I set off for Santa Fe on the RailRunner, lugging our equipment to cover the legislature.

Upon arriving at the Los Ranchos/Journal Center station, we observed rail workers at four different crossings. They were working on the signals, which delayed the train about 20 minutes.

As the train slowly approached, having had to stop at every signal before proceeding, the workers used the red flag law the oldest motor vehicle statute, to stop auto traffic.

The delay didn’t cause any real problems for us because Governor Bill Richardson had postponed his announced call of the Legislature time from noon until 2 P.M.

Yet the train’s signal problems accurately presaged what would transpire at the Capitol.

As the appointed start time came and went, Senate Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, announced the governor’s proclamation, calling for a special session, was going to be delayed by at least another hour. The whispered start time was, more likely 3:30.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D - Hidalgo, Luna and Sierra Counties, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, right, checks his watch. Sen. George Munoz D - Cibola and McKinley Counties stands behind Sanchez.

As the Senate came to order, Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D- Dona Ana County, the Majority Whip displayed her unofficial symbol of office, stated as being a “bullwhip”.

President Pro Tempore Sen. Timothy Jennings, D- Chaves, Eddy, Lincoln and Otero Counties took exception. The Roswell rancher gave a descriptive lesson of the differences between a bullwhip and the carriage whip Garcia displayed.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Richardson’s proclamation quotes the authority in the State Constitution for the governor to call a special session under Article four, Legislative Department.

Sec. 6. [Special session; extraordinary session.]

Special sessions of the legislature may be called by the governor, but no business shall be transacted except such as relates to the objects specified in this proclamation.

In his final paragraph the governor wrote:
Legislation concerning the objects in this proclamation shall not include measures reducing salaries or raising tax rates, reducing or eliminating tax credits, rebates, exceptions, or deductions, or imposing new taxes.
Instantly, there is a Constitutional crisis.

The governor is permitted to identify and narrow the scope of “object,” but then he tried to tie the hands of a co-equal branch of government, the legislature, from going about its business with the tools they have at hand.

Governments are populated by huge numbers of people who manage all sorts of projects representing large sums of money.

If the costs of projects are eliminated, then it stands to reason that the people needed to administer those projects can also be eliminated. It’s a function of efficiency. But, not by the governor’s reckoning.

Since the November 2008 State Employee hiring freeze, state government has 1,300 fewer workers, but Richardson has increased the size of the Executive Department to over 800 exempt political appointments.

The House recessed and met in the Legislative Finance Committee room to be briefed on the latest numbers by the Legislative Council Service Director Paula Tackett, left, and Department of Finance and Administration Cabinet Secretary Katherine Miller, right.

A clear difference of opinion emerged listening to the take from the two branches of government.

Speaker of the House Rep. Ben Lujan, D- Santa Fe County unabashedly supports the wishes of Richardson. He sat in front of the chamber facing his fellow members watching them intently.

The topic was made so dense that it could put some of them to sleep. Representatives Roberto "Bobby" Gonzales, D- Taos County, Henry Kiki Saavedra, D- Bernalillo and Valencia Counties and Representative Larry Larrañaga, R- Bernalillo County listen to a lecture on state financial accounting practices in the procurement process, sidestepping the issue.

When asked to give examples of how long it takes to close the books on a particular year, Miller said that FY-2007 still had municipal capital improvement projects being submitted for payment.

The legislators were curious about the depth of the budget problem. The answers given did not help their understanding.

“I hope we didn’t pay this guy to tell us we’re broke,” Rep. Al Park, D- Bernalillo County said of one of the speakers.

Is the legislature bound by the governor’s interpretation of how to address the ”objects,” or may legislators use their Constitutional powers to write bills to solve the problem as they see the “object,” asked Republican House member, Janice Arnold-Jones. Bernalillo County

“This isn’t the first governor,” LCS head Tackett said, to try to limit the legislature's authority under the constitution. Tackett recommended legislators use their Constitutional powers as they see them, not as Richardson sees them.

Arnold-Jones said in an interview, some of the information was just wrong. She pointed out that representatives, specifically Rep, Rhonda King, D- Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Torrance Counties, above, did not need a class in the procurement process and that the briefing confused other legislators from both patties.

Arnold-Jones spoke with Rep. Gloria Vaughn, R- Otero County while Rep. Edward Sandoval, D- Bernalillo County speaks with Rep. Jim Trujillo, D- Santa Fe County.

Rep. James White, R- Bernalillo County who replaced City of Albuquerque mayor- elect and former Rep. Richard “R.J.” Berry, had only three days to prepare for the special session; little wonder the information left him scratching his head.


Part of the problem arose because when Richardson came into office, seven years ago, he changed accounting practices and mixed the way revenue and expenditures were dealt with. It has to do with accounting for cash on hand, versus what will be accrued over the fiscal year based on normal tax and fee revenue projections. The problem of a recession throws all that in the hole. Richardson’s budgets, approved by the legislature, are spending more money than the tax system is bringing in.

Another factor in getting into the crisis and a possible solution as explained to the House members was the concept of sponge bonds. My blogging buddy Joe Monahan points out New Mexico’s syndicated columnist Jay Miller’s take on this revenue scheme.

My Take

Richardson’s response in calling a special session is to deflect “political” blame for how up to a billion dollars of a six billion dollar budget has been overspent, without taking any responsibility.

To Richardson it is the equivalent of the old joke, “I can’t be out of money in my bank account; I still have checks left in my book.”

It’s not like this recession snuck up on anybody. The slowed economy is directly responsible for reduced revenues. The average citizen tightened their belt long ago, delaying purchases, reassessing investments, scaling back on luxury items and recreational activities.

Not State government, they have spent and continue to spend as if the economy never hit a bump, let alone fell into a sinkhole.

I didn’t pick on the Elephant Butte boat incident at the time, because of all the legal nuances, it didn’t quite add up.

However, metaphorically now it does.

The Labor Day weekend boat ride was for the entertainment of Governor Bill Richardson.

Richardson’s Chief of Staff Brian Condidt, right, was at the helm. He shipwrecked, doing great financial damage to citizens' property. The governor was asleep while Department of Finance and Administration Cabinet Secretary Miller was also aboard.

The governmental crew abandoned ship, was whisked away by at least two New Mexico State Police Dignitary Protection Detail officers, leaving the owner, “taxpayer” holding the bag.

The top aid is taking the blame for the most minor charge that can be proven, even though he won’t even show his face in court, hidden by his lawyers.

Richardson’s arrogance and lack of actual leadership harken memories of the Exxon Valdez’ Captain Joseph Hazelwood, drunk below deck, while the ship’s first mate navigated treacherous waters of the Prince William Sound, hitting a reef and doing damage that, 20 years later, still lingers. The punishment restricted by the supreme court to a mere fraction of the value of the environmental damage left behind.

Our ship of state is now on the rocks, and Richardson won’t take responsibility.

The Aside

The New Mexico Independent on line news group has thrown all its eggs in one basket and is providing wall-to-wall coverage with its full staff covering the legislature.

The group was headed by Editor Gwyneth Doland. She was accompanied by Senior Writer Trip Jennings, Reporter/bloggers Marjorie Childress and Matthew Reichbach in covering the special session. Las Cruces based Senior Writer Heath Haussamen was missing.

There were a number of associates of NMI also present. In addition to the traditional media, the bloggers seemed to have the run of the press galleries. The diversity of bloggers was readily apparent. Though the political spectrum is widespread, this group has intertwining connections.

The picture left in the Senate print media gallery, shows: Doland, bottom, Reichbach, who also wrties the NMFBIHO blog, freelance NMI columnist, New Media Director for Center for Civic Policy and Communication Director for Center for Civic Action, Tracy Dingmann, who also writes for CCA’s Clearly New Mexico blog and ABQ Journal Watch. Next to her, is NMI’s Childress, who also writes for M-Pyre, then KKOB AM Radio’s Political Reporter Peter St. Cyr who blogs under What’s the Word?, freelances for Haussamen’s nmpolitics.net, and at the top is MacQuigg, who writes Diogenes' Six.

MacQuigg and I had agreed to provide a video feed of the Senate through NMI, but discovered a signal problem of our own. A damaged connector in the camera has sidelined us from providing the link. We are working on correcting the problem as quickly as possible and hope to be back in service soon.

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