Thursday, October 22, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup:Blue Ribbon Deja Vu

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October22, 2009

When Gov. Richardson announced this week that he wants to start a “working group” to look at tax changes before the next regular legislative session, it brought back some blue-ribbon memories to some longtime Capitol observers, myself included.

I’m talking about the 2003 Blue Ribbon Tax Commission, a 23-member panel appointed by Richardson, set up to propose sweeping reforms of the state tax system. The Blue Ribbon gang, headed by former state Rep. Jerry Sandel, labored for months to make a lengthy set of recommendations.

People in government often talk about reaching consensus. That definitely was reached in this case. Practically everyone agreed they didn’t like the commission’s final product.

The ink on the commission’s report, which was finalized only days before a planned special “tax-reform” session of the Legislature, had barely dried before it was promptly disowned by the governor.

Richardson said the panel had come up short of his goals of simplifying the tax code and providing some tax relief for working families. But he wasn’t the only one unhappy with the recommendations. Liberals didn’t like it because it didn’t include elimination of the gross-receipts tax on food (an idea eventually approved the following year) or an increase in liquor taxes. Conservatives were upset because the recommendations included a gas-tax increase, motor vehicle excise tax and registration increases, and a higher gross-receipts tax.

Richardson proposed his own tax-reform bill in the late October special session. Oh, but it was no longer a “tax-reform” bill. It was an “economic-growth package” — all 188 pages of it. Whatever its handle, that bill died a lonesome death with virtually no support from any quarter.

In his announcement this week, Richardson said between now and January, “I will convene a working group consisting of legislators, executive staff, members of the business and education communities, and other interested parties to analyze such a package.

“Already in this session there have been some intriguing proposals introduced. However, I believe these must not be injected piecemeal without serious analysis into the present budget calculation but rather should be part of a well-crafted and mapped out package in January.”

The recession-ravaged, busted-budget situation our state government is in now, of course, is far more serious than the situation back in 2003, when the economy was in better shape.
But you have to wonder — will the “working group” fare any better than the blue-ribbon commission?

Best tirade of special session: In the absence of Sen. Shannon Robinson, D-Albuquerque, who was defeated for re-election last year, the intensity and number of good, fun, fiery floor speeches in the Legislature has dwindled to nearly nothing. But on Wednesday, Sen. Richard Martinez, D-EspaƱola, engaged in a tirade that would even give Robinson a run for his money.

During a debate about a measure that would create a mechanism to allow legislators to return 10 percent of their per diem payments from the state, Martinez became passionate.

“Before we nickel and dime everyone for $15 a day, we should look at the abuse of per diems,” Martinez said.

Referring to interim committee meetings, for which lawmakers are paid per diem (currently $159 a day) to attend, Martinez said, “There are some who come in right before lunch, sign the voucher, get their free lunch,” then leave.

This goes on among both Democrats and Republicans, Martinez said. And even freshman legislators “have gotten real good at it,” he said.

Martinez even made a not-so-veiled threat: “I’ve been here nine years,” he said. “I’ve collected a list (of legislators who have abused per diems). It would be very embarrassing if I released this list to the media.”

Martinez declined my request for a copy of that list.