SANTA FE -- Politics is often called the art of compromise, but compromise is in short supply in New Mexico politics these days. The net effect is a state buried at the bottom of nearly every quality of life list. In the latest round of a running battle between Republican Gov. Gary Johnson and Democrats who dominate the legislature, New Mexico is without a budget while Johnson threatens a government shutdown and the Democrats call him a dictator.
Every other year including this one, New Mexico has a thirty-day legislative session. Constitutionally, the only task that must be accomplished during the session is passage of a state budget. Last year, during a sixty-day session where all topics are open for debate, the governor vetoed the budget twice, forcing a special session.
This year, history is repeating itself. In the thirty day legislative session just wrapped up, the Democrat-led legislature sent two different three and a half billion dollar budgets to the governor. Johnson vetoed both. So a special session is set for the end of this month.
What's behind this political tug-of-war? Well, fundamental differences about the direction New Mexico should take. For example, the Democrats want to put more than $90 million more into public education. Johnson, a staunch supporter of school vouchers, says that's too much. Instead, he says some of that money needs to be used for a personal income tax cut, to fund prisons, and to fund agencies he says are underfunded.
Johnson says if he were to sign the budget the Democrats want, New Mexicans would see a tax-hike. Democrats say that's baloney. At the heart of the fight are New Mexico's prisons. Prisons have been a divisive issue in the state since Johnson succeeded in turning the operation of many of them over to for-profit companies. He said this would save the state money. The Democrats were against it from the beginning. So, whenever the governor seeks more money for prisons, his foes respond "What about the savings you promised us?."
The partisan bickering shows no sign of ending. Johnson says he's not optimistic that the legislature will come up with a sound budget when it meets in special session at the end of the month. "A lot of agencies are going to run out of money. Prisons are going to run out of money. If they are not funded, yeah, I'll shut down state government," he says.
Johnson followed up on this warning by threatening to let prisoners out of jail if the state can't pay to house them.
The governor's tough rhetoric has the Democrats fuming. "We can't be this way in a democratic society. We didn't elect him dictator, we elected him governor. It's his job to compromise with us," says Rep. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque.
Democratic House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, who also represents Albuquerque, accuses Johnson of sounding a false alarm to make his political opponents look bad. Sanchez says he's confident a compromise budget will be hammered out in less than a week after the special session convenes.
Sanchez told the Albuquerque Journal that Johnson's shutdown threats have "created a contrived crisis that unduly alarms our state workers and threatens those that depend on the services they provide."
"He's telling the public something that is not factual and is not accurate," Sanchez said.