Entities prep for legislative session, play defense

CNJ staff photo: Kevin Wilson Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, speaks during Thursday morning’s legislative breakfast as Wells Fargo Bank. The meeting brings together state legislators from the area with entities looking for funding.

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer

New Mexicans can’t expect smart budget building without smart prioritization. With that in mind, Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis asked, what’s our No. 1 priority?

Education, one voice said. Job creation, a few seconds later. Don’t raise taxes on small businesses. Health care, too.

With that, the last 20 seconds of Thursday’s legislative breakfast summed up the hour that preceded it: Everybody has a No. 1 priority, and nobody wants theirs cut.

The morning event, which also served as the Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce’s December meeting, brought legislators and entities together to pin down priorities as the 2011 Legislature gets set to meet with an expected budget deficit of $450 million.

Heads of those entities understood the terms. Many asked to protect current programs and to preserve “hold harmless” legislation, meaning measures would stay in place to make up lost gross receipt tax revenues resulting from exempting most food and medical services.

Attending were four of Curry County and Clovis’ legislators, including Rep.-Elect George Dodge Jr., D-Santa Rosa, who joked that he nominated himself president of the incoming freshman class, but there wasn’t another member and he couldn’t get a second.

Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, was not in attendance.

With Gov.-Elect Susana Martinez standing firm on campaign vows to neither raise taxes nor make cuts to education or Medicare, Beverlee McClure said, there are few places to make cuts.

“If you keep that promise, you’ve got 15 percent of that budget to look at,” said McClure, former president of Clovis Community College and secretary of Higher Education, who is the CEO of the Association of Commerce and Industry.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, knows there aren’t good solutions and that a 60-day session may not be enough.

“Education is a huge priority; the difficult thing is it’s a huge part of the budget,” Kernan said. “I’m not sure we’re going to have enough time to address all the things we need to address.”

Whatever the Legislature does address, school representatives made their requests assuming all bets are off on protecting education.

“Our stance is we’re down to the bone already,” Clovis Municipal Schools Superintendent Terry Myers said. “We can’t stand any more cuts.”

Myers said the area would be bolstered by construction provided $80 million over the next three years is protected for upgrades he feels are necessary with population ramping up at Cannon Air Force Base. Hundreds of personnel arrive each year for its Special Operations Command mission, he said, and many of them have children in the early grade levels.

John Neibling, president of Clovis Community College, pointed out that the two-year institution is seeing enrollment raise to its high point in 2004, months before Cannon — then operating a fighter wing — was recommended for closure.

“Our perspective is this: Recognize the growth, and minimize the cuts,” Neibling said.

Dodge said he understood the educator perspective after spending three decades in education. He added that when he was principal at Santa Rosa High School in 1997, CCC was the only institution that would work with the school on concurrent enrollment.

“I’ll be forever grateful for that,” he said.

McClure said New Mexico unemployment is around 8.2 percent, below the 9.6 percent national average. But she said while Curry County usually has 3 to 4 percent unemployment, unemployment is as high as 19 percent in Luna County. Many of those are about to see unemployment insurance benefits run out, and insurance payments for the unemployed could more than triple to stabilize the pot.