Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Grading the Special Session: C-

In a crisis, effective leadership is crucial. Think of John Kennedy drawing the line in the Cuban Missile Crisis; Rudy Giuliani on the streets of New York on September 11; Ronald Reagan staring down striking air traffic controllers. But if leadership is poor in a crisis, things tend to go badly.

The disjointed, acrimonious, and ultimately inadequate special session of the legislature was symptomatic of a leadership vise, if not quite vacuum, that surfaced when the governor was forced to withdraw from a cabinet nomination earlier this year. This humiliation, followed by continuing FBI probes and newspaper scandals, left him with legal, but virtually no moral, authority. His absence from day-to-day government during his presidential run, his obvious desire to leave New Mexico last year, and his growing reputation for boorishness only discredited him further. The strong alliance between the governor and the Speaker of the House, which has sometimes weakened the checks and balances of executive and legislative powers, compromised legislative autonomy beyond recognition during the special session. Under normal times this would not matter. The state has lived with ineffective leadership before. Problem is this leadership crisis emerged just as a serious fiscal crisis was brewing, with revenues plummeting a billion dollars below expenditures, the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.

Thus, the governor’s denial (almost certainly a tactical posture) of the severity of the fiscal deficit, his lavish favoritism toward public education (which embarrassed many responsible school superintendents willing to suffer with everyone else), and his intransigence about leaving tax increases off the table until January—backed up by the considerable powers of the Speaker of the House—left the moderate forces in each chamber fighting defensive skirmishes against Left and Right, unable to obtain traction. The results are just about what one would expect: (a) a barely acceptable (I give them a C-) set of fiscal policies; (b) a dispirited set of legislators frustrated by their inability to serve the public well, facing an upcoming session with the heavy lifting still ahead and who knows what tricks the governor might have up his sleeves.

Needing to fix a $650 million budget shortfall for 2010, the legislature succeeded in fixing only $525 million, and, with reserves down to 3.8%, putting bond ratings in potential peril. Adding insult to injury, the governor publicly criticized the onerous 7.6% burden the legislature imposed on some of his agencies, the product of a light 0.8% cut in the 43% of the budget spent on education. In truth, the legislature, refusing to rebel against the inadequate tools the governor offered them in his proclamation at the last minute, tried hard to solve the fiscal crisis within the governor’s constraints. Their failure to do so was not a failure of effort. It was their willingness to play by the crippling rules of the game the governor offered on a matter of grave fiscal policy.

One casualty in this crisis of leadership, then, is good fiscal policy. Another, perhaps even more important, is our trust in the ability of this legislature to take charge when the executive branch falters. Particularly frustrating is the knowledge that the fiscal fate of the state in January is likely to be determined by a discredited governor, whose engagement with the current fiscal reality in New Mexico is tenuous at best, and who will not be held accountable for his actions in the elections of November 2010.

There were efforts in the special session to develop legislative autonomy, but they were amateurish and ideologically motivated toward outcomes, more than unleashing shackles. Liberals in the House proposed tax increases as a means of holding down cuts, ignoring the governor’s explicit veto threat. Attractive as a means of restoring autonomy, however, this alienated Republicans and conservative Democrats, the very coalition that elected Tim Jennings President of the Senate. Senate moderates and Conservatives, now complicit in staying in the box the governor had placed them in, ruled tax increase proposals not germane, voting them down. As if to prove they were more interested in outcomes than in principle, Liberals then launched verbal attacks on Jennings and Finance Chair John A. Smith, but accepted defeat, showing no stomach for confronting the governor to change his proclamation, which at least would have driven home their unhappiness with the rules. By this time the NEA and AFT had been mobilized and the ensuing cacophony drowned out all concerns about the rules of the game.

Proposals were also floated for the legislature to call itself into extraordinary session, which would have freed them from the governor’s proclamation, and, later, when the poor outcome was clear, to extend the session through a short recess that would allow a firmer response to surface. But in the end fear of the governor’s wrath stopped these in their tracks. If the governor has lost his moral authority to lead, he can still impose, as long as the Speaker continues to protect him and the rank and file refuse to rebel.

Legislators: the constitution holds you responsible for the state’s purse strings. If you delegate these to a governor, you are still responsible for the outcome. Under the circumstance voters are likely to forgive your inadequacies. The governor dealt you a sorry hand. But don’t try to blame the outcome of the 2010 session on the governor. He won’t be on the ballot, but you will be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good leadership in NM politics has been lacking for too long. Yet, it’s troubling that Richardson continues to tout his achievements in full view of New Mexico’s continued dismal ranking in many areas including education.
So, where’s the progress?

The $400M spent for the Rail Runner system may have been better spent for education in New Mexico, but it wouldn’t have stood out enough for Richardson’s ego. As the Rio Grande Foundation states, “. . . the coming twelve months will show whether the Rail Runner was as bad a deal for taxpayers as predicted, or an even worse boondoggle than anyone had expected.”

Not too long ago, we learned the deficit would be around $350M, now it has soared to $650M! This assumes the problem prone finance system the state uses for its accounting is working like it is supposed to. In any event, it would be interesting to know where it all went besides salaries.