Richardson To Face New Mexico Voters Again

School reform, trust funds, and the

Gov. Bill Richardson will be facing the voters in November. The special election could turn out to be a vote of confidence — or no confidence.

The governor’s school reform amendment is on its way to the special election ballot. If it’s ratified November, he’ll get the power to hire and fire the state superintendent of schools, and the State School Board would become an elected body with no apparent powers.

A related bill speeding through the legislative session would make a similar change on the local level, transferring by statue some of the management powers of school district boards to local school superintendents.

The constitutional amendment would reverse the New Mexico tradition of a divided executive branch. The immediate issue is school reform, but Richardson’s popular support will be on the line.

A second hot ticket on the constitutional amendment ballot would increase the percentage of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund going to schools. It’s another school-reform issue, namely the money to do what Richardson wants done, without a tax increase. But it could also could get caught in a net of side issues.

Chief among them is the dissipation of a fund created by the Ferguson Act in 1898. The fund declined from $7.9 billion on June 30, 2000, to $6.7 billion on June 30, 2002. That’s greatest continuous dollar loss in its history: $1.2 billion, and this fiscal year looks like another loser.

From the ordinary voter’s perspective, if you keep making distributions from a fund with a negative return, you are spending the corpus. Conservative money managers have always called the Permanent Fund an endowment. More and more legislators like to call it a “rainy day fund” and then add, “It’s raining.”

The net of side issues on the use of permanent fund money could include a bill on its way to the governor that would authorize the State Investment Council to invest up to $56 million dollars in paintings and musical instruments made by old masters. Sen. Shannon Robinson, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor, said he was convinced by some art dealers that these investments could return 12 per cent a year. The Senate joked around about buying Elvis mementos and whether certain senators with double chins should be allowed to play the state’s future Stradivarius violins.

The atmosphere of frivolity could affect the public’s attitude toward any “raid” on the venerable Permanent Fund, even though the Robinson art bill affects only the Severance Tax Permanent Fund, which lost $769 million in market value in two years. The same State Investment Council watches both.

The fault is the stock market, not the management of longtime State Investment Officer Phil Archibeck, who was fired by Richardson in his inaugural house cleaning. Archibeck did the job on a final salary a little over $108,000. The salaries of his replacements also could become one of those side issues that affect the special election.

In the internal communications of the New Mexico Legislature it’s called “the war premium,” and it might help save Gov. Bill Richardson from a deficit crisis in his second year in office. The windfall to state government revenue would be a result of prolonged inflation of world oil prices.

State revenue estimators use a natural gas pricing formula that adds $12 million a year to the state general fund for every 10-cent increase in the average price of a thousand cubic feet (MCF) of gas. The monthly average natural gas futures on Wall Street are running a little over $5.30 per MCF through the rest of the year. New Mexico San Juan Basin futures trail by $1 per MCF.

The latest state revenue estimate is based on $3.45 per MCF. That’s already up 25 cents from the December revenue estimate, and New Mexico producers were getting $4 per MCF in January and February, according to the estimate document. If New Mexico gas prices would average $4.30 for all of next fiscal year, the state general fund would be $100 million richer.

Which is a lotta dimes, and it could actually happen. It would be a windfall for the legislature and the governor. With the income-tax cut accounted for, but some of the new revenue acquirements not plugged in, the latest budget estimates are that the state will face a $236 million deficit in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2004, midway in Richardsons second year in office.

The legislature and governor are not including the “war premium” in their calculations. The market is as volatile as its product. But the windfall hopes just might show up in a twinkle in their eyes at the gas pump. Gasoline prices seem to be the first to reflect an international oil problem.

Wouldn’t it be ironic — and of course unintended — if a prolonged war in Iraq bails out the former ambassador to the United Nations who is now governor of New Mexico?