Message Control, Bill Richardson Style

Economic growth package, yes. Tax bill, not!

“If I were a politician,” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson began in all seriousness. A sudden spontaneous group laugh blew away the tension that had been building in the news conference.

“If I were a legislator,” the governor corrected without seeming to recognize the irony in his slip of the tongue.

He was keeping focused, controlling the message. This was a crucial moment in the special session of the New Mexico Legislature.

Without a swell of public support, Richardson was going to face his first decisive loss in the politics of being governor.

He was answering a crucial question about Senate Bill 5, the 180-page tax-rejiggering Haloween monster he had just endorsed. It had been introduced in the Senate by the majority leader, Sen. Manny Aragon, so it had some powerful support. And now the question was, wouldn’t the supporters be concerned about running for re-election after voting for a tax increase?

A few moments earlier he had ducked the same issue when a reporter phrased the question as a statement, pointing out that the bill’s tax increases were what concerned the Republicans. “You’re speaking for them?” Richardson shot back. He eats softball questions for lunch.

But another reporter rephrased it more skilfully, and now, after his slip, Richardson responded: “If I were a legislator, I wouldn’t be concerned about voting for economic growth.” It was the message of the day. As he put it earlier in the news conference: “This is not a tax increase. This is an economic growth package.”

Right. And Bill Richardson is no politician.

Words, words, words. But wait. Words spins are what politicians do. And after years of simplistic negative election campaigns, it’s going to take a good politician, a world-class Kissinger-buddy politician, to get this state moving out of its parsimonious tar pit.

Yeah, Richardson is a politcian, but he’s big-picture kind of politician, even if the picture is enlarged, cropped and digitally enhanced.

And so he opened the newsconference (with no appology for keeping the media and invited legislative leaders waiting 15 minutes) with a made-for-TV statement. He said that his “Opportunity Now” program meant “tax relief for 650,000 New Mexicans,” creation of 10,000 permanent jobs and infusion of 50,000 jobs related to highway construction. He said it was “disingenuous” of Republicans to ask for more time to study proposals they’re already familiar with and that to wait until the regular session in January could mean an increase in interest rates, which cost the state $130 million a year per point.
Richardson, a banker’s son, had all sorts of numbers except the money numbers. He left the costing-out to others, such as the Legislative Finance Committee, which came up with a net first-full-year fiscal impact of plus-$135.5 million in revenue, with $74 million dedicated to highway bonds. Subsequent years would be adjusted downward by $33 million as tax incentives and decreases take effect. But do these speculative numbers matter?

Seriously. Every year at budget time, those of us who like to read about the Legislature plow through general fund numbers, and it’s hard to tell how they will affect us personally one way or the other.

Of the SB5 tax and fee increases endorsed by Richardson, two would affect motor vehicle owners and one would affect drinkers. Namely: A 1 point increase in the tax on motor vehicle sales, from 3 to 4 per cent. An increase in annual vehicle registration fees ranging from $14 more for new SUV’s to $5 for smaller older cars. A $1.07 a liter hike in the price of beer, with lesser increases in already more highly taxed wine and liquor.

For most New Mexicans, the other items, including those Richardson called “tax relief,” would be invisble.

And those high visibility motor vehicle user increases, including the 5-cent–a-gallon diesel fuel increase, would go directly to the state road fund. Richardson paired the $74 million a year for transportation bonds with a plan. It includes more than 40 highway projects worth $1.5 billion.

Big picture: Richardson said, “If we’re gonna have economic development, we gotta have these roads.”

The question about running on tax increases was finally exhausted as Richardson repeated, “I think the voters will see this as an economic growth package.” That was the response of a poll watcher, not of an economist. Polls represent a thing called public opinion that politicians are always trying to form in their favor.

That’s why Richardson called the news conference at that critical time. The legislators of both parties were spelling doom, and he focused his message: Economic growth package, yes. Tax bill, not. I know some young people who don’t pay New Mexico income taxes (because they can’t find New Mexico jobs), and drive old cars being rattled to death on bad roads, who really would like to believe that.