Richardson Takes New Mexico On A Fast Ride Over The Speed Bumps

But school buses will have to slow down

Gov. Bill Richardson is a political speed demon. When he was new in Congress, the Almanac of American Politics kept calling him “a young man in a hurry.” The bio did not say where he was hurrying to, but no Washington pundit would have thought he wanted to be governor of New Mexico. It was too slow out here for the swift in politics.

Washington changed. He’s not so young any more, but he’s still in a hurry, and he wants New Mexico to get moving, in his direction. Richardson drove his tax cut over the legislative speed bumps so fast that nobody got its license number until he parked it in the law books.

But his Unser Bros. costume might have another purpose, apart from getting legislation passed in a hurry. What it does is attack the perception of inertia, true or not, that is an obstacle in the way of Richardson’s intent to bring in “high paying” jobs.

The perception goes way back to the prejudices of Manifest Destiny. The first American travel writer to come through the territory, Charles Lummis, entitled his 1893 book “The Land of Poco Tiempo,” meaning that workers out here were always going to get the job done “in a little while.” The slur mistook resistance for laziness, but the reputation stuck, it seems.

New Mexico’s slow but stable economy, grounded in oil, gas and federal funding, does little to contradict the perception. Without Intel the state probably would be at the bottom of the list in manufacturing. Just-in-time delivery is not part of the statewide small business culture.

Horror stories about public works like the Albuquerque International Airport observation deck or the Bernalillo County Detention Center don’t help the perception. They have a way of overshadowing the good news of the reconstruction of the Big I and the four-laning of New Mexico 44, on time and on budget. Everybody’s anecdotes about slow service in restaurants or copy shops, about plumbers or mechanics who never seem to get the job done, about bureaucrats who can’t get back to you until next month, don’t help either.

Many people, of course, love the old way — unhurried, artful, one-of-a-kind New Mexico, and be sure to close the gate behind you. The tale of how Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft in Albuquerque in 1975 but had to move home to Seattle in 1979 when he could not get a bank loan to pay legal fees is sometimes viewed as the state’s greatest missed opportunity, sometimes as a narrow escape.

No doubt where the governor stands. The inertia here is precisely what Richardson is out to counteract. His “Give me the tools” address to the opening of the 2003 New Mexico Legislature was a declaration of urgency. At one point he could not help departing from the text to say, with a grin, “We will move so fast! You’re not going to see us.”

When he signed his nationally famous tax cut, Richardson said, “I told you I’d act quickly.”

Next on his agenda: “Give me the schools!”

Like the tax cut, school reform is a Republican issue. So it should clear the legislature. But there could be a problem down the road. Richardson in his opening address said public education is “my most sacred obligation as governor of New Mexico.” The problem is, the sacred obligation does not happen to be in the constitution.

He wants to put it there. It will take a constitutional amendment abolishing the elected State Board of Education and its traditionally independent state superintendent of schools. The date for the special ratification election is already set by the joint legislative resolution for Sept. 23.

Even though special elections draw a small number of positive voters who have something at stake, a negative campaign could develop on this one. Control of the administration of the schools is a potentially explosive issue, even without the conservative bugaboo about teachers unions.

The Richardson proposal confronts New Mexico’s long tradition that public education is an area where governors are not allowed to set foot. The area consumes about half the annual general appropriation — $1.9 billion of next year’s $4 billion budget — and the governor has no direct control over the money, once it is appropriated by the legislature.

This was part of the original plan for New Mexico. The constitution established an elected state superintendent of public instruction responsible only to the people — same as the attorney general, land commissioner, secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, and the old corporation commission. Our “long ballot” came out of a long distrust of governors. It was a way of assuring what now is called “diversity.”

New Mexico has become more governor-friendly in modern times, due in large part to the media emphasis on government by personality. But will the people go for control of the schools by a secretary of education accountable solely to the governor and not to an elected state school board?

No problem, if public apathy continues the way it has. Local government is the first casualty of nationalized politics, on network radio most of the day, televised 24/7.

Still, the state board has a potential political life of its own. It teems with creationists, school-prayer ministers, summer-vacation abolitionists, no-pass no-play academics, college preppies, tech-track advocates, academic testers and non-testers, bilingualists, monolingualists, and of course voucherists, home schoolers and charterers. Those interests could gang together, not because they agree with each other but because they don’t want to lose their forum, and the Richardson compromise that makes the state board an appointed advisory body might not be enough.

The subtle preemption of local boards implicit in the Richardson overhaul probably won’t bother anybody, if paltry election turnouts and board meeting attendance are any indication. Only 3 per cent of the registered voters turned out to elect two members of the Santa Fe school board recently, and one candidate, former State Corporation Commissioner Charles Rudolph, announced: “I’m not interested in the election. I’m not even going to vote. I don’t have time to serve on the school board.” Fortunately, the job went to another candidate who filed at the last minute.

Another argument against total local control, besides all the Charlie Rudolphs on school boards, is the wastefulness of the 89 insulated boards, with separate purchasing agents, meal planners, construction overseers, and so forth. As Fred Nathan of Think New Mexico pointed out, the administrative funds that Richardson wants local districts to shift to the classrooms could easily be offset by the savings of cooperative purchasing. But centralization has always been resisted. The people who care desperately about the education side, as opposed to the political favors side, of the public schools — they are called parents — might become the crowd that roars as the new contender steps into the ring.

Bill Richardson might be a good and amiable negotiator, but he has a fast right hook — so fast you won’t even see it.