Byline: POLITICAL NOTEBOOK Gilbert Gallegos Commentary
SANTA FE During budget hearings in the House, a sign hung on the dais in front of Rep. Max Coll. It read: "What part of 'There is no money' do you not understand?" Coll, chairman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, was half-joking as he summarized the "bare-bones" spending plan for the state.
The news coverage of the session has focused on tough decisions about Medicaid, reserve cash and tobacco settlement money.
Side issues like drug policy reform, the death penalty and trimming the food tax have been just that side issues that don't seem to be going anywhere.
Behind the scenes, this year's legislative session has been defined by the lack of money.
The signs are everywhere. Fewer lobbyists. Not as many advocates. Shorter workdays.
This is a money session, and there is no money to be had.
And now that the budget is in the Senate, there isn't anything funny about it.
Sen. Tim Jennings was heart-broken after hearing a plea from two young men who asked for more money to help them and other New Mexicans become more self-sufficient.
The men have developmental disabilities, and they made a compelling case for spending an additional $400,000 on a state program to help promote self-determination for others with similar handicaps.
The message was essentially: "Give us a lift so we can lead productive lives."
How do you say no to that?
Sen. Joe Carraro, a West Side Republican, almost couldn't say no. He agonized over it.
But Jennings and Carraro, both veterans of the Legislature's tortured budget process, knew what was about to happen after the pitch for cash.
No matter how worthy the program was, the bill with the money attached to it would be "temporarily tabled."
That's legislative-speak for tossing the bill onto a stack of other worthy and many not-so-worthy bills that will live or die when the budget is prepared behind closed doors.
During the weekend, the Senate Finance Committee juggled hundreds of proposed amendments to the budget.
Knowing full well that there was no wiggle room in this year's budget, senators still asked for money.
They eventually included some cash for programs that serve the developmentally disabled, but not the $400,000 for the self-determination program.
Probably the toughest part of building the budget was saying "no" to programs for the developmentally disabled; saying "no" to money to help the working poor with child care; and saying "no" to ideas that could attract much-needed jobs to the state.
Going into the session, some legislators predicted their jobs would be easier this year with no new money to play with.
The sign hanging on the dais said it all. With nothing but spare change, legislators figured they wouldn't be forced to choose one program over another.
But when the budget documents are spread out on senators' desks today, legislators will probably be longing for the days when they were fighting over how to spend surpluses.
Now, they're doing their best just to keep the budget in the black.
Gilbert Gallegos' Political Notebook appears Mondays in The Tribune. He can be reached at 250-7485 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.