Legislators likely to look at water

Governor to add to budget session

By Todd G. Dickson

Las Cruces Bulletin

The 30-day Legislature starting Jan. 21, 2014, is primarily about building a budget, but Beverlee McClure, president/CEO of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry (ACI), said Gov. Susana Martinez may add water issues to the agenda.

Speaking before the Greater Las Cruces Chamberof Commerce and Rio Grande Rotarians Tuesday, Nov. 5, McClure said ACI is hearing from the governor’s office that she will add “all things water” for lawmakers to work on in Santa Fe.

State legislative sessions alternate between 60 days – when any legislation can be considered – and 30 days, which is limited to the budget, unless the governor asks lawmakers to address other issues, which is called “adding to the call.”

Having water issues added to the call is welcomed by state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, who has criticized past sessions for not passing serious legislation to resolve water issues as the prolonged drought has worsened.

Now the stakes are serious for farmers, users of Rio Grande water north of Elephant Butte Reservoir and the state’s finances, Cervantes said, because Texas is suing New Mexico in the U.S. Supreme Court because of pumping to make up for the meager river flow.

Elephant Butte is at its lowest level since 1916, he said, resulting in farmers only getting 3.5 acre-inches of river water for irrigation instead of the usual 4.5 acre-feet. That has forced farmers along the Mesilla Valley to pump more ground water than is used by the city of Las Cruces in a year, he said.

“We’re pumping the hell out of the aquifer,” Cervantes said.

Because the pumping takes away water that normally would have seeped back into to the river, Texas is suing New Mexico to in essence stop the pumping, according to Cervantes, who is a lawyer from a long-time farming family. In talking to a lawyer with experience in water lawsuits, Cervantes said he has been told the potential damages awarded could be $1 billion, which is one-sixth of the state government’s annual budget. Along with damages, the state could be ordered to adhere to 1938 water compact amounts, which would mean that users north of Elephant Butte would lose surface water rights.

State Rep. Terry McMillan, R-Las Cruces, said he knows Cervantes has long been trying to get lawmakers to get more serious about water issues, only to be told to “pray for rain” by northern lawmakers.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, said he will carry legislation to help New Mexico State University’s Water Resources Research Institute to work on recommendations for improving water policy McMillan said the state must – unlike federal government – balance its budget every year. That task is accomplished every year – despite huge problems – by forcing government to live within its means.

“That means if we have poor times, we must deal with it,” McMillan said.

Unlike Congress, the Legislature delivers a budget every year through compromise, he said.

McClure said the state is struggling to bounce back from the 2008 recession with only modest job growth since. As a state highly dependent on federal spending, congressional gridlockforcing sequestered cuts and temporary government shutdowns doesn’t help, she said.

To bounce back, McClure said New Mexico needs to attract 160,000 jobs in the next 10 years and lawmakers have taken steps to help attract more business.

“The good news is that we’re all learning that it is jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said.

State Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said he has been warning policymakers about the dependency of state finances on oil and gas extraction, which are now being felt because prices have dropped. Increased medical care spending and less support from the federal government will only mean tighter budgets ahead, he said.

The state is expecting about $280 million in new money, but Smith, who chairs the powerful Legislative Finance Committee, said he wants to use it in a way that helps the state come in for a “soft landing” because he doubts the sequester cuts will end before the end of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Cervantes was critical of corporate income taxes passed at the very end of the last session to be more competitive withsurrounding states, but he said corporations don’t pay income taxes in Texas, so he was skeptical the cuts will work. That the cuts are phased in over five years also does really little to attract new business to the state.

“We take the (tax) credit today,” Cervantes said. “The burden of it gets paid by somebody else down the road.”

State Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Doña Ana County, said there also are real concerns about the cost of testing and tying test scores to the evaluation process for teachers.

On the positive side, Garcia said, Santa Teresa business along the U.S-Mexico border is growing fast.

At the end of the luncheon, Smith got into a mini-debate with Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima about lawmakers possibly accelerating cutting off hold harmless payments sooner than 15 years from now. Miyagishima said lawmakers aren’t being honest about that, but Las Cruces has had to increase its GRT.

Smith countered that he was trying to give cities a soft landing, as well. The state’s hold harmless payment has grown from only $40 million to more than $400 million, which Smith said the state can’t afford.