Politics & Policy

Bill Richardson, Big Spender

Don't let this presidential hopeful fool ya.

Bill Richardson has been traveling the world attempting to build the national profile he needs if he is to claim the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. But regardless of the success (or failure) of this effort, it is his record as governor of New Mexico that begs closest scrutiny.

Richardson’s proclivity for expanding government is obvious, given the astounding 11 percent one-year spending hike he has proposed for fiscal 2008. Having grown the size of state government by an average of nearly 7 percent per year, Richardson’s record has been that of a big spender. But with the state awash in $720 million of unexpected oil and gas revenue, the temptation to spend has overwhelmed him.

First and foremost, Richardson seems obsessed with lavishing more money on New Mexico’s broken public-education system. With New Mexico’s fourth and eighth graders consistently ranking among the worst performers nationally, one might expect the governor to propose major school reform, or even an educational-choice option such as tax credits for low-income students. Instead, he is simply rewarding K-through-12 teachers with 7.4 percent raises, and the schools themselves with a 9.1 percent overall funding increase that includes additional monies for the expansion of an unproven pre-kindergarten program.

But education spending is just the tip of Richardson’s 2007 spending iceberg. His budget includes an 18.4 percent increase in the already $2.7 billion in so-called “medical-assistance” spending that is funneled through the state. (Compare that amount with New Mexico’s total fiscal year 2007 general fund of $5.1 billion.) And while plenty of spending hikes can be found within Richardson’s proposed budget, his embrace of global warming as a state issue could be the most costly in the long term.

To begin, the governor wants to make New Mexico the first state to use 100 percent renewable energy in government buildings, while at the same time adopting California’s strict automobile-emission standards. Adding even more ambition to this costly agenda, he wants to require that utility companies produce 15 percent of their energy through renewable resources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2020. Considering that only 6 percent of the nation’s energy production is renewable, with half of that hydroelectric, New Mexico’s utilities will face an almost impossible task of expanding solar- and wind-power generation to fulfill this mandate. That is, if the legislature follows Richardson’s lead.

In all fairness to the governor, his big-government agenda does have a silver lining: eminent-domain reform.

Last year, the Rio Grande Foundation criticized Richardson for vetoing legislation that would have offered some limited protection for property owners from eminent domain. To his credit, Richardson promptly charged a task force with drawing up reforms that, in the words of the governor, are “realistic, and will not prevent municipalities from cleaning up nuisance properties that place communities at risk.” The task force did not disappoint. Its solid set of recommendations will not, in its own words, “limit governments’ traditional use of eminent domain to condemn property for the public use, such as widening roads or to build schools, but would bar the taking of private property for economic development.”

Richardson has endorsed the task force’s recommendations and is introducing legislation in the 2007 session that will at last protect New Mexico property owners.

Only time will tell if Richardson can leverage his Hispanic heritage and his image as a tax cutter — along with what will hopefully be a successful effort to reform New Mexico’s eminent-domain laws — to generate a successful run for national office in 2008. But let there be no doubt about it: Bill Richardson is a big spender, and that’s not likely to change if he’s elected president.

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