Gov. Susana Martinez’s advertisement tying together the state budget, a jet and schoolbooks begins with an inaccurate claim.
“When I took office, we had the largest deficit in history,” says Martinez, a Republican who is seeking re-election this year, in a television ad that began airing this month.
Not so. State senators of both parties say New Mexico had no budget deficit, something that has been true through its 102 years of statehood.
“Her statement is grossly inaccurate,” said state Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. “New Mexico cannot have deficits by virtue of its constitution. The budget was balanced when she took office. Any other claim is smoke and mirrors.”
Sen. Steve Neville, R-Aztec, also said the governor’s ad about inheriting a deficit is not correct, though his criticism of it was comparatively mild.
“I think I would have chosen different words,” said Neville, who also serves on the Senate Finance Committee.
After the national recession began in 2008, Neville said, the Legislature and then-Gov. Bill Richardson had to reduce spending to offset steep declines in revenue.
These cutbacks were made for two years before Martinez became governor in January 2011. Neville said the spending reductions between 2009 and early 2011 cut the total amount of the state budget by about $1 billion.
When Martinez’s term began, legislators proposed a budget with various cuts to make sure there would be no deficit when the next fiscal year began in July 2011. Martinez’s own budget proposal ended up being similar to the spending plan submitted to her by legislators.
“If you really go back and look at her first term, she took the LFC [Legislative Finance Committee] budget virtually verbatim,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, a conservative Democrat from Deming, who has a friendly working relationship with Martinez.
The Legislature approved a balanced, $5.4 billion budget in 2011. Martinez then made line-item vetoes totaling about $4 million.
Until her ad this month, Martinez and her political strategists always had been careful to say that she closed “the largest structural deficit” in state history. A structural deficit is government lexicon meaning that, unless cuts are made, a budget will not be balanced.
The term “structural deficit,” foreign to most taxpayers and TV viewers, did not end up in the ad. Instead, Martinez simply said she inherited a budget deficit.
Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, a Finance Committee member, has been sparring with Martinez since 2012 over her statements about the budget.
“The ad continues the pattern of this governor to get a message out there that simply isn’t true,” said Morales, one of five Democrats competing for the gubernatorial nomination to run against Martinez in the fall.
In her ad, Martinez also says that inheriting a deficit led her to sell the “luxury jet” that had been purchased by her predecessor, Democrat Richardson.
Martinez campaigned in 2010 on getting rid of the jet, calling it a symbol of the excess of Richardson’s eight years in office. In her ad, Martinez says maintenance costs for the jet were about $250,000 a year.
Instead of spending money on the plane, Martinez said, she started a program in which every first-grader in New Mexico would get a book. This, she says in the ad, encourages kids to read at home during summertime.
“I believe it’s better to buy reading books for first-graders than to pay for a luxury jet,” Martinez says.
Though not controversial in the way her claims about inheriting a deficit are, Martinez’s statement about every first-grader receiving a book also has generated challenges.
Almudena Abeyta, chief academic officer of Santa Fe Public Schools, said the district in the 2013-14 school year did not receive the books the governor mentions in her ad.
In 2012, Abeyta said, the books arrived in summertime. “I found out about them in very late fall when PED [the state Public Education Department] called concerned that they heard reports they hadn’t been delivered,” Abeyta said in an email.
Steve Velasquez, a teacher at Cuba Elementary for six years, also said his school had not received any books.
“We are a small school district in Northern New Mexico. There has been an ad on television about how the governor has given away a reading book to all first-graders. Today is the last day of school at our school, and the children have not received the books she promised in her ad,” he said Tuesday in an email.
In a follow-up interview by phone, Velasquez said his school did not receive the books last year either.
Larry Behrens, a spokesman for the Public Education Department, said this year’s delivery of books for first-graders is still a few weeks away. But, Behrens said, state records show that books were delivered to New Mexico’s 89 school districts in 2012 and 2013.
“All districts in the state have received books for first-graders for the last two years,” Behrens said.
On request, he specifically looked up the records of districts that said they did not receive the books during the last school year. An employee of the Cuba Independent Schools, for instance, signed a paper saying the books arrived on June 18, 2013, Behrens said.
“We expect districts will get the books again at the same time frame this year,” Behrens said.
In some cases, deliveries during the summer break may have snarled the reading program if books did not end up in students’ hands.
But the state’s two largest school districts, Albuquerque and Las Cruces, each received books for first-graders last summer. About 7,500 books were accepted by the Albuquerque district and almost 2,100 were delivered to Las Cruces, said spokespersons for each district.
Reporter Robert Nott contributed to this story.