When lawyer Peter Wirth returns to the Roundhouse on Jan. 20, there’ll be two major differences from last year. First, the Democratic legislator’s vote will be worth more as he moves from the 70-member House to the 42-member Senate. Second, his goatee is gone. What will stay the same: Wirth says he plans to once again carry corporate-tax legislation and push for regulatory reform over the oil and gas industry. But no matter what, it won’t be easy being a freshman in a deficit year.
SFR: It seems like, no matter what, we’re looking at less services unless we find new revenue. Where will it come from?
PW: It’s hard to say across the board. The message is there is going to be a look at a lot of different sources. You may see increases in some fees. I’m going to carry a bill dealing with the New Mexico Securities Act. It’s amazing the revenue that can be generated by increasing a fee just a slight amount. We need to be very careful that what we do doesn’t put folks that are struggling already in a very difficult economy into an even more precarious situation.
Are we also talking about raising taxes on the average Joe?
One of the big issues that’s going to need to be addressed this session is a funding-formula change in public school funding. We did a study to determine whether we were sufficiently funding public education in the state and it determined that we were short by about 15 percent. So, that is a need for 340 to 350 million new dollars on top of the deficit. One of the ways being proposed to finance it is a 1 percent increase in gross-receipts tax. We’ve got this tax base that’s been carved full of exceptions to benefit businesses and different interests, but this would hit the average Joe. It’s tremendously regressive and an example of a proposed tax increase that I’m not comfortable with at this point.
What’s going to be the chief difference in moving from the House to the Senate?
I think that an advantage I have is that I understand the House side of the process and now I’m going to be running my bills on the Senate side, which generally is seen as the more tricky chamber to get legislation through. So, I think I’ll be able to push bills through the Senate and then bring them over to the House where I’ve spent four years and have relationships. It’s going to be an interesting transition and it depends a lot on what committee assignments I end up with.
What committees would you like to sit on?
My preference would be to continue to work on budget issues, which would mean the Senate Finance Committee. That, of course, would result in carrying less legislation because you need to have your seat in the chair as you work through all the details of the budget process. If that doesn’t work, then my guess is I would probably be on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
How do you see the legislative dynamic? With Democrats picking up a few seats, is it going to be easier to pass bills?
I do think it will make a difference, particularly in the state Senate where it’s pretty much been gridlocked. The numbers have been such that the Republicans plus the conservative Democrats kind of equal the [rest of the] Democrats and it is kind of run down the middle. I think now with 27 Democrats we need to really articulate a vision that reflects what our state did in this extraordinary election year.
Your predecessor Sen. John Grubesic’s New Year’s Resolution was to ‘forget the last four years.’ Do you think you’ll have better luck?
Let me say first and foremost that I certainly respect anyone that’s in public service and this is a tough job. It’s tough on your professional life; it’s tough on your family. You jump into it and the pressures that are there, and I respect Sen. Grubesic for his service. I think my New Year’s resolution is really to slow down and take a few deep breaths, and I think that’s something that for any legislator, when you’re in that pressure cooker, is a good thing to do.