Albuquerque Journal 

Lawmakers pulling heist that rivals state lore


January 31, 2018

“The Great Taos Bank Robbery” is a gem of an essay by the late Tony Hillerman, who captured the essence of New Mexico in that and many other essays and novels.

Sadly, he could have had a field day writing about the bait-and-switch repeal in 2005 of the gross receipts tax on food that to this day is costing the people it was supposed to help millions of dollars. It was the equivalent of a government heist pulled off in broad daylight — and one that anybody paying attention knew was coming.

Hillerman’s bank robbery piece begins with a telephone call on the morning of Nov. 12, 1957, from the manager of the Taos Chamber of Commerce to the city editor of The New Mexican newspaper in Santa Fe to inform him that the Taos Bank was going to be robbed that morning — and promises to call him back with detailed eyewitness accounts.

Hillerman, acknowledged as one of the great American writers, tells the story without revealing that he was The New Mexican city editor from 1954 to 1963, but his character in the essay never doubts the report because … well … in this part of the world, anything is possible no matter how absurd on its face.

So as Hillerman recounts the story, Taos residents gather to watch a man dressed as a woman with a gun under his purse try to rob the bank. To find out how it ends, you need to read the collection of essays — which is still a big hit today.

Suffice it to say that the story in some ways parallels what has happened to New Mexicans after they got a “break” and the Legislature repealed the gross receipts tax on food and medicine.

That “break” has turned out to be a robbery on a far grander scale than anything the would-be Taos bank robber could have hoped to accomplish, taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of the pockets of New Mexicans.

As Albuquerque Journal editorial page editor D’Val Westphal reported in her UpFront column, the Legislature repealed the tax on food and medicine but agreed to ease the pain of local governments by giving them “hold harmless” money — making up for 100 percent of the loss until 2016 and then tapering off through July 1, 2029. And, it allowed counties and municipalities to impose up to 3/8 percent GRT locally to make up for the money when the hold harmless provision phased out.

But it didn’t require them to wait. So Bernalillo County, for example, missed out on $16.5 million in 2017 because the food tax had been repealed. But it is still getting hold harmless money ($8.064 million last year) along with $43.347 million in revenue from the additional taxes it has imposed to make up for losing the food tax revenue.

Bottom line: consumers in Bernalillo County got a tax break of $16.5 million in 2017 that only cost them $51.411 million.

Bernalillo County isn’t alone. For example, the city of Las Cruces is collecting an extra $20.051 million a year to make up for $6.6 million in lost revenue.

Not all local governments have taken to double- and triple-dipping. For example, the city of Albuquerque has not imposed the additional tax increments, living with the hold harmless money from the state.

But for those who rushed to the trough — and many did, fearing the Legislature might at some point wake up and put out a “robbery in progress call” — they could have earned a place in the New Mexico lore of Tony Hillerman and the “Great Taos Bank Robbery.”

— Albuquerque Journal


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