Economy / Opinion

Prodding New Mexico Out of Its Coma

Photo Credit: Unfurled via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Unfurled via Compfight cc

By Jerry Ortiz y Pino

— Last summer there was much hand-wringing over the dead-last ranking for our state in the annual Kids Count assessment of child well-being in this country. “Even Mississippi beats us,” the dirge began, emphasizing just how dreadful a place to rear children New Mexico have become. In the aggregate, our kids are poorer; have less health care or even health insurance; die earlier; do worse in school and go to college less than those in any other state.

Since then, we’ve also hit the bottom in listings for economic and population growth in the western United States. We are recovering from the recession more slowly than neighboring states. Despite cutting taxes for corporations repeatedly, we are watching many of those beneficiaries of tax cuts ship jobs elsewhere. It is as if our entire state has become that old Al Capp cartoon figure, Joe Btfsplk—the one followed everywhere by a dark cloud raining down calamity and sorrow on his head.

Now, with the dawning of 2014 and the upcoming legislative session, we have another opportunity to turn things around. The challenge is clear. Will we see Gov. Susana Martinez and the Democrat-controlled Legislature find common ground in the effort to rouse this sluggish state from its hibernation? Or will we sink even farther behind in providing a great place for families and children to grow?

800px-Joe_Btfsplk_ExcerptThis summer a group of legislators created a Jobs Council charged with making recommendations for improving our economy and for “moving the needle” on creating jobs over the next five to seven years. Those legislators and business leaders labored for six months. Ultimately, they released a report breathtaking for its dim, inside the box (deep inside the box), thoroughly unimaginative vision. Their recommendations sank to the murk at the bottom of the public information tank. They should be allowed to rest there.

It was more of the same—the same tired strategies we’ve employed in the past that produced the dismal condition we are in. Bribing companies to come here with cash incentives; bribing companies to stay here with yet more tax cuts; cutting regulatory red tape to make life easier for companies to operate; making government smaller by spinning off jobs to private contractors.

It was a list that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce could have pulled from its files, ready-made; one that could have been xeroxed for use in any state. That effort leaves us essentially where we were when the Jobs Council started. And it means the legislative session that starts on Tuesday, Jan. 21, will have to drum up its own more imaginative approaches if this slumbering state economy is ever to be prodded into motion again.

Why not use our desperation to spark genuinely creative alternatives? Why not enact some of the following five strategies—and there are plenty more that could be listed—to produce real, sustainable and difference-making economic growth in New Mexico? Why not listen to the many economists who point to increasing consumer demand as the single best step we could take to spark commercial activity rather than to those grim-faced austerity hawks we’ve been consulting, the ones whose advice has failed us repeatedly?

First, start hiring. New Mexico state government under the Martinez administration has allowed more than 1,000 fully-budgeted positions to lie vacant, fallow, unproductive, sterile. If those jobs were filled (and there are plenty of applicants) it could turn this state’s employment picture around. Not only would 1,000 more people have jobs, but the buying power they represent would be loosed on the small businesses they patronize, stimulating further hiring and more growth.

Why haven’t those positions been filled? Too much bad advice from ALEC, the arch-conservative advice factory funded by the Koch brothers and their minions. ALEC created the phony meme: “Government doesn’t create jobs; only business creates jobs.”  That bit of misinformation ignores the reality that demand (for goods, services, assistance) creates jobs—here and everywhere. And when people are earning money, they spend it. They create more demand. If we rely on common sense and not ideology, we will quickly realize the wisdom of eliminating vacancies by hiring unemployed New Mexicans. A vacant state job is a wasted opportunity to create demand—not a savings.

Second, raise the minimum wage statewide and tie it to the consumer price index so that it keeps pace with inflation. Again, that money will be spent within days of the paychecks being cashed and will circulate repeatedly through local economies.  Henry Ford, that iron-ribbed capitalist, recognized almost a century ago that if he paid his assembly line workers well enough, they would be able to afford to buy the cars they produced, and he’d have greatly expanded the market for his product.

Third, double or even triple the size of the capital outlay bonds to be sold this year and start seriously rebuilding this state’s infrastructure. We need to fix or replace roads, bridges, dams, public buildings and other infrastructure. We also need to put thousands of construction workers back to work. This would spark new life into our towns and cities by next summer as hundreds of millions of dollars in projects gathering dust would begin.

Fourth, invest state economic development money only in New Mexico businesses. Stop wasting time on the futile, self-defeating race to the bottom of competing with other states to lure in businesses with “incentives” (read: bribes). One company moves here and another leaves by the same door to grab a goody offered by another desperate state. It’s a carousel of wasted dollars that benefits only company executives and stockholders—not New Mexico.

Instead of playing blind man’s bluff, let’s put hard money into promising tech ventures germinated by university and National Lab researchers in our state. Let’s make a concerted effort to find and support the best of these and lend all the assistance they need to get started. Let’s make their New Mexico connections an intrinsic part of their value, and they won’t slip away to greener pastures at the first opportunity. And let’s make sure they can find the skilled workforce here they will need to prosper.

Finally, we should create a state bank as North Dakota did more than 90 years ago, one whose stockholders would be the people of the state, not investors. That model has repeatedly been pointed to as the reason for economic stability in North Dakota over the years. Simply creating it would open new avenues to desperately needed credit for businesses and individuals in New Mexico and could be a powerful force for spurring economic growth.

If we are serious about job growth, those are the kind of approaches we should be talking about. All of them are within our ability to enact this session. Gov. Martinez could guarantee her place in the state’s history books by stepping outside the box and introducing them. The results would be amazing.

9 thoughts on “Prodding New Mexico Out of Its Coma

  1. As usual, a well thought-out and beautifully written piece by Jerry Ortiz y Pino. If we could only get more lawmakers to listen, think and follow smart suggestions…

  2. These are all excellent proposals of which none will be implemented by Governor Martinez. She has shown herself to be aligned the tea party elements of the Republican Party who are more focused on the national stage than on helping out New Mexico. The very fact that she listens to ALEC is just sad. Remember the secret meeting the Governor held at Tamaya with the conservative Koch Brothers? We need to do all of you proposed but especially to fill open state positions, raise the minimum wage and start working on aging state infrastructure. Decades ago, Roosevelt showed that investing in America brings economic dividends.

    I just wish that more representatives in our state legislature believed in these great initiatives to improve our economy and help bring up all our citizens into prosperity.

  3. Sweet.

    Clear, unadulterated, common sense. Why wouldn’t your fellow lawmakers grasp the significance of these elementary observations… ?

    Please, you know the answer.

    Thanks Jerry, very nice analysis, we need so many more of you.

    Peter Neils,
    Albuquerque

  4. As other commenters have mentioned, the proposals mentioned in this article are excellent ones. As this is my first visit to this website, I look forward to returning. (But, really, how tiny is this website font? Yikes!)

  5. Pipe dreams aside, the deck is stacked and it’s not just because of ALEC and the influence of the Koch Brothers (re: that secret meeting see http://www.corralescomment.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2412&Itemid=2). Setting aside the ways Senator Smith and the “Martinez Democrats” are cutting the cards, ‘splain me how Gov. Martinez got elected in 2010 with 49% of the electorate registered as Dems (32% Republican, 16 DTS and 3% other) – and, with the deplorable state of the state and all of the scandals surrounding her administration, how she’s able to continue to get approval ratings in the mid-60s?

    • Okay, this is weird — I’m trying to leave a response to DOC (1/27/14), but even though I click on Reply under this comment, all I get is the option to reply to marciak1.

      So, whatever happens after I post this, this comment is for DOC:

      One of the reasons I moved to this state was because I thought it was blue. Now, I find that it is really red. Well, maybe purple. Man, was I fooled…

      However, it’s better than Texas. :D

      (And I just wanted to let you know that I just received your comment via my email, even though you made it almost a month ago.)

  6. While the author chides the Job Council for not thinking outside of the box, his recommendations aren’t innovative either. New Mexico has always resorted to government hiring to make up for the lack of private sector jobs. We have a higher percentage of government and not for profit jobs than most states. Has that improved our economy? Government hiring is not a long-term solution.

    The state’s infrastructure is in serious disrepair. But the construction industry here relies almost entirely on public projects, except for residential development. Other states have a much healthier commercial and industrial construction sector. We should be working towards that.

    I do agree that New Mexico should stop throwing tax incentives at out-of-state companies. That policy has failed. But one of the reasons for that failure is that we have a very limited skilled workforce here. And without that, we will never have a 21st century economy.

    • Are there construction workers in New Mexico who are looking for jobs? I mean, I don’t know, I just haven’t read about that.

      As for a skilled workforce — that costs money. If New Mexico is unwilling to make the appropriate investments in education, then what else would you suggest?

      As for a 21st economy, what does that look like, exactly? High-tech? Maybe another… Intel?

      I vote for cannabis legalization. If this state is able to be a viable competitor in this market, then all our problems will be solved. (Well, not all of them, but some of them.)

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