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?
This 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.