COMMENTARY: New Mexico is in a budget crisis. Our state’s economy is in shambles. We have the worst employment rates in the country and revenue projections have dropped over $200 million from just before the session — and they could get even worse.
The result of this economic free fall will be continued under-funding of our schools, jobs, economic development and public safety efforts — all the things most important to New Mexicans. Time is running out at the state Legislature. If lawmakers do not take clear aim at the challenges we face, New Mexico will strike out for our families and children.
Strike one will be the budget. Deep cuts are coming that will threaten jobs and public safety. Health care, driven by Medicaid, is one of the only growing job sectors in New Mexico, yet Medicaid is short by over $60 million in the budget being considered by the Legislature. If we cut Medicaid by $60 million, we lose over $140 million in federal matching dollars. The Human Services Department has been clear that there is no room to make cuts other than to reduce services and payments to health-care providers.
Our schools are still grossly under-funded, shortchanging our children and hurting our prospects for attracting and keeping businesses in New Mexico. With the current budget, we cannot invest in our teachers, Pre-K programs and educational initiatives that have been proven to work in preparing children for academic success and graduation.
The budget also underfunds agencies important for public safety. The judicial branch is struggling with its caseload and the Corrections Department lacks needed staffing. Deep cuts are also in store for the state’s behavioral health system, including crisis intervention services. These are all essential to the integrity of our justice and rehabilitation system and ensuring our communities are safe.
Strike two will be failing to raise revenues. There are sensible opportunities to increase revenues without raising taxes and harming our families. One such proposal is delaying recently passed corporate tax breaks for two years. New Mexico cannot afford them right now. Another opportunity is to increase distributions from our $15 billion permanent fund, to provide needed funds to our education system, including early childhood education.
There are also ways to rebalance our tax structure to make it less heavily reliant on working families. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the lowest-income New Mexicans are paying a higher percentage of their income on overall taxes than the highest-income households. We could modify capital gains deductions that do not benefit most New Mexicans. We could modify income brackets and actually lower taxes for working- and middle-class New Mexican families — who are the vast majority of our residents.
New Mexico is also still sitting on over $1 billion in unused capital funds, as the State Auditor’s Office has discovered. These funds could be recouped to fill one-time shortfalls and our reserves, and yet little action has been taken by the Governor’s Office to mobilize this funding.
Strike three will be public safety. The best antidote to crime is to have good-paying jobs, a strong education system, and healthy communities. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “tough on crime” bills being proposed in the Legislature will be ineffective at reducing crime. If we are serious about our safety, then we must invest in our communities, behavioral health, law enforcement training and the justice system. Right now, our budget lacks in all these areas.
We need to make New Mexico safe. We need good-paying jobs. And, most importantly, we need a school system that will do right by our children. There is still time to make a turnaround. The governor and Legislature should step up to the plate to raise revenues. We need our leaders to fund a state budget that addresses our economic crisis and the needs of everyday New Mexicans.
Posich is the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s executive director.