COMMENTARY: While the rest of the country is well on its way to recovery from the 2008 recession, New Mexico continues to limp along with less than 1 percent economic growth and rising unemployment. Moody’s Investors Services predicts New Mexico is on the downward spiral into another recession.
Thanks to the leadership of President Obama and our congressional delegation, one of the few bright spots in our state’s economy is the federal government’s billions of dollars of investments each year. As New Mexico state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development I have partnered with rural communities throughout the state — those suffering the most in this economic climate – and invested $1.6 billion in our state. Whether financing a new hospital in Guadalupe County, bringing clean drinking water to Mesquite, or providing small business training in Anthony, USDA has helped get rural New Mexico through hard times.
Over the past seven years, I’ve met with thousands of New Mexicans during my travels to more than 170 New Mexico communities. They appreciate USDA’s investments but they need more help and strong leadership from state officials. Here are five ways to get New Mexico’s economy moving again.
We need a plan: Unlike just about every state in the country, New Mexico lacks an aggressive economic growth plan. The New Mexico Legislative Jobs Council took a first step by identifying the problems we face, such as: declining base economic jobs, insufficient broadband, and our lack of a qualified workforce. But, without a battle plan, it’s hard to rally the troops to fight against our declining economy.
Inventory and address infrastructure needs: New Mexico has the 3rd-slowest broadband speeds in the nation, according to the Washington Post. We have $1 billion in water and wastewater system needs. Yet, there is no state comprehensive effort to bring Internet service to acceptable levels or to upgrade our infrastructure to meet economic demands and promote commerce. Immediate, targeted investments in infrastructure are needed to set the stage for economic growth.
Use every tool in the box: USDA Rural Development regrettably sends unused federal funds back to Washington every year for lack of projects, and other federal agencies do the same. We also fail to see effective leveraging of state, federal, private and other funds to complete projects. New Mexico is not in a position to turn down resources, and leaders must get more creative in shaking every tree for available financing and put together public and private deals leveraged with multiple sources.
Use our competitive advantage: In addition to our military installations and Department of Energy laboratories, our state is home to emerging sectors that include food processing, biomedical/biotech, and textiles, to name a few. We should capitalize on those sectors where New Mexico maintains a competitive advantage over other states by developing the needed workforce, encouraging spin-off industries, and giving tailored support to those sectors to further grow and prosper.
Improve our quality of life: Those of us who live in New Mexico know it’s the most beautiful state in the country. While that might give us an edge over others, CEOs and business executives tell me that when they’re relocating they consider, above all, quality-of-life factors — low crime rates, excellent school systems and community livability. New Mexico places a lot of focus on attracting business through financial incentives but it is just as great an economic imperative and enticement to make major investments and show progress in the areas of education, health and public safety.
We cannot wait another 10 months for the state Legislature to convene to address our slumping economy and avoid another recession. The time is now for our leaders to work with our communities to build the ladder out of New Mexico’s economic decline. But we can only do it together. USDA, for its part, stands ready to help.
Brunner is the state director for USDA Rural Development in New Mexico.