COMMENTARY: Building high-quality public services like education, health care, and infrastructure takes planning because we want to make sure that the investment we’re making now will serve us long into the future. After all, many of the schools, hospitals, roads, and such that we rely on today were paid for out of tax dollars that were invested long ago.
Legislators keep both the past and the future in mind when they draft the state’s budget, which is why the various state agencies that provide the services like education, health care, and infrastructure have to defend their requests for money every year. They have to show that they did a good job spending the money they were allotted last year as well as explain how the money will be spent next year.
New Mexico spends about $6 billion every year on public services like education, health care, public safety, and infrastructure, so it makes sense to look carefully at that spending.
New Mexico also spends a lot of money every year in ways that are not so obvious. This kind of spending is on things like corporate tax cuts that are expected to create jobs. It’s hard to say exactly how much money New Mexico spends in this way every year, but it’s estimated to be at least another $1 billion.
One of the reasons that it’s hard to know how much money we’re spending this way is because the state only tracks some of those tax breaks. The people and industries that receive the tax cuts don’t have to defend them every year the way the agencies have to defend spending on services. They don’t have to show what benefits the state got (or didn’t get) from the tax cuts in order to get the same tax break every year.
This is money that simply doesn’t go into the state budget every year — no questions asked, no justification needed.
While this lack of transparency is bad anytime, it’s particularly bad when the state is broke ― like it is now. It’s in times like these that we are called upon to be as smart and as thoughtful as we can be with our fiscal planning and foresight. We need to look more closely at these tax cuts, because if they’re not creating the jobs they were intended to create, then they’re part of the reason we’re broke.
For years, advocates have fought for more sunshine of this spending through the creation of a tax expenditure budget (TEB) ― an accounting of the money spent on the tax-cutting side of the budget. A good TEB lists all the tax breaks, adds up how much they cost, and analyzes them to determine if they are doing what they were expected to do.
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In fact, we’ve helped pass a law requiring a TEB several times, and every time it was vetoed. In the most recent veto of the bill, Governor Martinez said she would have her administration produce the TEB. The problem is that even though the governor’s TEB lists 130 of the state’s tax breaks, it fails to add up their costs and thus fails entirely to analyze if this spending is creating any jobs or having the intended impact.
We can also require that a tax cut sunsets, or automatically ends, after 10 or 15 years, which would force the proponents of the tax break to come back to the Legislature and make the case for continued spending on that specific tax break. If the tax break is having the intended outcome, then it should easily be renewed. If not, then that money can be spent on a more effective tax expenditure or on the services side of the budget. Unfortunately, most of the more expensive tax cuts of the past 15 years did not include sunsets.
With our schools, health care, courts, and infrastructure already cut down to the bone, and the state still short on money, there is no better time than now to evaluate every dollar spent on tax breaks to make sure they’re having the impact their proponents claimed. To be the New Mexico we wish to be, we simply can’t afford to do less.
Bill Jordan is senior policy advisor and government relations officer for New Mexico Voices for Children.