COMMENTARY: “If we don’t do something different than we have done for the last several decades, the New Mexico economy in the year 2050 will substantially look like the New Mexico economy in the year 2015.”
That’s what New Mexico State University economist Jim Peach told regents governing the state’s two largest universities recently. “We will have fallen further behind in terms of per capita income, employment growth,” he warned.
Peach was speaking about, among other things, our state’s reliance on fluctuating oil and gas revenues to fund government. We cycle between years with surpluses and years with less money.
When we have money, we spend like it’s Christmas. When we don’t, we cut back to the bone.
At the same time, we put billions of dollars away for a rainy day – which could be good, except that we don’t spend it even when it’s raining.
We also hand out $1 billion in annual tax exemptions to corporations and people without any real mechanism to determine if those exemptions are helping grow our economy.
These are among the most prominent items on a long list of things New Mexico is doing wrong. They contribute to us being one of the poorest states in the nation and consistently near the bottom of the most important lists. Too many of our children are hungry and dying. Others leave for opportunities elsewhere.
We want to do better. We’ve tried spending more, growing the state budget from about $4 billion 15 years ago to more than $6 billion today. We’ve increased teacher pay and invested in public infrastructure like the spaceport and commuter rail.
The bottom line is that we’re stuck – and we’ve remained stuck through leadership from Democrats and leadership from Republicans and leadership from bipartisan coalitions. The roots of our problems are deeper than any ideology can solve.
We don’t have to be stuck.
“New Mexico’s economic problems can be overcome,” Peach told the university regents. “It will take substantial investments in both human and physical capital, some changes in the law and regulations.”
I think it will take that and so much more. Our problems aren’t just economic. They’re built into our flawed legislative structure and other areas of government. We need systemic reform that includes paying our state lawmakers.
Our problems are also cultural and relational. This year’s celebration of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas’ reconquest of Santa Fe in 1692 revealed deep-seeded pain that divides us today. Joe Mier, president of the nonprofit that runs the celebration, rejected the grievances of one of the lead protesters this year, saying, “Maybe she’s aggravated because she didn’t win as queen.”
I grew up in Santa Fe. I’ve lived in New Mexico my entire life. Too often I’ve witnessed and experienced people rejecting each others’ pain in cold and public ways. These barriers prevent understanding and healing.
We need to hear each other. And we need to honestly examine how our history impacts us to this day.
On policy issues and other matters we need deeper, more honest, and better-inclusive conversations about how to improve our state.
I agree with Peach that we can overcome our state’s problems. But we must commit to doing the hard work the situation demands from us.