COMMENTARY: When an upper-income-tax cut was passed in 2003, then state Rep. J. Paul Taylor, D-Mesilla, and I shed some tears together at the Roundhouse.
Taylor had devoted his years in the Legislature to improving the lives of New Mexico children. On that fateful day, he told me, “Everything we have worked for all these years is gone.” He knew this law would erase $350 million a year from the general fund with 100 percent of the benefit going to the richest New Mexicans. He was concerned about what would happen in an inevitable economic downturn.
When the Great Recession hit the U.S., it hit extra hard in New Mexico. Most of the state is still struggling. Rep. Taylor’s warnings have come true. In the depths of this recession, with the majority of the people in the state struggling to keep their heads above water, New Mexico cut cash assistance, one of six states balancing their budgets on the poorest of the poor.
Child poverty in New Mexico is about 34 percent but is not spread equally across the state. In the most neglected communities, nearly every child lives in poverty. Community poverty rates as high as 70 percent to 90 percent are common.
The economy will only recover when more people have money to spend. I propose that the most efficient way to fuel spending growth is to double cash assistance payments and hold other benefits harmless from cuts for two years. Doubling takes zero additional personnel or infrastructure because eligibility and payment systems are already in place. New Mexico cash assistance is at 23 percent of the federal poverty line, guaranteeing extreme poverty. This “assistance” would have to be quadrupled to move someone even to the poverty line. While a small, incremental first step, it will be huge for children held in poverty by a monthly cash assistance payment of $380 for a family of three.
The Legislature can fund and implement this with the one-two-three plan: One, repeal the 2003 tax cut. Two, legalize and tax marijuana. Three, double cash assistance. As revenues increase, a comprehensive plan to build a resilient, sustainable economy can be developed. This proposal is an emergency action, a first step on what will be a long road to reverse the debilitating, persistent poverty holding back the state.
Too many resources are wasted on criminalizing and punishing poverty. Rather than action taken to solve the financial problems of the state, we have witnessed a horrific week of grandstanding by the governor, whose first priority on her wish list is to be granted the authority to legally kill people.
Another bad idea from the governor and some legislators is a three strikes law. This proposed expansion of the police state threatens to divert funding away from investing in people, communities and economic growth into the punishment industry. Three strikes laws are being dropped by other states for several reasons — they don’t reduce crime, they cause prison overcrowding and they are unaffordable. California, the first state with a three strikes law, recently repealed it and, as a result, more than 30,000 people have been released from prison with no increase in crime rates.
It is very sad to watch elected officials push New Mexico down even further toward permanent status on the bottom of all states.
Each of us must speak up and demand a real investment in the future of the state. There will be a Circle of Love for New Mexico Children in Santa Fe on Feb. 14, 2017. People will come together to join hands, encircle the Roundhouse and stand up for our children and families.
Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco (population 300) and an advocate for “geographic democracy,” the belief that the United States must guarantee equal rights and opportunities to participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives.