COMMENTARY: There’s disagreement about whether furloughing government employees and closing state parks is necessary to address New Mexico’s budget woes. Nonetheless, Gov. Susana Martinez is heading in that direction.
Regardless of who’s right, I believe we can end this vicious cycle of government cuts when oil and gas prices drop and surpluses when they soar. But we must change how our government operates.
Our government isn’t adequately supporting workers, empowering small businesses, or attracting out-of-state investments. We trail most states in personal income and have too much poverty. Because we’re dependent on federal spending and oil and gas revenues, we have little control over our state’s financial health.
We help our kids earn college degrees but don’t provide enough good-paying jobs to entice them to stay. We’re left with too many people working low-wage jobs who are dependent on government assistance.
To create an economy that can consistently fund government services, we must think more structurally than the debate over the size of government. Our challenges are deeper.
Here are some suggestions:
GRT reform: There are hundreds of loopholes to our gross receipts tax. We’ve raised the overall tax rate to compensate. This means fewer people – citizens and small businesses – pay more. That’s no way to put money in the pockets of New Mexicans and help businesses grow. A bill to eliminate many exemptions and lower the overall rate died, unfortunately, in the legislative session earlier this month.
Infrastructure: It’s not just that our roads are in dire need of repair. Among our challenges is a need to expand broadband Internet to rural communities. Legislation that might help awaits Martinez’s action.
Racial equity: Our state has a complicated history of bicultural conquest by the Spanish and American governments that’s structurally and culturally built into society. We need the courage to navigate challenging conversations that can help heal wounds and unravel systems that create disparities. For example, too many people on the Navajo Nation lack the clean water most of us get from our sinks and showers. How can people grow businesses if they don’t have clean water?
Transparency and accessibility: We’ve made progress, but government still often operates in the dark. We need webcasting of every local and state policymaking body, more documents and data in the Sunshine Portal, and better disclosure from those seeking to influence government.
Voter turnout: When citizens don’t participate, other forces control government. Lawmakers approved a proposal this year to consolidate most local elections into one. The bill, which awaits action by Martinez, aims to increase dismal voter turnout by streamlining elections. That should help people better understand when and where they can vote and learn about candidates and issues. It could empower voters to be more involved.
Redesigning the Legislature: We’re the only state that doesn’t pay lawmakers a salary. That outdated system limits who can serve. Many work other jobs and are stretched thin. We need to pay legislators, give them more staff, and enable them to keep up with the speed of the 21st Century.
Accountability: Government corruption remains a problem. Voters will decide in 2018 whether to create a commission that would set ethical standards for government and police violations. An ethics commission will help. We also need a more robust state auditor’s office to combat the waste, fraud and abuse that exacerbates budget shortfalls.
We can improve the health of government, our businesses, and our people. To do it, we must dream big and work tenaciously and meticulously.
Heath Haussamen is NMPolitics.net’s editor and publisher.