Gambling on the state’s uncertain future

New Mexico is gambling with its future, in more ways than one.

Thanks to a quick little special session, the state now has a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year, higher education has its funding restored and no new taxes were imposed on the citizenry.

Of course, all that didn’t leave much of a reserve, but that’s a chance our governor decided to take.

New Mexico is now like the family that spends all their money just paying the monthly bills, socking away nothing for savings or investing except for their change jar. By State of New Mexico standards, there is now $30 million in that jar, but—for reasons of credit and security—there should be about $600 million in the bank. But because of some rough years of late, that bank account is empty.

Recent indicators point to an economic uptick coming New Mexico’s way. If so, the governor’s gamble could pay off. If taxable revenues start going back up, we can pull back from this hole we’re about to fall into.

But if Martinez is expecting an economic rebound based solely on an oil-and-gas industry comeback, she had better think twice.

True enough, President Donald Trump’s new scorch-the-earth policies include a blessing upon more fossil fuel extraction, but that doesn’t mean the industry is going to return to its former glory.

Production could come back in the Permian and San Juan basins, but the era of horizontal drilling has changed the game—it doesn’t take as much labor to extract even more out of the ground. That, and the fact that the anti-fracking crowd isn’t going away, doesn’t bode well for a long-term industry comeback.

The fact is, New Mexico’s economy has been in a slump for a long time now, and it’s not just oil and gas. We’re a government-heavy state, thanks to our federally supported labs, air bases and other big government operations; as well as state social services for an impoverished citizenry. Private enterprise seems to do better in neighboring states, not here. That must have a lot to do with the fact that New Mexico currently has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

Except for Mississippi (thank God), we’ve also got the highest poverty rate in the nation. And we’re down at the bottom in education too, which hamstrings our workforce.

Martinez and state Republicans may be on to something when they talk of tax reform. The retail industry, the biggest contributor to the state’s gross-receipts taxes, has always struggled in parts of New Mexico, in part because the state isn’t as “business friendly” as some would like it to be. Reforming the tax structure could help with that, and actually generate some new revenue along the way.

Democrats in the legislature tried to grab some low-hanging GRT fruit by lifting the sales tax exemption from internet retail sales, something that would level the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses (you know, the ones who create real jobs for real people) and would have generated an estimated $31 million in new revenue—if the governor had allowed it. Instead, she nixed it with one of her vetoes.

Of course, over the long run, education is our single best chance toward prosperity. But that’s difficult to address when the money runs tight.

Last week, the day after the Legislature was wrapping up the session that restored funding to the state’s institutions of higher education, Higher Ed secretary Barbara Damron announced a cut in Lottery Scholarship payouts. College scholarships linked to the state lottery’s earnings are being reduced from 90 percent of tuition to 60 percent for in-state students in the 2017-18 school year. It used to pay 100 percent for in-state high school graduates.

Officials blamed the necessity of this latest adjustment on rising tuition rates and falling lottery revenues. Whatever the cause, it’s a big hit to about 26,000 New Mexicans attending or planning to attend colleges and universities all over the state.

Roll the dice, New Mexico. Let’s see how many young people, already strapped for cash, will just give up on getting their college education, and instead join the working ranks of the unprepared.

Or better yet, let’s bet on our “best and brightest” and whether they’ll stay or leave New Mexico. If we want them to stay (and of course we do), we’d better ante up and make the investment.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He can be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.