I started writing about New Mexico in 1970 when I was a nomadic national correspondent in the Washington Bureau of the Baltimore Sun. For nearly half a century now, I have been following the state’s ups and downs. In all this time, I’ve never seen the state’s ups so illusory or its downs so profound.
New Mexico has, of course, a lot of transient problems, as it has always had. What makes this time exceptional is that there doesn’t seem to be any way out of them, any path to a brighter future.
The mess is a gruel mixed of politics and economics, national and local trends, political gridlock and governmental incompetence, blind ideology and intellectual exhaustion.
Government has more or less collapsed—state government, county government, school governance, any level you look at:
- Major programs like food stamps and Medicaid are being so badly administered the federal government is probably going to have to run them for us.
- State officials swear in court that they have been ordered to falsify documents to prevent New Mexicans from getting the assistance to which the law entitles them.
- State and local police forces seem to be wearing handcuffs themselves in the face of rising crime rates and escalating complaints of use of excessive force.
- The Albuquerque Police Department can’t recruit the cops for which it is budgeted, probably because of all the unpleasant publicity its use of excessive force has generated, and is still generating.
- Now the rot has spread to the Bernalillo County Detention Center, by far the state’s largest jail, where a sergeant who trains his colleagues in “proper” use of force is shown on a video ordering what can be called torture of a female inmate to compel her to stop crying.
- A new study by WalletHub using 17 criteria ranks New Mexico public education as worse than any any other state’s except Louisiana. The quality of public education has continued to worsen for six years despite the stated intention of Gov. Susana Martinez to make its improvement her highest priority.
- Education Week gave New Mexico schools a grade of D. Only two other states ranked as low.
- In a national study of high school students, New Mexico ranked second highest for cocaine and Ecstasy use, fifth highest for methamphetamine and eighth highest for heroin.
- Another WalletHub study ranked New Mexico worst in the nation for the percentage of children who are “food insecure.”
- Unemployment in the state is one of the highest in the country, two full percentage points above the national average. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. The small number of new jobs is focused on health care for the elderly and paid for via President Barack Obama’s expansion of Medicaid.
- In June, 866,609 New Mexicans had jobs. In 2005, the number was 871,248. We are now in our second lost decade.
The prices of oil and natural gas are way down—although not anywhere near all-time lows—dragging down state revenues: not only the one-fifth directly attributable to oil and gas but gross receipts, income and corporate taxes indirectly linked to the price of oil and gas.
Almost every week somewhere in New Mexico a long-established business closes. Most often it is because the elderly founders want to retire and the economy is so bad that no one will take over the business. National chains are closing their local branches. Once-successful local businesses are declaring bankruptcy.
There are fewer concerts, plays and festivals. People just don’t have as much money to have fun as they used to.
Young, educated men and women are leaving the state. At the same time, enrollment in colleges and universities is declining, further shrinking the most promising part of the future workforce. As enrollment drops, post-secondary institutions raise their tuition and fees, further draining the student pool.
Meanwhile the percentage of New Mexicans dependent on programs like food stamps and Medicaid just keeps on increasing. The percentage of New Mexicans living in poverty exceeds that of India (although admittedly the criteria are starkly different). Much of the state’s administrative failure is due to the fact that the public bureaucracy is trying to handle an increased client load without hiring the additional staff its customers require.
On top of all these crises, we now have a budget crunch with no apparent resolution. The combined deficits for the past fiscal year and this year are in excess of $650 million. Last year’s deficit can be finessed by using the money the state gets from a huge tobacco settlement lawsuit—although that money is supposed to be used for programs to reduce smoking.
But the current year’s projected deficit, in excess of $400 million, is another matter. In its January-February 30-day session, the Legislature and the governor, in their collective wisdom, slashed state spending, although not enough to balance the budget. Everyone who looked at the numbers knew the data behind the cuts were overly optimistic, but the state chose to kick the can down the road instead of resolving the problem. Several leading legislators even denied there was a problem that needed further fixing.
So now everyone seems to agree we need a special legislative session to fix the budget. If the problem is not dealt with now, spending cuts or tax increases will have to be even more severe next year, because a year’s worth of cuts will have to be compressed into a few months.
But how? The informal Democratic-Republican coalition that controls the Senate is adamantly opposed to more cuts in programs and state agencies, especially public education, as are many in the House, including at least some Republicans. On the other hand, the governor continues to insist she will never raise taxes. Period. Or fees. Period. Or tap into the state’s two vast savings accounts, supposedly rainy day accounts. (If this isn’t a rainy day I’d sure hate to see what one looks like.) Period.
Unlike the federal government, the state cannot legally spend money it doesn’t have. No deficit spending.
And no one—no one—is talking about what in the world the state will do for money in the next fiscal year.
How did we get into this fix?
New Mexico was hit hard if belatedly by the national recession that crippled the whole country starting in December 2007 and nearly triggered the second great depression.
The worst of the consequences were staved off by several years of vast federal subsidies and bailouts, but that money has now all been spent. New Mexico, like the rest of the country, started a kind of slow-motion recovery from the great recession, but this state was stymied be a tragic combination of factors.
The brains (is that the right word?) of the Legislature and the governor went on an untimely vacation and they cut taxes when the economic data required that they raise them. Oil and gas production and prices crashed. Demands for public expenditure soared as incomes and jobs shrank. Manufacturing, led by Intel, the state’s largest manufacturer, crashed. And a budgetary deal in Congress sharply reduced military spending, on which New Mexico has an outsized dependence.
Add one more ingredient: the failure of leadership by both political parties, both branches of government and all non-governmental institutions, including big business, small business and the media.
At one time, I thought I saw daylight as we began to emerge from the recession and a lot of folks started talking seriously about trying to improve education, the key to any future progress. But then we fell back into recession, the talk remained just that, talk, and new leaders and ideas failed to fill old vacuums.
As a columnist, I have been something of an optimist. I don’t believe in using my access to the public’s attention to preach doom and gloom. I don’t think there is anything to be gained, for myself or my audience in general, in propounding a philosophy of pessimism. But this period we are in now is truly different, and honesty compels me to delineate it.
Other states have been where we are now. Most of the states that scraped bottom at one time or another—California, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina come to mind—have found ways out of their morass. A very few, like Michigan and West Virginia, seem permanently stymied.
Unfortunately, tragically, New Mexico looks more and more like one of the latter. Loving my adopted home, the native home of my wife, the home of my wife’s large extended family, the chosen home of my son, I lament its sad fate.