I’m writing this week’s column in an airport lounge on my return from a business trip. I’ve spent the week in another western state with a relatively small population spread over millions of square miles, with about half the population concentrated in a single major metro area and the capital city. Sound familiar?
This Other State, though, manages to do what New Mexico cannot. In the annual WalletHub Best States To Live Index where New Mexico always languishes at the bottom, the Other State pops up a reputable number 20. With 2 million people! In flyover country! Here’s the kicker: the Other State jumps into the Top Ten for its economy at #7 (while remaining 50% rural) and shames our state by taking the 14th spot in the nation for the education and health category. New Mexico, predictably, comes in at 48th and 47th respectively in these categories. We are dead last in the nation for safety, surprising exactly no one.
Forty-five seconds on the internet shows some basic data that tells more of the story about the Other State: an annual state budget twice that of ours; state revenues generated primarily through sales and use taxes; excellent public education does not take up 50% of state spending. Regarding individual tax burdens, the two states in comparison rank about the same, in the middle of the pack: New Mexico 23rd, the Other State 28th. However, with a more diverse economy and a lower poverty rate, the Other State has twice as much tax revenue per capita and a more stable tax base overall.
I’m not writing this to add to our collective New Mexican self-loathing or even to pile more blame on the governor. New Mexico has been suffering from poor governance and wasting its economic assets for decades.
Successful states are generally led by successful, functional state governments. That doesn’t mean larger government. That means governments that govern and operate with some sense of purpose and accountability. I would offer that New Mexico has never reached this point in its 109 years of statehood.
Perhaps the most obvious barrier to functional state government is endemic corruption. Around a decade after statehood, the mob moved in from New York, New Jersey, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. By the time the Manhattan Project started at the outset of World War II, illegal gambling, brothels, and racketeering were openly flourishing from Raton to Las Cruces. And our elected leaders and law enforcement were often first in line to skim their share from the profits. Famously, the town-soon-to-be-renamed Truth or Consequences directly reinvested its illegal gambling kickbacks into its street improvement fund.
(Columnist’s note: a Santa Fe reporter named Tony Hillerman started trying to pick the murk and dross apart in the early 1950s; the layers of dirt intertwined with the levels of power in the state would form the inspiration for some of the most popular detective thrillers written in the modern era. Also, for some engrossing and delightfully lurid non-fiction accounts of organized crime and corruption in New Mexico from 1920-1969, check out these two books: Cricket in the Web by Paula Moore and Madam Millie by Max Evans.)
Against this backdrop New Mexico was building mining, oil, and gas industries, and developing world-changing technology that should have made us Silicon Valley before anyone knew what a Silicon Valley was. But our elected leaders were too busy making the easy money to recognize the economic potential of those strong stable industries. Somehow, those industries are still here.
What’s also still here: gambling! According to a Nevada National Public Radio report, New Mexico has more slot machines per capita than any other state. Because the state with the nation’s third worst economy so needs that. Counting our five racetracks (with legal slot machines) and our tribal casinos, the state got $140 million in tax revenue from gambling receipts in 2019. It’s just like gangster-era T or C but made nice and clean and legal because that is what mattered to our state Legislature party bosses.
(Columnist’s note: I am using 2019 numbers because the pandemic closed racetracks and casinos; also, I am not including bingo tax receipts because I am Catholic.)
Moving into the present era, I don’t believe that Susanna Martinez, Michelle Lujan-Grisham or even Bill Richardson walked onto the fourth floor of the Roundhouse looking only for personal gain at the expense of the state. But they did take office in an era of optics-only perpetual campaigning. So, they don’t really, actually, govern. They hope for the best and photo-op. Cabinet secretaries are loyalists who are owed something or have intriguing aligning political views but generally no executive management experience. If the agency the political appointee is overseeing is not functioning effectively, there seem to be no consequences without a death, lawsuit, or other public scandal.
We all know CYFD has been letting children die in its care for 20 years, and it is at a new breaking point under this governor. We all know that people without work because of the pandemic could not get through to Workforce Solutions for weeks, and yet many who finally reached them are being asked to repay overpayments that total hundreds of millions of dollars (and that secretary left the state due to “death threats”). We all know our food stamp program went into federal receivership under the Martinez administration because agents were falsifying applications to save themselves work. We all know Bill Richardson couldn’t get any Obama cabinet position because of the State Investment Council imbroglio, among others.
And then there are the indictments. I don’t have column space for that.
All of this lies at the feet at the governors (and legislators) we have elected.
Candidates are lining up for the primaries. I would suggest to everyone this: Stop focusing on the same national tropes from the left and the right. Get aggressive on our state and our crisis. Remember that we have had one-party rule for 109 years. Worry less about what the government owes you monetarily and rather what it owes you in quality services and government accountability and transparency. Focus less on the 2nd amendment and the unborn and instead on an actual plan to support and help our tremendous economic assets to flourish.
I’m so tired of living in a state where we can’t have nice things. You should be too.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at email@example.com.