In our society, money buys things. That includes at places like the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, where the textbook ideal is an informed citizenry empowered to ask elected officials educated questions about how decisions are made but where the reality often is more muddy.
What money buys in Santa Fe is a pressing question these days in New Mexico, where in the past three years, a former secretary of state has pleaded guilty to embezzlement and a former state senator has been convicted of bribery.
That might best describe two senior lawmakers on the Legislature’s budget committees on the eve of the 2018 legislative session.
After two years of dismal tax revenues, New Mexico is suddenly enjoying a surplus of cash. Estimates are between $200 million and $300 million in new money will greet state lawmakers when they convene Tuesday in Santa Fe.
A few years ago, a tax nerd at the Roundhouse could catch murmurings of “deductions,” “exemptions,” and “credits” — the tell-tale sign of tax talk — while strolling past law-makers in the hallways or overhearing side conversations during committee hearings. Tax reform as a goal has progressed since then. In the past two years, the movement has interested a larger number of public officials, including Gov. Susana Martinez. Last year, competing concepts jockeyed for primacy. A bipartisan bill wasn’t in the cards.
New Mexico’s judges are the lowest paid in the country. Its chronically underfunded public defenders struggle to represent clients in one of the nation’s poorest states. And prosecutors say they need more money to blunt increases in crime. This situation awaits New Mexico state lawmakers when they convene Tuesday for the 2018 session in Santa Fe. But, for the first time in years, thanks to a projected $200 million to $300 million more in revenue than anticipated, the Legislature could spread serious money around New Mexico’s skeletal criminal justice system after recent budget cuts and years of austerity.
One school of thought is that cannabis, or marijuana, is relatively benign and ought to be legalized, regulated and taxed to spur economic growth and end the harm caused by criminalization. An opposing viewpoint is that it’s a dangerous drug that needs to re-main unavailable legally, with criminal punishment of those who break the law. Proponents of legalization in the New Mexico Legislature for several years have tried unsuccessfully to win a majority of state legislators over in a bid to legalize, regulate and tax the production and sale of cannabis to adults 21 years or older. Expect 2018 to be no different as Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, will again introduce a resolution during the four-week legislative session to put the issue on the ballot for voters to decide, a move that would not require support from the governor. Prospects for success
Working in favor of Ortiz y Pino and other legislators bringing similar bills is a shift in public opinion over the past decade, with a majority in New Mexico and nationally believing recreational cannabis should be legal.
It’s been a rough few years for New Mexico’s working families. A stagnant economy has meant high unemployment, low wages and cuts to key programs that help families survive. But it appears the state’s economy and revenue picture
have begun to recover. With the current revenue outlook it is time the Legislature made New Mexico’s children and families whole. Those least able to absorb tax increases or cuts to basic services like health care should be protect-ed and prioritized in the 2018 tax and budget decisions being made.
The Rio Grande Foundation is undoubtedly among the strongest supporters of limited government in New Mexico. As a general rule we don’t support increasing government revenues as an end in itself. Our philosophy (based on reams of data and international comparison) is that resources would be better spent by individuals, not government bureaucrats and politicians. That said, the New Mexico Legislature, by not embracing tax reform during the 2018 session, seems to be willing to forego a chance to both secure upwards of $100 million for the state AND achieve an important public policy reform for New Mexico. Rather than embracing long-overdue reform of the gross receipts tax (GRT), New Mexico’s Democratic legislative leaders have clearly signaled that they are willing to let petty partisan differences with Governor Martinez stand in the way.
We all want a prosperous state, but prosperity requires investments. You can’t grow a garden without good soil, sunlight, water, and some hard work. Same with a state—you can’t have prosperity without resources, infrastructure, and a skilled workforce. But instead of following an investment strategy to prosperity, New Mexico has tried to cut its way to prosperity. You could call this the “don’t build it and let’s hope they will come anyway” strategy.
The 2020 census may seem far away to most citizens, but partisans around the country are sharpening their pencils in preparation for the redistricting process that occurs every 10 years, based on a new census. In New Mexico, a special session will be held in 2021 and legislators will draw new legislative and congressional districts. What they come up with could give Democrats, Republicans or incumbents an edge for the next 10 years and determine funding priorities and state and federal law. Common Cause believes that this process should be done by an independent, nonpartisan commission, as it is in six other states. We will be prioritizing a constitutional amendment to authorize such a system and establish more neutral, transparent criteria, including public hearings.