Mr. Gessing’s proposals are not what NM needs

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COMMENTARY: After reading Mr. Gessing’s recent column, I find it odd that there are inconstancies in the philosophies of conservative think tanks. They claim that the federal government needs to leave more governing to states because applying a “one size fits all” policy doesn’t work.

Art Terrazas

Courtesy photo

Art Terrazas

Then they go to the states and promote the exact same policies for all the states.

Let me be clear: In New Mexico’s case, policy proposals are needed. New proposals are needed. Bold proposals are needed. We need to divorce ourselves from the partisan viewpoints and look at what proposals will actually work. But Mr. Gessing’s proposals are not what we need. They will not grow the economy. To claim that they will is just peddling snake oil.

Let’s take a look at the so-called “right to work” proposal. Unions are always a nice scapegoat when things get tough. But perhaps Mr. Gessing is unaware that New Mexico has a proud history of unions and that history is demonstrative evidence of why unions are needed. Whether it’s the copper mines, the oil rigs, WIPP or working on a farm, the work a great many New Mexicans do is hard and, in many cases, dangerous. The truth of the matter is that unions protect those who can’t protect themselves.

Are all unions perfect? No, but show me one organization that is. As my father said, bad management creates unions. When people do not recognize that there is dignity in all work and in all people, then bad things happen. Unions exist to keep those bad things from happening.

Unions don’t hurt the economy. If that were the case the capitalist system would have collapsed after the birth of the labor movement. Instead the middle class grew, companies grew and we were all the better for it.

While Mr. Gessing lists a few states that have taken up “right to work” laws, he didn’t mention that the website he cited, “Wallethub,” doesn’t rank any of those states in the top ten in terms of having the best economies in the country. “Wallethub” actually lists California as No. 3, and there is a strong union presence in the Golden state. In fact, eight out of the top 10 states are “blue” states where there is a presence of organized labor.

Businesses don’t look at states and decide not to move there because of unions. A number of factors go into those decisions, and dealing with unions is not a deal-breaker. In fact, in 2009 when Sapphire energy announced it was opening a facility in southern New Mexico, I helped arrange a meeting between a member of Sapphire’s corporate team and the New Mexico Building Trades Union. Sapphire didn’t shirk away from the meeting; in fact, they welcomed it.

Now let’s have a look at the claim about capital outlay money and the prevailing wage. First, the capital outlay system is horrifically broken. According to the state auditor there’s $1.2 billion in unspent capital outlay funds. That money is better spent on infrastructure, which in turn would create jobs, which would spur economic growth.

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But the prevailing wage is as much a moral issue as an economic one. Why should we sell New Mexicans short? It’s like saying that a starving person should be happy being served scraps of food since it’s better than nothing. Do we really hold ourselves in such low regard?

Also, the prevailing wage does have an economic incentive — it raises the quality of life. When there are more people making more money, they want more things and a higher salary gives them the ability to buy those things. They can afford nicer homes, better restaurants, more recreational activities and better health care. Not to mention that they would be contributing more to the tax base through property taxes and sales taxes. And if they were able to purchase health care through their employer they could get off of Medicaid, which would also be pretty helpful.

Killing the prevailing wage just creates a cycle of poverty. For all the talk about being “economically free” and “choice,” one should remember that when you’re poor you’ve very little freedom and no choice.

Speaking of choice, the “school choice” proposal is the most disingenuous of all. Where would the students go if not to public schools? Have you looked at the private school infrastructure in the state Mr. Gessing? You haven’t. Because if you did, you would see that there are very few private schools in the state that could accommodate the student population.

If I live in Las Cruce, I could send my child to private school for a certain number of years (K-8 in some instances), but while there are four public high schools in the city, there is only one small private high school, Mesilla Valley Christian. You’re proposing giving vouchers to schools that don’t exist. There is no “choice” to be made here. Pushing this proposal is the biggest example of pushing a “one size fits-all” philosophy while ignoring the facts.

Funding early childhood education would probably see a bigger economic impact. It would mean more parents can send their kids to a safe place during the work day. Parents (and especially single parents) won’t have to make a choice between staying at home with their child and not working or trying to find some other way to make ends meet.

On February 14, 2013, The Washington Post looked at a pre-K program that one state initiated. They reported that researchers from Georgetown University found that the program benefited children from poor and middle-class families the most. Lisa Guernsey from the New American Foundation was quoted as saying that, “Early literacy skills increased pretty dramatically for Hispanic students.” The state that was looked at? Oklahoma. Another instance of a neighboring state getting the drop on us.

Mr. Gessing also makes the claim that “Our ideas have never been tried in any serious way in New Mexico.” These ideas have been tried. This governor and other governors have cut taxes, rolled back regulations and we still haven’t seen it make a lick of difference. If these solutions were the silver bullet, then only places that had done all of these things would have seen economic growth — but that just isn’t the reality.

New Mexico is teetering on the edge of the abyss for several reasons, but two of the biggest are our dependence on extraction industries and dramatic cuts to federal spending. Cuts that groups like the Rio Grande foundation have supported, by the way. We have not seen a real, ambitious effort toward creating an environment for private companies to grow and survive.

New Mexico’s unemployment rate is higher than the national average. The state ranks as number one for childhood hunger. Over 900,000 of the state’s residents are on Medicaid. There are over 5,000 rape kits in the state that haven’t been tested. All this and you think that passing a budget would’ve made things worse?

Let’s not forget that the governor vetoed funding for higher education and in communities like Las Cruces, Silver City, Socorro, and Portales, these institutions are one of the biggest economic drivers. In what reality does this veto make sense? This veto is worse than throwing gasoline onto a fire — it’s jumping into a fire with a gasoline-soaked jumpsuit.

We need new ideas. We need to try things that haven’t been tried before. But we don’t need campaign rhetoric disguised as policy proposals. We’ve taken that pill too many times and it’s only made us sicker.

Art Terrazas is a former resident of Anthony, New Mexico and graduate of New Mexico State University. He lives and works in Washington D.C. for a nonprofit organization. His views are his own.

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