Discussions about how government can and should work for the people, who alternately benefit from its machinery and find themselves at its mercy, almost always come down to measuring the distance between one point of view and another. Especially these days.
But when the system works like it ought to, debate and discussion — which includes a little give and take — is still what moves government from point A to point B, no matter the issue.
As a new 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature gets underway Tuesday, both the Senate and House of Representatives are so solidly blue that it’s hard to anticipate how loud or impactful a voice GOP lawmakers — a group that includes our local delegation — will have when it comes to issues that break down along partisan lines.
But points of view are not, 100 percent of the time, partisan, even when a group of legislators get together. It sometimes comes down to shared experiences to which many can relate, like those that impact pocketbooks.
New Mexico — as the 2019 session of the Legislature begins — enjoys a windfall of, potentially, $1.1 billion in oil and gas revenues originating largely from our own southeast corner of the state. That’s a blessing for a state facing challenges, and expensive ones, in any number of areas. But it has those accustomed to the historically “feast or famine” nature of oil and gas income wary of growing state government now, while we’re flush, in ways that won’t be sustainable when the good times begin winding down.
Booms are followed by busts. What goes up, inevitably, must come down. Everyone knows the cliches — but as anyone who’s leaned on an oil-dependent economy can attest, it’s amazing how little good knowing them does if the bottom indeed falls out.
It’s a perspective worth keeping in mind as lawmakers go about the balancing act of addressing New Mexico’s very real needs.
The spending plan proposed last week by new Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham provided an overview of her priorities, a number of which are, not surprisingly, education-focused.
The plan overall does increase annual general fund spending — for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — by 13 percent, from $6.3 billion to $7.1 billion, according to a quick analysis by the Associated Press published Friday. A few of the spending plan’s features:
• “Sixty percent of the governor’s proposed spending increase would go toward public education,” according to the AP’s report. “Starting salaries for teachers would rise. All teachers, principals and staff would be in line for a six percent bump in pay. The plan also directs $113 million in new spending toward the education of students from low-income and minority families and those learning English as a second language or living with disabilities.”
• After a campaign pledge to seek universal access to preschool for the state’s children, Lujan Grisham’s plan sets aside $60 million to help make it happen. The goal, according to the AP report, is to achieve 80 percent enrollment within five years. “The governor also has promised to tap into the state’s multibillion-dollar (Land Grant Permanent Fund) to underwrite early childhood education,” according to the AP, but, “that would require legislative approval and a statewide referendum.”
The plan calls for adding more than 100 positions to the state’s protective services division, and increasing by $36 million spending with the Children, Youth and Families Department; and would provide for pay raises of between two and four percent for state government workers.
It also, encouragingly, calls for setting aside reserves in the amount of $1.8 billion meant as a cushion for the state in the event of recession or an oil sector downturn, according to the AP’s report.
There are distances in New Mexico that are in truth far greater than those between political parties — they’re the distances between where the state is now, and where it needs to be, in any number of areas, especially education. Closing that gap’s not optional, as lawmakers, especially while the resources are available, must do right by the state’s future generations.
Not long ago, New Mexico was in a financial bind and scrambling to make ends meet. Now, within a short time, the state’s general fund fortunes have turned around. In the face of that kind of swing, the challenge for lawmakers heading to Santa Fe next week will be maintaining perspective, economically.
It’s certainly doable. But — and here’s something you don’t hear everyday — with an extra $1.1 billion on hand, it won’t be easy.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.