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Opinion piece: Government boondoggles shouldn’t be New Mexico way

This article first appeared in the Las Cruces Sun News on Sunday, July 31, 2022.

New Mexico is always ranked among the “poor” states in the United States. But, as anyone who lives here or has taken stock of New Mexico’s abundant natural and cultural resources can tell you, we have no business being “poor.”

Sadly, much of our poverty is self-inflicted. It is the obvious result of bad public policy. While there are all manner of bad tax and regulatory policies that often wind up being “in the weeds,” one of New Mexico’s fundamental problems is the result of politicians’ misguided belief that the path to success involves more government spending or another big government project.

The Rio Grande Foundation has long had its concerns about two Bill Richardson-era projects of this kind: the Rail Runner and Spaceport America. Starting with the Rail Runner, the latest ridership data just came out and, over the past year the train saw 319,635 riders board the train. The train was fully operational throughout the last 12 months which included a few months of fares having been discounted to $2.50 a day.

One might think that with gas prices these days the Rail Runner would be a cost-effective alternative. Sadly, the train’s current ridership is about 25% of peak years of 2010 and 2011 when more than 1.2 million people boarded the train. Sadder still is the fact that taxpayers continue to pay tens of millions of dollars in debt service on construction of the train and nearly $20 million annually to operate it.

Shockingly, Las Cruces Sen. Bill Soules recently pledged to reintroduce legislation in the 2023 session that would theoretically create “high speed rail” from Denver to Chihuahua. The fact is that population density numbers don’t justify commuter rail between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Now Soules wants to spend tens of billions on “high speed” passenger service spanning more than 850 miles, three states, and two countries?

Sadly, Spaceport America has proven itself to be another Richardson-era boondoggle that hasn’t lived up to its promise. Spaceport America has been open for business for more than a decade and it has yet to fulfill its mission of hosting commercial space flights.

Last July Richard Branson and a team of Virgin Galactic employees did make it to weightlessness, but the company’s stock has tanked in the meantime and their latest prediction is for flights to begin the first quarter of 2023.

Plans for those manned commercial space flights have been delayed time and again. We’re not holding our breath for flights to begin in earnest early next year.

Worse, Virgin Galactic recently announced plans to build its future fleet of spacecraft in Mesa, Arizona. Sadly, spending hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to provide a spaceport for Virgin Galactic was not enough for them to build ships here.

With massive oil and gas surpluses flowing into the state’s coffers, politicians like Soules will again be looking for new “opportunities” to waste money. But big government spending schemes have repeatedly failed to truly diversify our economy or bring sustainable growth to our state.

Instead, the governor and Legislature would better serve our state by considering why companies with a New Mexico presence (like Virgin Galactic and Intel to name two) continue to choose neighboring Arizona over us.

It might be Arizona’s school choice which has improved educational results and workforce preparedness, not to mention a willingness for families to locate there.

Or, perhaps it is Arizona’s lower taxes which has dropped to 2.5% for nearly all Arizonans under a new tax cut law.

Finally, it could be that Arizona has a “right to work” law which gives private sector workers the right to opt out of membership or the payment of dues and fees in labor unions.

No matter, it is high time for New Mexico to abandon our government-driven model and consider what states like Arizona and others do that has worked so much better.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation.

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Talking New Mexico economy in Clovis

RGF president Paul Gessing traveled to Clovis, NM recently to discuss the State’s economy and education systems and what can be done to improve them. You can see the slides from the powerpoint presentation here and if you are part of a civic group that would like to hear a similar message, please don’t hesitate to reach out to info@riograndefoundation.org to schedule something.

Paul’s remarks were well covered by the Eastern New Mexico News.

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Analysis: the Ronchetti rebate plan

New Mexico’s race for governor is, by all accounts, going to be extremely close.   Generally-speaking the two candidates have VERY different visions for New Mexico, but on one thing their policies have a bit of overlap: rebating money from New Mexico’s booming oil and gas industry.

While having previously raised taxes despite record revenues, incumbent Gov. MLG called a special session of the Legislature to pass rebates of up to $1,500 for “New Mexicans.” The quotes are due to the fact that there is a pot of money specifically set aside in the Gov.’s rebate package for those who didn’t file tax returns which could include illegal immigrants.

Ronchetti’s plan is different from MLG’s in a few big ways: it would be only for New Mexicans (although details are unclear as to enforcement), it would potentially bigger with families with children benefitting the most providing up to $2,000 to a family of four (including children), and it would be a regular annual occurrence as long as revenues hold up.

Here are our takeaways on the Ronchetti plan:

  1. Putting money back in New Mexicans’ pockets is far superior to further increasing the size of New Mexico’s already bloated state government (and that includes the various permanent funds);
  2. Reforming New Mexico’s broken and anti-business gross receipts tax and THEN working to reduce or eliminate the income tax must be the top reform priorities, but there is nothing wrong with doing all of them;
  3. One challenge with rebates is that they don’t necessarily reward work. New Mexico still faces a huge gap in terms of its workforce participation rates. Government checks can negatively impact efforts to get more people to work.
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RGF calls out “fee” hikes at CABQ, elsewhere

We all know prices are skyrocketing as inflation takes hold of the United States economy. We also know that the State of New Mexico and City of Albuquerque have massively increased spending in their latest budgets (well beyond the rate of inflation).

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that government, especially the City, is interested in keeping overall costs and fees down for those paying the bills. RGF’s Paul Gessing spoke to KOAT Channel 7 to discuss the increased costs on your water, trash, and power bills.

 

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RGF in National Review Capital Matters: Are Electric-Vehicle Mandates Coming to Your State?

The following appeared in National Review’s Capital Matters on May 26, 2022.

New Mexico just became the 15th state to follow California’s lead in adopting “Clean Car Standards.”

Under New Mexico’s new automobile standards, roughly 7 percent of new cars sold in the state must be zero-emission in 2025. In the latest report available (3rd quarter of 2021) zero-emission vehicles amounted to just 2.29 percent of new vehicle sales in New Mexico. So, to comply with the new rule, sales of zero-emission vehicles will need to more than triple from Q3 of 2021 to 2025.

While the number of states adopting these standards is limited to mostly the West Coast and Northeast so far, anytime a Democrat is elected governor, this kind of policy could be on the table for adoption. That’s because, despite the impact that adopting such policies will have on everything from the automotive to the agricultural sectors, states often don’t need to push these policies through their legislatures for approval.

In New Mexico’s case, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham these standards through an unelected Environmental Improvement Board. California’s own in states with Democratic governors, this kind of policy could be coming your way if it hasn’t already been put in place.

The real kicker is that by subjecting itself to California’s political whims, New Mexico (and other states adopting these standards) could be forced to adopt even more aggressive “Clean Car” standards soon. California governor Gavin Newsom has issued an executive order that, if adopted by California’s Air Board, would end the sale of gasoline-powered cars in California by 2035. The board’s decision on final adoption of that rule could come in California as early as this August.

Under California’s proposed rule, 35 percent of new cars, SUVs, and small pickups sold in California (and thus other states following their policies) must be zero-emission starting with 2026 models. That number will increase yearly, reaching 51 percent of all new car sales in 2028, 68 percent in 2030, and 100 percent in 2035.

Tripling sales of electric vehicles (EVs) in two years in New Mexico means dealerships will cross-subsidize EVs by raising prices on gasoline vehicles or they will look to the state to further subsidize sales of EVs. This could make gasoline vehicles purchased in states following California more expensive, leading to more car buyers looking out of state. That would result in lost jobs, and tax revenues leaving those states. That situation will get far worse if California adopts the even more aggressive rules now under consideration.

There is nothing inherently wrong with EVs, but there are numerous public-policy implications in their mass deployment, especially if the tool is to simply mandate their sale at the state level.

Additional issues with the widespread and aggressive adoption of EVs include the need for more mining. Will environmentalists who ostensibly support EVs support the mining of everything from copper to rare-earth minerals to go along with their deployment on a large scale?

Who pays to maintain the roads? It is a relatively simple task to apply a charge to the use of EVs for road maintenance, but politically speaking, owners of EVs are currently favored. Will politicians have the courage to apply fees to electric-vehicle users to pay for the roads?

Few advocates of free markets such as  myself oppose the deployment of EVs. But it should be an organic process driven by market forces, not government mandates and subsidies where the burdens fall on those who cannot afford or have no use for EVs.

Worse, the process of joining California on EVs is being done in the dark, absent the say-so of our democratically elected representatives.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility

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Economy Energy and Environment Notable News Oil & Gas Top Issues Transportation

Op-ed: Clean Car Rule is Lujan Grisham’s latest policy imposition

Gov. Lujan Grisham recently continued her attempt to simultaneously keep the oil and gas revenue spigot flowing while enacting enough policies from the radical environmental agenda to placate her political and fundraising base.

Her latest plan, known as the Clean Car Rule, was adopted by her handpicked Environmental Improvement Board (EIB). Governor-appointed boards are far more willing to do what they are told than are unruly and sometimes uncooperative (albeit overwhelmingly Democrat) legislative bodies with their own political calculations and aspirations.

Incredibly, New Mexico’s newly Clean Car Rule undermines democracy and self-government (along with our economy) by placing New Mexico automobile regulations under the control of another state, California. The current rules are California’s and if California changes them, New Mexico will have to go along with them or reverse course and opt out.

New Mexico’s new automobile standards will require roughly 7% of new cars sold in the State to be zero emission in 2025. In the latest report available (3rd quarter of 2021) zero emission vehicles amounted to just 2.29% of new vehicle sales in New Mexico. So, to comply with the new rule, sales of zero emission vehicles will need to just more than triple from Q3 of 2021 to 2025.

But the real kicker is by subjecting itself to California’s political whims New Mexico could be forced to adopt even more aggressive “Clean Car” standards soon. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an  executive order that, if adopted, would end the sale of gas-powered cars in California by 2035. Final adoption of that rule could come in California as early as this August.

If California enacts this rule, 35% of new cars, SUVs and small pickups sold in California (and thus New Mexico) must be zero-emission starting with 2026 models. That number will increase yearly, reaching 51% of all new car sales in 2028, 68% in 2030 and 100% in 2035.

“Just” tripling sales of electric vehicles (EV’s) in two years in New Mexico means dealerships will cross-subsidize EV’s by raising prices on gasoline vehicles or they will look to the State to further subsidize sales of “chosen” vehicles. This could make gasoline vehicles purchased in New Mexico more expensive leading to purchases made at out-of-state car dealers. That would result in lost jobs and tax revenues in New Mexico. That situation will get much worse if California (and New Mexico) adopt the even more aggressive rules being considered.

Current tax credits and subsidies include a $7,500 federal tax credit and various credits for upgrading connectivity to the electrical grid further help with deployment of electric vehicles. Of course, those credits and subsidies are paid for by increasing costs on taxpayers and utility rate payers.

Deployment of EV charging stations will be another expense associated with this plan. A recent report found New Mexico to have just 401 public charging stations statewide. And those need to be maintained. A recent report from EV-friendly San Francisco found that 27 percent of the Bay-areas charging stations were not functional.

All of this comes at a time when New Mexico’s largest utility (PNM) is keeping its coal fired power plant open just to keep the lights on and says it won’t have half the solar/battery replacement power needed to keep the lights on during the summer of 2023.

There are so many problems and costs with a drastic shift toward electric vehicles that at the very least New Mexico’s elected Legislature should have had a say, but instead we have a Governor in a tight reelection battle who wants to make big promises to environmental groups and their funders no matter how disruptive or damaging to New Mexicans and their livelihoods.

The fact is that the real costs of these unrealistic and damaging policies will be borne after this election. Sadly, that is all by design.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility

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Opinion piece: Don’t waste New Mexico’s opportunity — get rid of income tax

The following opinion piece ran in the Santa Fe New Mexican on April 22nd, 2022. The piece also ran in other newspapers throughout the state.

New Mexico is in a unique economic situation. Despite having the highest unemployment rate in the nation for all of 2022, our incredibly strong oil and gas industry, buoyed by high prices and rapid production growth, have given politicians in Santa Fe “more money than they know what to do with.” So, in the recent 30-day session, we saw spending grow by more than $1 billion and some significant tax cuts. Then, in a special session, rebates to be paid out to taxpayers and non-taxpayers alike.

The impetus to return money generated by the oil and gas industry to New Mexicans is welcome, but there are serious questions about the legality and logistics of handing out checks to those who don’t pay taxes to the state. Furthermore, asking the Tax and Revenue Department to hand out cash “only” to those who deserve it is an unenviable and impossible task that also seems to violate the state’s anti-donation clause.

But, after three years of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democrats raising taxes, it is hard to complain about getting money back.

Of course, this is an election year, and by all accounts, Democrats, including Lujan Grisham, face a challenging political environment. Rising inflation is never popular. And, as COVID-19 concerns wane and voters consider Lujan Grisham’s record in fighting it as balanced against economic concerns and their children’s educations and mental health, her record appears wanting.

A recent report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that only New York and New Jersey performed worse than New Mexico did during the coronavirus pandemic. Considering that New Mexico’s economy remains weaker than our neighbors, that our kids missed more school and faced big declines in reading and math, and that none of this caused New Mexico to have particularly good COVID-19 outcomes in terms of lost lives, only lends credence to the report.

In the absence of a strong track record on these core issues, the governor clearly plans to use handing money generated by oil and gas for her political benefit. That may aid her reelection chances, but nothing she and the Legislature have done to date will improve New Mexico’s overall economy which remains challenged.

The fundamental economic problem New Mexico faces is its unattractive business climate. Addressing the gross receipts tax and its “pyramiding” and taxation of services as business inputs has been discussed for years now, but it is time to seriously consider bolder economic reforms like reducing or even phasing out New Mexico’s personal income tax.

Indeed, the personal income tax is expected to generate just over $2 billion in fiscal year 2023. That’s a lot of money, but New Mexico is in a financial position to reduce income tax rates over time. Combined with business-friendly gross receipts tax reform, modest budgetary restraint (annual spending simply can’t grow by 15 percent) and a focus on truly diversifying New Mexico’s economy could allow New Mexico to become income-tax-free.

Nine states already lack an income tax. Most New Mexicans know that Texas with its prodigious oil supplies does not tax personal incomes, but most other states lacking income taxes have nothing like our oil and gas revenues. Florida has no income tax. Same with Tennessee and South Dakota. New Hampshire has both no income tax and lacks a sales tax. None of them has significant oil revenues.

New Mexico has suffered economic and social mismanagement over the last few years. Record oil and gas revenues are helpful, but as New Mexicans contemplate the coming elections, it should be more apparent than ever that more spending has not and cannot solve the state’s social ills. It is time for genuinely bold solutions.

New Mexicans simply can’t allow this oil and gas-fueled opportunity to pass.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization.

 

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NM leaders must balance reality with green’ aspirations

The following opinion piece recently appeared in several New Mexico media outlets including the Eastern New Mexico News.

There are many things that make New Mexico unique, but one of the most noteworthy political nuances is the State’s deep and unusual relationship with energy. New Mexico’s Democratic politicians love the money and jobs generated by the traditional energy industry, but also wish to be seen as pushing back against it to placate their environmentalist base.

Nonetheless, New Mexico, a state blessed with all sorts of energy resources (both traditional as well as wind and solar) has continued to embrace Democrat politicians despite the Party’s leftward shift on energy in recent years. With oil prices skyrocketing and electricity reliability in question, it is time for voters to demand sensible energy policies from politicians.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused gasoline prices to jump dramatically after having risen throughout Joe Biden’s time in the White House (due in part to his anti-energy policies and rhetoric). And, while there are limited things to be done in the short term, in the intermediate and longer term, former New Mexican and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland should be a pivotal figure in addressing America’s energy issues. Instead, she is nowhere to be found.

Haaland manages the sprawling federal estate including the Bureau of Land Management. Immediately upon taking office the Biden Administration instituted a permitting moratorium on federal lands. Rather than changing directions and opening the leasing process as prices rose, under Haaland’s direction, new oil and gas lease auctions have remained on hold.

Expediting new drilling on federal lands is just one of many ways Haaland could get serious about reducing gas prices (and at least partially defanging Russia which relies heavily on oil and gas exports to Europe) but remains silent on the issue, even on her official Twitter account.

Speaking of natural gas which often takes a back seat to oil in New Mexicans’ minds, New Mexico leaders could and should be advocating for natural gas as a cleaner energy solution relative to coal and others. New Mexico is one of the leading natural gas producing states in the nation.

Thanks to a fracking-driven production boom, natural gas has been used to replace coal in electricity generation. This has been one of the primary tools in reducing US CO2 emissions in recent years, a fact recognized by former President Barack Obama. Furthermore, exports of US-produced liquefied natural gas (LNG) have created home-grown American jobs, narrowed the trade deficit, and helped foreign countries like China reduce their CO2 emissions.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides the United States (and by extension New Mexico) an ideal opportunity to expand production of natural gas. Unfortunately, our State’s senior Senator Martin Heinrich remains obsessed with eliminating natural gas in favor of “electrification.”

Rather than focusing on alleviating the pain of high energy costs (driven both by the Russian invasion and Biden Administration policies) Heinrich is pushing to replace natural gas in home heating and cooking. He remains uninterested in transitioning Western Europe away from Russian energy to New Mexico-produced natural gas.

Electrification is a fool’s errand. According to new Department of Energy data, electricity costs $41.79 per million BTU’s. Natural gas costs $12.09 per million BTU’s. And that’s in today’s numbers. Electrification would increase US electricity consumption by 40 percent. Public Service Company of New Mexico was concerned about blackouts and brownouts this summer due to the shuttering of one coal fired power plant. A 40% increase in electricity consumption over current levels will increase prices well above today’s levels.

A greener and more affordable future can be had, and New Mexico can lead the way. With abundant nuclear resources, natural gas, and renewable power, New Mexico has a lot to offer the nation and the world. But first, our leaders including, but by no means limited to Secretary Haaland and Heinrich need to get serious about balancing economic and technological reality with their “green” aspirations.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility

 

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A new day means new tax cuts for ABQ City Council

A slightly shortened version of this opinion piece was published in the Albuquerque Journal on March 20, 2022. A chart illustrating Albuquerque’s spending is found below the text.

Elections have consequences. After four years of “progressive” leadership by Mayor Keller and a left leaning city council, the election of November 2020 saw a more center-right Council. While much attention was given to the fact that Tim Keller was reelected by a wide margin despite the City’s spiraling crime problem, Albuquerque voters didn’t actually vote for the status quo.

Now, we are starting to see a shift toward a more moderate approach to the issues from City Council. Better legislative proposals are in the pipeline, but with a 5-4 majority and a hostile mayor, getting these ideas past the finish line will be a challenge requiring grassroots support.

A starting point is reducing gross receipts taxes. Back in 2018, shortly after taking office, Mayor Keller and the new “progressive” council majority raised the (regressive) GRT by 3/8th of a cent. This was a major tax increase considering that the City’s overall GRT “take” before the tax hike was 2.375%. That made Keller’s tax hike a nearly 9% increase in Albuquerque’s rate.

And, not surprisingly, that tax increased led to rapid spending growth in the City’s budget. Even when the annual budget freeze in the 2021 budget due to COVID 19 is included, the City’s budget is up 27 percent under Mayor Keller.

Unfortunately, when the City Council met recently to discuss Councilor Lewis’ plan to cut just 1/8th of a cent off the GRT (not the full amount added in 2018), Keller’s Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta claimed “this is the worst time possible” to cut taxes.

Considering that, among numerous other wasteful spending programs, the City has just undertaken a $3 million plan to make City buses “free” to riders (that’s on top of millions in annual transit subsidies), it would seem the City could do something to help residents who continue to be pummeled by rising inflation. Unfortunately, it seems that Mayor Keller and his Administration remain opposed to this reasonable tax reduction.

There are other exciting efforts underway to move Albuquerque in a more pro-freedom direction. The big question is whether Keller will stand in the way of everything or if he’ll choose his battles. For example, Councilor Bassan has proposed ending the City’s plastic bag ban which recently passed City Council.

The unnecessary and environmentally irrelevant ban on plastic bags makes daily life more difficult for thousands of Albuquerque residents. Those bags are often reused and can be recycled. They are hardly the environmental problem their opponents claim. According to Our World in Data, the entire continent of North America generates less than 1 percent of the “mismanaged plastic” on the planet.

If Keller and City Council really want to address the City’s serious litter problem, the legions of transients begging on street corners, camping throughout town, and leaving trash behind wherever they go would be a better place to start.

While a number of other important issues are being discussed at City Council that, if adopted, will move our City in a positive direction, no effort highlights the ideological shift better than the effort to restore market forces in public construction projects. Immediately after the 2020 election, a bill was rammed through Council by liberals and the trade unions to mandate that public construction projects use union labor.

Estimates are that such unfair laws called “Project Labor Agreements” boost taxpayer costs by 14 percent. A bill is now working its way through the current Council to repeal that law and instead allow all workers and contractors regardless of union membership to bid for city construction projects.

Albuquerque is a great and beautiful city, but its management has left a lot to be desired in recent years. The current City Council is standing up to big government and special interests. They deserve your support.

Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility

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2022 Freedom Index Results Published

The Rio Grande Foundation uses its “Freedom Index” vote tracking site to  hold New Mexico legislators accountable for their stances on individual freedom and personal liberty. We have rated all bills that impact individual freedom that received floor votes for the 2022 session and thus the current Index results are “final.”

Every bill receiving a score is rated on a scale from -8 through +8 depending on its overall impact on YOUR personal freedom. In the 2022 session the most impactful vote (-8) was on SB 14, the Clean Fuel Standard. A full analysis of that bill can be found here.

The BEST bill voted on this session was HB 163, that is the bill which includes several tax cuts (RGF analysis of that bill here). It received a +4 rating in the Index.

Rep. Stefani Lord (R) who represents parts of the East Mountains of Albuquerque scored a 45 which was the highest rating of the session.

Rep. Randall Pettigrew (R) who represents Lea County scored a 43 which was good for the 2nd-highest rating of the session.

Sen. Craig Brandt (R) who represents Rio Rancho scored 33 which was the highest rating for any senator (the Senate and House vote on different bills and the House typically takes more votes and thus has higher and lower scores).

Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez (D) who represents parts of Albuquerque scored -66 which was the lowest rating for any member of the Legislature.