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Several questions for NM’s Blue Majority (and one for the Red Minority)

The following article appeared in Las Cruces Sun-News on November 27, 2022.

This Election Day a majority of New Mexico voters seemingly ignored the State’s manifest failures of governance. Instead, voters prioritized abortion rights while penalizing anyone who could plausibly be painted as “election deniers.”

Thus, New Mexico, one of America’s “bluest” states for decades, became even more Democrat dominant. Democrats now control every office of significance in State government as well as all five seats in Congress.

Whether the results are a sign of satisfaction with the status quo or just animus towards Republicans, the fact is that New Mexico’s governing Democrats faces serious challenges. Here are some that need to be addressed in the next few months:

  1. PNM (the State’s largest utility) has repeatedly expressed concerns about having enough electricity during the summer of 2022. The San Juan Generating Station coal plant was allowed to continue operating for an additional three months during this past summer due to fears of blackouts and brownouts. That will not be an option next summer. In fact, there has been little improvement in New Mexico’s electricity supply situation since then. What will the Gov., her new PRC, and the Legislature do to keep the lights on for New Mexicans? Waiting until the heat of next summer is not an option. Decisions need to be made right away.
  2. Speaking of the PRC, the Gov. now has a chance to mold New Mexico’s powerful regulatory body into something of her choosing. Will she prioritize geographical and ideological diversity or make the body a rubber stamp for her California-style policies? And, will they push through the Avangrid/PNM merger (rejected by the elected PRC but supported by the Gov.) as one of their first acts?
  3. New Mexico is one of just 11 states still in a COVID 19 emergency. It has been in a an “emergency” since March of 2020 (more than 2.5 years at this point). Will the new Legislature demand a “seat at the table” or continue to allow the Gov. to keep control until she sees fit? What does this mean for “democracy?”
  4. Voters approved Amendment 1 which taps into New Mexico’s permanent fund to boost education spending. With an expected $2.5 billion surplus, education spending is likely to rise even further. The State’s recent NAEP scores placed New Mexico at the very bottom across all four grade levels and subjects tested. Will New Mexico simply continue increasing education spending or will needed reforms be enacted?
  5. Speaking of that budget surplus, the Gov. and Legislature undertook a series of tax cuts in the 2022 session in anticipation of the election. Can New Mexico taxpayers expect further tax relief? If so, will those tax cuts be superficial, or will they address the State’s knotty economic challenges like “pyramiding” of the gross receipts tax?

Most of these questions are for New Mexico’s (even more) ascendent Democrat majority, but there is one question for the GOP: what can be done to boost voter turnout (and overall political engagement) in New Mexico’s most conservative areas? Overall voter turnout was 52 percent. In liberal Santa Fe County that number was over 63 percent. But, in conservative bastions like Lea, Eddy, Chaves, San Juan, Otero, Curry, and Roosevelt counties, turnout lagged the statewide average, sometimes by double-digit margins.

Many conservatives feel like their vote doesn’t make a difference either due to the State’s “blue” status or allegations of election fraud. Either way, New Mexico’s GOP must figure out how to engage its base through grassroots activism to become relevant.

No matter which side of the aisle you’re on, New Mexicans of all political stripes face more questions than answers.

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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Parents Rights win at APS school board

The Rio Grande Foundation would like to extend a big THANK YOU to everyone who called, wrote, emailed, and spoke in favor of parental rights in education alongside RGF at last night’s APS school board meeting.

We would also like to thank the five APS School Board members that voted to support parental involvement in the classroom.

In case you missed it, here’s a quick summary of what happened:

KB1, also known as the Parent Rights and Responsibilities policy, passed the APS School Board in a 5-2 vote.  KB1 consolidates education rules into a clear and concise format, making it easier for parents to see exactly what’s going on inside the classroom.

Opposition from special interest groups showed up in force, including numerous paid activists.

Regardless of the heckling and boos from the special interest groups, several brave parents stood up for Parental Rights and bravely took their turn at the mic to show the real local parent support for KB1.

We could not be more proud!

You can read the Albuquerque Journal’s highly biased coverage of the meeting here.

Parental Rights were up for a vote in Albuquerque today, and the clear winners are families.

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RGF’s Gessing talks constitutional amendments w/ KOAT Channel 7

RGF’s president Paul Gessing sat down with KOAT Channel 7 to discuss two of the constitutional amendments that will be on New Mexicans’ ballots when they vote this fall.

Constitutional Amendment 1 would tap into New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund. Gessing’s appearance is toward the end of the clip.

A separate KOAT segment addressed Amendment 2 which would allow the Legislature to spend taxpayer dollars on infrastructure projects that would expressly benefit private interests.  Here is our detailed assessment of Amendment 2.

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Lujan Grisham touts abortion; what about economy, education?

The following appeared in the Las Cruces Sun News on Sunday, September 25, 2022 (and in several other papers).

With just a few weeks before early voting, what issues will motivate how New Mexicans vote? According to one recent poll the top issue this fall is inflation/the economy (at 59%). Crime was right behind at 58% followed by immigration and health care. Abortion was down the list at just 29%.

Surprisingly, the poll (done by KOB-TV) fails to even ask about education. In a state that consistently ranks at the very bottom in the nation on numerous (and bipartisan) education reports, serious education reforms should be at least on the radar. This is especially true as education is an inherently state issue (unlike immigration or inflation).

But, if you follow Gov. Lujan Grisham’s campaign’s public messaging you might believe abortion is the only important issue facing New Mexicans. Because we believe the New Mexico economy and education system are two critically important issues, the Rio Grande Foundation looked carefully at both candidates’ websites for details on their plans.

Lujan Grisham’s campaign website is: michellefornewmexico.com. There she touts policies she and the Democrat Legislature have enacted. And, she does have some significant economic policy accomplishments. These include a slight gross receipts tax reduction as well as Social Security and military pension tax reductions passed earlier this year.

In terms of education policy, she focuses her attention on various new programs, teacher raises, and generally spending more money. But recently released state test scores were abysmal. The “moon shot” simply hasn’t moved the needle, and what data we have indicate that New Mexico students suffered greatly during the year of lost in-person learning of the pandemic. New Mexico was one of the states that lost the most classroom time thanks to Lujan Grisham’s COVID policies.

More importantly, the governor offers no specific policies moving forward in either area. How, for example, will she use the $2.5 billion budget surplus the state is expected to have when the Legislature convenes next January? With state spending having already risen by 30% under this governor and voters likely to provide permanent fund dollars to pre-K, is the governor planning to push for long-overdue gross receipts tax reform, more spending, or something else entirely?

We know New Mexico still faces significant economic challenges. The state lost thousands of businesses thanks to the pandemic lockdowns and there are fewer employed New Mexicans today than before the pandemic. New Mexico also remains among the most impoverished states in the union and one that is heavily dependent on the volatile oil and gas industry.

Mark Ronchetti, on the other hand, has released detailed and thorough plans (available at markronchetti.com) explaining exactly what he would like to do on both the economy and education. At the Rio Grande Foundation we agree with him on eliminating “pyramiding” of the gross receipts tax and providing stipends for low-income families to help students catch up to COVID learning loss. He plans to reduce income taxes for middle- and low-income New Mexicans. He also wants to emphasize school leadership and vocational learning along with apprenticeships. He has very detailed plans that are worth considering. We’d do some things differently, but it stands in stark comparison to Lujan Grisham’s non-plan.

We are less than a month away from the start of early voting. Hopefully by then voters will have more information on what Gov. Lujan Grisham plans to do in a second term so they can compare that plan to what Mark Ronchetti has already put forth.

Abortion is an important issue to many people, but the economy and our struggling education system impact us all and on a daily basis. They form the basis of what state policymaking is all about and will be the most important issues discussed in the upcoming 60-day session. Voters need to be able to make an informed decision.

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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New Mexico outpaces nation on welfare recipients (and it’s not even close)

Sometimes statistics on New Mexico just blow you away. A report from World Population Review highlights states based on welfare recipients per population for 2022. The surprising thing isn’t that New Mexico is at the top of the list. What’s amazing is how big it’s lead is relative to states.

In fact, based on the data below New Mexico’s rate of welfare receipt is 23% higher than the next highest state. Rarely do such massive differences exist when comparing the 50 states, let alone on a critical issue like welfare.

If there is one statistic that highlights the difficulty Republicans face in gaining traction here in New Mexico, this might be it. With such an outsized proportion of the population receiving government handouts, who wants limited government?

As the report notes, the United States has six major welfare programs: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income, Earned Income Tax Credit, Housing Assistance, and Medicaid. These six welfare programs are not to be confused with the four entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and worker’s compensation.

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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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Education Legislature Notable News Tax and Budget Top Issues

NM needs to make all those education dollars work for kids

The following appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on July 14, 2022.

Superintendent Scott Elder recently called this the “hardest year we’ve ever been through” due in largely to the need to reduce the number of staffed positions, including teachers, at Albuquerque Public Schools.

Change is hard, especially for large bureaucracies like New Mexico’s largest school district. But change is necessary at APS. That’s not just the Rio Grande Foundation’s view; it is the conclusion of the Legislative Finance Committee’s recent report on APS, which shows a district awash in money but bleeding students.

Many families, like my own, have left APS. Many families felt betrayed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s COVID school closings, which cost students a year of classroom time and a great deal of academic and social progress. The governor’s decision to shutter the schools will have lasting, negative impacts on our children that are only now starting to be accounted for. Many families with the resources to do so left the district or even the state. Many aren’t coming back.

To maximize the beneficial use of the district’s resources, the LFC recommends “right-sizing” the district’s “footprint,” including eliminating teaching and other positions as well as reducing the number of facilities including school buildings to reflect a shrinking student population. This trend began before COVID but has accelerated since.

The LFC’s numerous other recommendations need to be implemented. I do believe the current school board wants to allocate resources in ways that make sense for the district and its 71,000 students.

But the APS Board of Education doesn’t fully control the district’s budget; the Legislature and governor do. And, with money flowing into the state at unprecedented levels, the political incentives in Santa Fe are aligned to pour more money into the system. When money is plentiful, politicians are loath to make difficult and often unpopular decisions to redeploy resources. Sadly, the LFC can write reports, but until politicians in Santa Fe act, things won’t improve.

It is time to put to bed the myth of “underfunded” local schools. With the recent adoption of the district’s $1.93 billion budget divided over 71,000 students, APS will be set to spend a whopping $27,000 per student in fiscal 2023.

In addition to “right-sizing,” APS needs to implement innovative approaches to simultaneously improving educational outcomes. Alas, this governor and Legislature have chosen to keep power and money centralized in Santa Fe rather than fully empowering local leaders or, heaven forbid, parents, to decide what makes the most sense for themselves and their families.

While the local school board has limited power over serious reforms, they can be advocates for charter schools and work to expand that important form of school choice. Expanding intra-district choice is an additional way to expand educational freedom.

But real education reform in New Mexico must come from the top. Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Ronchetti has stated clearly that he wants to bring school choice to our state by having money follow the students. Poll after poll shows Americans agree with him, a trend that also has accelerated since COVID. Parents and families should be able to use their education funds to pursue options that work for them, not the bureaucrats in Santa Fe.

Change won’t happen overnight. As a starting point we need a governor who will stand up to those who want to keep the failed status quo and just spend more money. Even a reform-minded governor can’t do it alone as real school choice needs buy-in from the Legislature. So, right-sizing and reforming APS – including but by no means limited to school choice – will requires cooperation and buy-in from many different groups of elected officials. We have a lot of work to do for our children, but now is the time to begin.

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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RGF column: N.M. should think twice about universal pre-K

This piece ran in the Santa Fe New Mexican on June 25.

As we move beyond a contentious series of primaries in both parties and look to the fall election, one of the big issues on the fall ballot is the plan to “tap” New Mexico’s permanent fund to provide universal preschool. For years this has been an agenda item for the State’s left-leaning interest groups. But it only received legislative support with the retirement of Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith.

This November voters will decide whether to “allocate 1.25 percent of the five-year average of year-end market values of the money in the Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education.” The Legislative Finance Committee estimates that the additional allocation would be about $245.7 million in fiscal year 2023. Of that total, $126.9 million would be allocated for early childhood education, $84.6 million to public education, and $34.2 million for the Land Grant Permanent Fund’s other beneficiaries.

The plan is to provide “free,” “universal” pre-K to all New Mexico 3- and 4-year-olds.

Advocates and supporters tout all kinds of supposed benefits of government-funded pre-K, but the best available study of the issue (involving a randomized control) of a similar program that has been in place since 2005 in Tennessee found pre-K had negative impacts on children.

According to the study undertaken by Vanderbilt University, “Children who attended Tennessee’s state-funded voluntary pre-K program during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years were doing worse than their peers by the end of sixth grade in academic achievement, discipline issues and special education referrals. The trend emerged by the end of third grade and was even more pronounced three years later.”

One of the study authors, Dale Farran of Vanderbilt’s Peabody College said of the results, “The kinds of pre-K that our poor children are going into are not good for them long-term.” Furthermore, “[We] have let ourselves get into the idea that what these children need is a lot more academic instruction. … It’s just the opposite. What you would like to give poor children is a feeling of being cared for and being successful.”

While other pre-K studies often seem to show positive results from massive government “investment” in pre-K programs, few of those studies feature a control group. In other words, most studies look at two different groups whose parents chose pre-K and those who didn’t choose it and compare the results. That mostly shows parents who choose pre-K tend to place a high value on education. That skews the results in favor of the programs. There are much more sensible and cost-effective alternatives to “universal” taxpayer-funded pre-K. This might include a system of voluntary home visits for purposes of helping parents learn to be better parents. Alas, those don’t come with a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy and expansion of employment opportunities for teachers.

Unfortunately, the ballot presents a simple “Yes” or “No” option for voters. It is difficult to mount an effective campaign against a ballot measure when the alternative is essentially “do nothing.”

This is just one of the flaws in our state’s numerous “permanent” funds, including the Land Grant Permanent Fund, created in 1893, long before New Mexico became a state. Dedicated funding for beneficiaries may seem like a good thing, but giving government bureaucrats a dedicated stream of money without real accountability or the ability for policymakers to shift resources when needs change is far from ideal.

In Tennessee, where again pre-K was found to have negative outcomes, pre-K is funded by a combination of lottery revenue and general education funds. Sadly, putting pre-K funding on autopilot as New Mew Mexico’s constitutional amendment proposes is even less likely to lead to quality outcomes and accountable results for our children.

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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Albuquerque Public Schools’ new budget pushes per-pupil spending above $27,000

The Rio Grande Foundation has been tracking per-pupil spending at Albuquerque Public Schools for several years. We use the simple mathematical technique of dividing the total annual budget by the number of students in the district, a number which has declined dramatically in recent years.

Most APS budgets are here while the 2023 data comes from the following Albuquerque Journal article. There was no APS budget in FY 2021 so we attempted to calculate based on recent trends.

On a PER PUPIL basis, APS spends 64% MORE in FY 2023 than it did in FY 2019.

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Just when you thought the Biden Administration had bottomed out, now they are coming after charter schools

Click here to submit comments by April 13th (UPDATE: the deadline is now Monday, April 18) to the US Department of Education, letting them know you oppose new rules being considered by the Biden Administration that would negatively impact charter schools.

The following are several specific impacts of the proposed rules (RGF’s Comments follow the bullets):

  • Through a new prescriptive definition of “community impact”, the Department seeks to limit funding to ONLY charters that show they aren’t reducing district enrollment. This requirement empowers grant reviewers to veto state and local decisions to authorize schools by denying applicants funding based on whether the reviewers, who typically are not part of these communities, agree that community needs are met.
  • The new definition of “community impact”, puts the interest of the district above the interest of students and families, and does not consider the quality of the open seats, therefore restricting minority and low-income students to open seats. These students not only deserve an open seat; they deserve a high-quality seat.
  • This proposal exhibits a stunning lack of recognition of current realities. Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, our nation’s children are in crisis. Widespread school closures produced dramatic learning losses, a decline in college enrollment, and a rapid rise in mental-health challenges experienced both by adults and students that are profoundly challenging families and public education. During this time more, rather than fewer, parents have sought to enroll their children in high-performing public charter schools.Overall, the rules make no mention of how any of these new hurdles will address learning loss or improve student achievement for the most vulnerable student populations. In fact, “academic achievement” is only mentioned twice in the text of the rule and not in a manner that shows how any requirement will improve such achievement.
  • The rules would require applicants to propose racially and economically diverse models, without a definition of diversity and regardless of community needs. This will disadvantage urban areas, culturally affirming school models and models serving indigenous populations. These are the very kind of schools that communities of color have been asking for, and that research supports as effective for historically underserved students
  • The regulations also shift power to the districts, and away from families, by mandating that charters partner with districts to receive priority points and funding in state competitions. There is no corresponding obligation or expectation that district schools invite, pursue, or be open to such cooperative arrangements. This requirement places the power of a community’s educational choices right back in the hands of the district they opted out of, regardless of how willing the charter is to build a partnership.
  • The number of new requirements on top of an already complex program will discourage smaller and more innovative models. These models are the very schools that are often led by leaders of color and by leaders from the community they are seeking to serve.

The Rio Grande Foundation is a public policy think tank based in Albuquerque, New Mexico and that works on public policy issues throughout the State.

New Mexico has historically been one of the very worst performing states in the entire country, consistently ranking 49th of 50th on various indices of school performance. That was BEFORE students lost a full year in their classrooms during the Pandemic. Since then, further data has indicated that New Mexico students have fallen even further behind.

Charter schools are the only form of school choice available to most New Mexican students. Charters have performed at higher levels than traditional public schools and provide unique options for students in this uniquely diverse state. Many of the highest performing schools in New Mexico are charter schools.

These proposed regulations provide a number of unnecessary hoops for New Mexico families who wish to purse charters. The regulations would also have a negative impact on the ability of charter schools to be formed and to provide the unique educational options that simply aren’t available in traditional public schools.

I urge you to reject these regulations that will negatively impact charter schools in New Mexico and across the nation.