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Economy Legislature Notable News RailRunner Spaceport Top Issues Transportation

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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Economy Education Legislature Notable News Top Issues

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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Economy Legislature Notable News Tax and Budget Taxes Top Issues

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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Education Legislature Notable News Open Government Research Tax and Budget Top Issues

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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Health Care Legislature Notable News Top Issues

Democracy Protection Pledge

Rebecca L Dow, Governor Travis Steven Sanchez, Lieutenant Governor Ant Thornton, Lieutenant Governor

Mark Duncan, State Representative District 2 Jerri D Rowe, State Representative District 6 Adrian Anthony Trujillo, Sr, State Representative District 11 Kimberly Ann Kaehr-MacMillan, State Representative District 15 Ellis C Mcmath, State Representative District 17 Scott Troy Cannon, State Representative District 18 Kathleen M Jackson, State Representative District 19 Robert A Salazar, State Representative District 20 Stefani Lord, State Representative District 22 Alan T Martinez, State Representative District 23 Khalid Emshadi, State Representative District 24 Robert S Godshall, State Representative District 27 Gregory G Cunningham, State Representative District 29 William R Rehm, State Representative District 31 Jenifer Marie Jones, State Representative District 32 Richelle A Peugh-Swafford, State Representative District 35 Melba T Aguilar, State Representative District 38 Jay Groseclose, State Representative District 46 Rachel A Black, State Representative District 51 John Block, State Representative District 51 Ricky L Little, State Representative District 53 Greg Nibert, State Representative District 59 Larry R Scott, State Representative District 62 Andrew G Kennedy, State Representative District 66 Jimmy G Mason, State Representative District 66

The candidates listed above have signed the following pledge: “I pledge to protect democracy. Thus, I commit to balancing power in future emergency declarations. This includes: restricting “emergencies” to a fixed period of time, clearly defining “emergency” in statute, and requiring majorities in both houses of the state legislature to approve extensions of any “emergency” declaration.”

If you are a candidate for the Legislature or Gov. who would like to sign this pledge please email us: info@riograndefoundation.org

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Economy Legislature Notable News Tax and Budget Taxes Top Issues

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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Economy Education Energy and Environment Legislature Notable News Oil & Gas Open Government Tax and Budget Taxes Top Issues Transportation

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.

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Economy Education Energy and Environment Legislature Notable News Tax and Budget Taxes Top Issues

RGF opinion piece: Session could have been a lot worse

The following appeared in several newspapers in the wake of New Mexico’s 2022 legislative session including the Carlsbad Current-Argus on February 23, 2022.

The 2022 30-day legislative session could have been much worse. It is no secret that we at the Rio Grande Foundation have disagreed with most of Michelle Lujan Grisham’s major efforts as Governor. She surprised many of us in her State of the State speech when she proposed elimination of the Social Security tax in New Mexico.

After three years of ruling as a hard left “progressive,” the Governor’s change of tune heading into the 2022 session was notable. Is her move solely due to her impending reelection? We’ll never know, but it is a welcome shift.

The most notable good legislation that passed this session was the tax cuts (HB 163). Unfortunately, the Social Security tax was not completely eliminated, but it will no longer apply to a vast majority of taxpayers. As a bonus, military pensioners received a break on their pensions for at least the next 5 years.

The State gross receipts tax rate will be cut under the tax reform package (barring a drop in state revenues) and a small child tax credit was added. Finally, the Legislature acknowledged that gross receipts tax pyramiding on business-to-business service inputs is a problem, but they only addressed the issue for manufacturers.

These tax cuts, if fully enacted, will reduce tax revenues by $400 million or so annually, are dwarfed by the massive increase in government spending. Spending rose by $1 billion this year alone.

All of this is thanks (mostly) to the booming oil and gas industry which shows no sign of slowing down, but money being printed up in Washington also played a role. Of course, while the Gov. will tout the raises for government employees in general and teachers specifically, with the current rate of inflation, those raises won’t be as helpful to families’ bottom lines.

Numerous bad bills were considered during the session that (thankfully) died. Most notable among these was SB 14 the “Clean Fuel Standard.” While rising gas prices have contributed to the State’s budget surplus, for average New Mexicans high gas prices are just another sign of inflation. Given those high prices it was a shock that Lujan Grisham made it her mission to pass this legislation, which would have increased gas prices at the pump by 35 cents/gallon.

The bill became even more confusing when, in the waning days of the session, an amendment was added to keep the San Juan Generating Station coal fired plant in Farmington open through next summer. PNM which owns the plant is nervous that it won’t have enough electricity to keep the lights on when the plant closes in June to comply with Lujan Grisham’s 2019 “green new deal” legislation.

Thankfully, with only hours to go in the session, SB 14 died on a tie vote in the House.

Another bill that, thankfully, died was the so-called “election reform” bill. Starting out, this bill was SB 8 and it had straight party voting, a “permanent” absentee voter list, allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote, and, most outrageously, a provision allowing mailed ballots to be collected as late as the Friday after the Election Day.

Through a series of amendments and changes the election reform bill became SB 144. It was still problematic due to the unnecessary loosening of voting rules, but it died on the Senate floor as time expired.

Plenty of bills never received a floor vote. The Democrat-dominated Legislature (again) failed to restore a seat at the table for itself in emergencies. On the positive side of things, Las Cruces Sen. Bill Soules’ absurd SB 204 which would have appropriated $1 billion as part of a down payment on a high-speed train from the border with Mexico to Colorado, went nowhere as well.

This session could have been a lot worse. But, a moderately-successful 30-day session with November’s elections staring the Gov. in the face does not an ideological shift make.

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 Legislature Notable News Top Issues

RGF and prominent state, national leaders, send legislators letter opposing arbitrary interest rate limit

Here is our letter as a PDF. You can read the full letter below:

We write to you to express our opposition to H.B. 132, a bill that would impose a 36% rate cap on most consumer loans. New Mexico Republicans must stand united for consumer choice and access to credit. There has been a great deal of misinformation spread on the matter of interest rate caps, but little attention focused on what a rate cap would mean for the citizens of New Mexico.

Making small dollar loans more affordable for consumers is a goal we can all get behind, but this bill will eliminate consumer choice and hurt consumers. In other states with a 36% rate cap on small dollar loans, we’ve seen what happens: responsible lenders are forced out of the state taking jobs and financial opportunities with them. Workers and families that need credit to make ends meet some months are left with fewer choices – and less desirable ones at that.

The fact of the matter is 40% to 50% of New Mexicans have access to bank accounts, savings, credit cards, and lines of credit to draw upon to meet their financial needs.  But there are more than 500,000 New Mexicans, whether because they do not have bank accounts or due to subprime credit scores, who do not have access to any form of credit other than short-term installment loans.

It is an indisputable fact that financial institutions cannot make a small dollar loan at 36% and make a profit unless it for an amount of about $3000. The National Commission on Consumer Finance study confirmed it.[i] The CFPB’s Taskforce on Federal Consumer Financial Law report confirmed it. [ii] A Federal Reserve study on interest rate caps confirmed it.[iii]

But most customers don’t want or need a $3000 loan.  In New Mexico, more than 60% of small dollar loans are for less than $1000.

Credit unions in New Mexico claim they will “step up” to fill the vacuum in the wake of this legislation’s passage and offer small dollar loans. But New Mexico’s credit unions haven’t offered these small dollar loans to the subprime customers who will be impacted the most.

The president and CEO of the credit unions’ national association, Jim Nussle, has stated that rate caps will not work for his members. “[T]he establishment of a national all-in rate cap applicable to all creditors is an unproven one-size-fits-all policy, the consequences of which will likely include reduced access to credit from reputable lenders.” iv

State financial regulators in North Carolina and Georgia have reported real economic suffering in the wake of 36% rate cap impositions.v  Should you support this legislation you will be denying more than 500,000 of your fellow New Mexico citizens and constituents access to the only form of credit they have today.

There must be a more responsible way to approach this issue.

Conservative advocates agree. Oppose HB 132.

Respectfully,

Paul Gessing
President, Rio Grande Foundation

Carla Sonntag
President and Founder, New Mexico Business Coalition

Heather R. Higgins
CEO, Independent Women’s Voice

David Williams
President, Taxpayers Protection Alliance

Jeffrey Mazzella
President, Center for Individual Freedom

Matthew Kandrach
President, Consumer Action for a Strong Economy

Saulius “Saul” Anuzis
President, 60 Plus Association

Mario H. Lopez
President, Hispanic Leadership Fund

Stephen Pociask
President and CEO, American Consumer Institute

CC: All Members of the New Mexico Legislature

[i] National Commission on Consumer Finance. Consumer Credit in the United States. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1972.

[ii] Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Taskforce on Federal Consumer Financial Law [hereinafter CFPB Taskforce]. (2021, January). Taskforce on Federal Consumer Financial Law Report. Retrieved from https://www.consumerfinance.gov/documents/9449/cfpb_taskforce-federal-consumer-financial-law_report-volume-1_2021-01.pdf..

[iii] Chen, L., Elliehausen, G. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2020, August). The Cost Structure of Consumer Finance Companies and Its Implications for Interest Rates: Evidence from the Federal Reserve Board’s 2015 Survey of Finance Companies. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/the-cost-structure-of-consumer-finance-companies-and-its-implications-for-interest-rates-20200812.htm.

iv Credit Union National Association. (2021, July 15). Proposed ‘all-in’ rate cap would reduce access to credit. Retrieved from https:// news.cuna.org/articles/119673-proposed-all-in-rate-cap-would-reduce-access-to-credit.

v North Carolina Office of the Commissioner of Banks (2018). Consumer Finance Annual Report. Retrieved from https://www.nccob.gov/Public/docs/News/Pub%20And%20Research/2018_Annual_Report_Final.pdf.