We’re in the middle of the worst budget crisis in decades in New Mexico. One can finger-point all day long, but let’s face it: The entire country is in a crisis, with many places worse off than New Mexico even as our revenues continue to collapse.
That means that fundamentally, while New Mexico could have and should have been less generous with our massive millionaires’ tax breaks and should have paid attention to tax loopholes, the problem is bigger than our state. It’s going to require everyone to get serious about surviving the current downturn and positioning ourselves for a stronger balance sheet in the future.
Everyone, from state workers to educational employees to millionaires to out-of-state corporate giants, needs to realize we’re in a genuine crisis. Sacrifice is going to be needed from everyone, but if we’re smart about how we cut, we can preserve many of the public safety, health and educational gains over the last seven years.
That shared sacrifice is particularly important during our national recession, because many state services, including Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment, job training, community colleges, universities, domestic violence services, corrections, juvenile justice, courts, and probation and parole, are counter-cyclical.
In other words, as the economic cycle gets worse, the demand for these services grows. There’s no crueler fate than to pay taxes your whole life and then see services gutted the one time you need them.
Slashing all of those programs dramatically while no one else in the state tightens belts is counterproductive and hurts the state much more than if everyone does a little bit.
Privatization is expensive
The proof is in the pudding: When the Department of Corrections was scrambling for more savings this year, they didn’t contract out more inmates to private prisons. Instead, they actually brought more convicts back into the state system.
The Department of Corrections knows that it is less expensive to house inmates at state facilities because the state doesn’t need to advertise. The state doesn’t need to turn a profit. The department doesn’t have a large lobby budget to ensure that it is given no-bid contracts. And as outlandish as some state double-dippers’ take-home pay may seem, no one at the state is making anywhere near the millions of dollars that private prison executives pull in.
Guess who pays those multi-million dollar salaries for high lifestyle executives in South Florida? New Mexico taxpayers. That kind of backscratching may go unnoticed by the public in good times, but not now.
So before New Mexicans have to sacrifice even more, one easy place to save money is to rein in out-of-control, expensive contracts with giant out-of-state corporations who fleece the taxpayer for the gain of their owners and executives alone.
The administration has taken a lot of criticism of late on the budget. Some criticism is justified; for example, there’s no way taxpayers should be paying nearly double the money for one person to be in an already good-paying job by allowing double dipping. But scaling back private prison contracts is a commonsense way to save taxpayers money, and the governor and Department of Corrections deserve credit.
When times were good, millionaires and out-of-state corporations were given special tax breaks and loopholes were ignored. Now that times are bad, those same lucky few refuse to share in our common responsibility for keeping the peace, ensuring public safety, maintaining roads, educating our children and providing temporary assistance for people who, through no fault of their own, have been laid off.
(Ironically, many of those layoffs around the country and in New Mexico are done by the very out-of-state corporations who seek special tax status while they force jobs overseas.)
Most of the labor community in New Mexico believes in shared sacrifice, but that can’t just mean the workers who belong to those unions that recognize that we’re in a crisis. Sacrifice has to include millionaires, out-of-state corporations who have gotten a free ride for a long time, contractors, double dippers and administrative overhead and bureaucracy even in the most important areas of public service.
It doesn’t mean that every part of government, or every tax bracket, or every type of corporation will have to suffer to the same degree. Fellow columnist Michael Swickard and many others have made the point that surgical cuts make sense. It does mean that taking whole areas of spending or revenue entirely off the table is irresponsible and bad for the state.
There is no shortage of clichés to support the idea that spreading the budget pain around many segments of government-funded services and revenue sources is the right thing to do. My favorite is “Many fingers make light lifting.”
It’s an overstatement to say that a multi-pronged approach to balancing the budget will constitute “light lifting.” Getting out of the hole we’re in is going to hurt. But if everyone chips in, all of us — citizens, taxpayers, workers and business — will get through this crisis in better shape than if we single out a few targets to balance the budget while others deny a crisis even exists.
Bundy is the political and legislative director for AFSCME in New Mexico. The opinions in his column are personal and do not necessarily reflect any official AFSCME position. You can learn more about him by clicking here. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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