Let’s have a debate about the real deficit

Bloggers and politicos are trading barbs over the truthfulness of the Governor’s repeated claim that she closed the largest budget deficit in the history of the state. (Of course, by constitutional mandate the state cannot run a deficit, so there never was a deficit to close.) We can spend the summer debating the definition of a deficit or we can (and I believe we should) have the more important debate about how we want that budget to look in the future.

There is no doubt that the recession was hard on New Mexico’s budget. When the economy soured in 2008, tax revenue fell dramatically and drove New Mexico into a financial crisis. Our state leaders had three options to address the budget crisis: raise revenue, cut spending or some combination of the two. Initially they reacted by taking a somewhat balanced approach—raising some revenue and cutting some spending. As the crisis continued, the approach by state leaders evolved to one that focused exclusively on cutting spending.

Over the course of the recession our elected leaders balanced the budget by:

  • Making the fifth deepest cuts in the nation to per-pupil K-12 spending;
  • Making the deepest cuts in the nation to per-pupil higher education spending, leading to steep tuition increases and a lottery scholarship program that’s now going broke;
  • Cutting special education funding, resulting in an even greater loss of federal dollars for special ed.;
  • Cutting eligibility for child care assistance so deeply that thousands of families remain on a waiting list that is now six years old;
  • Cutting funding for outreach and enrollment for children in Medicaid, leaving fewer children enrolled in the health coverage program than three-and-a-half years ago;
  • Cutting youth tobacco prevention programs, school-based health centers, youth suicide prevention, mentoring programs, and numerous other child and family support programs; and
  • Failing to adequately staff the Child Protective Services arm of the Children, Youth and Families Department, which investigates child abuse and neglect, resulting in a “savings” of $6 million to the state budget.

This is not a complete list, but it’s enough to make evident that while New Mexico’s elected leaders balanced the budget, they did it on the backs of our children. It should come as no surprise then that it was during these last few years that our children dropped to 50th in the nation in child well-being.

What is also tragic is that lawmakers somehow made room in the budget recently for hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations and businesses. Those tax breaks have yet to attract new jobs.

We’re entering campaign season and the rhetoric will fly about what kind of future we want for our state. My hope is that instead of recalling the deficits of the past, we’ll see a vigorous debate about our future and about the real deficit that threatens it—our disinvestment in our children. We need to drill our candidates for governor, the state House of Representatives, the Congress, and other offices about the issues that really concern us all. We need to ask questions like:

  • Will you invest in high-quality early childhood programs like home visiting, child care and pre-K, so all of our children have access to these programs within a few short years?
  • Will you restore outreach and enrollment programs for children’s Medicaid so all of our eligible children are enrolled in health care coverage?
  • Will you end the waiting list for child care assistance in your first year in office?
  • Are you willing to raise new revenue if the plight of our children and families is at stake?
  • Will you implement an economic development plan that doesn’t rely on tax breaks for profitable corporations but, instead, invests in our workforce?

Let the debate begin!

Contact your County Clerk’s office to find out who is running to represent you in state and local races.

Bill Jordan is Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations for NM Voices for Children. Reach him at bjordan@nmvoices.org.

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