Our view: Let’s focus on big problems

Editorial Board, Santa Fe New Mexican

Speeches to kick off legislative sessions often are lists of policy proposals, lacking the soaring rhetoric or persuasive speech that mark the best speeches. They are prose to the campaign’s poetry, to paraphrase the oft-quoted Mario Cuomo statement that “you campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Even prose can soar at times, but the 2016 State of the State address from Gov. Susana Martinez — despite its often-hopeful tone — lacked the vision to lay out a compelling case for what needs to happen to make New Mexico better. A State of the State address does address policy issues, of course, but it also needs to be a blueprint to show how all of us, together, can make our state a better place to live.

And as bad as horrific crimes are, and have been, in cities such as Albuquerque, the worst problem facing New Mexico is not crime or how the justice system deals with violent criminals. Starting off the State of the State address with a call to get tougher on criminals is simply DA Martinez showing up to speak in place of Gov. Martinez. It’s where she is most comfortable. But she does little to address the state’s big problems — slow economic growth, failed education reform and an unstable environment for our children.

Yet much of the legislation being discussed for the short 30-day session is of the get-tough-on-crime variety, increasing penalties and toughening sentencing laws without ever considering whether to do those things we will need more resources for our court systems, our district attorneys’ offices and our public defenders. We cannot continue to treat criminal justice in piecemeal fashion without looking at the whole. (We do agree with Gov. Martinez, though, that a constitutional amendment is necessary to allow judges to keep criminals in jail without setting bail if the crime calls for it. That amendment should go before voters next November.)

The issues she keeps raising are not our most pressing. We are not at risk as a state because undocumented residents receive driver’s licenses, although the governor will never stop beating that drum. Our biggest improvement to education would not be flunking third-graders because of problems with reading, nor can we really say with a straight face that New Mexico has a “meaningful school grading system.” It has a grading system, yes, but one that is difficult to understand and measured by factors that often don’t make sense.

The governor’s best ideas for education reform — better starting pay for teachers and support in the classroom — should be expanded, but there’s little money to improve teacher pay in a substantive way. The discussion should shift from whether third-graders should be held back to the best strategies for teaching reading and encouraging excellence, but it seems this debate is more about winning a political argument rather than improving reading.

On the economy, the governor tied improving education to creating better jobs, and she is correct in making the link. She just can’t quite make the jump to show that the New Mexico economy is actually improving despite her repeated claims that conditions are better. Saying “the fundamentals are changing” doesn’t shore up lagging job numbers or keep young people here after college graduation.

It’s ironic that the Legislature opened the same day that the annual Kids Count Survey released figures showing New Mexico at the bottom of the rankings when it comes to the rate of children living in poverty. The condition of the state’s children is our most pressing issue, not three-strikes laws, or drunken driving or any of the other worthy issues Martinez brought up during her speech. She had a laundry list of challenges and her solutions, but failed to deal with the biggest obstacle ahead — intergenerational poverty and New Mexico’s path to economic growth and prosperity. Without a larger vision, New Mexico will continue to play small ball and basic conditions will remain unchanged.

Our hopes for the session are minimal. At the most, we would love to see a relatively pain-free legislative session and an adequate budget passed without too much rancor. We anticipate turbulence, though, especially as legislators look for a driver’s license compromise that will keep all drivers licensed while meeting federal Real ID requirements. Oil and gas prices remain volatile, so legislators and the governor must remain fiscally cautious even while seeking innovative solutions. Citizens depend on cooperation and common sense, and, all too often, have been let down.

The past, though, does not have to dictate the future. Governing might be prose, but that doesn’t mean elected officials cannot deliver solutions. Finding those solutions has to be the first priority of all of New Mexico’s lawmakers. With the speechmaking done, it’s time to get to work.

Copyright 2016, Santa Fe New Mexican (http://www.santafenewmexican.com/opinion/editorials/our-view-let-s-focus-on-big-problems/article_7713ab86-b51c-5804-811a-f3581ce26b61.html)