Legislature Fails to Increase Our Most Effective Anti-Poverty Tool for Working Families

New Mexico’s Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) is an effective but underutilized tool for helping families that work stay out of poverty. It also helps address the growing gap in income between the wealthiest New Mexicans and low-income families, and the inherent unfairness in our state tax system. Expanding this credit would do even more for New Mexico’s struggling families as they try to work their way into the middle class.

In the just-finished legislation session, lawmakers considered legislation that would have increased the credit. Like other legislation to address our state’s high rate of poverty—increasing the minimum wage and investing more funding in programs for our youngest children—the legislation to increase the WFTC did not pass.

Far too many working New Mexicans struggle to support their families and avoid poverty, especially in the current economy and given the prevalence of low-wage jobs. New Mexico not only has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, it also has the highest share of working families with low incomes and the worst income gap between the rich and the poor.  As we outlined  recently, the WFTC is based on the federal Earned Income Tax Credit—a credit that only goes to families that work. The federal EITC is the nation’s most successful tool for reducing poverty among working families and children. It helps people who work hard meet basic needs and stay off welfare. In addition, the income boost it gives families to meet their basic needs helps young children do better and go farther in school, giving them a better chance to thrive and succeed as adults. It also provides support for returning veterans making their way back into the workforce and for working families trying to stay afloat in tough economic times. The federal EITC kept 39,000 New Mexicans out of poverty and benefited 300,000 New Mexico kids in 2010.

New Mexico’s Working Family Tax Credit builds on that success, but it could do more if we increased its value. An increase of 5 percent would have meant investing just $25 million to support our hard-working low-income families. That’s a relatively modest investment by the state that would have meant a lot to New Mexico families doing the right thing, but struggling to get by on low wages.

When low-income working families receive their EITC and WFTC refunds, it’s not only good for those families, it’s good for the entire state. These dollars go to families that are most likely to spend it, and right in their own communities, giving businesses a boost. Another way it helps businesses is by enabling their workers to pay for things that keep them working, like transportation and child care.

The credit also make the state’s tax system a little more fair for working folks at the bottom. Surprisingly, our lowest-income households pay a greater share of their income in state and local taxes than do higher-income households. Those making less than $17,000 a year pay more than 10 percent of their meager incomes in state and local taxes. Meanwhile, New Mexicans who make more than $300,000 pay less than 5 percent of their incomes in those same taxes. This huge disparity exists even after the current value of the WFTC is taken into account. An increase in the credit would help to reduce the gap in how our tax system treats the rich and poor.

The need to support New Mexico families and children is greater than ever—we must make it our highest priority. That means increasing the WFTC, our best tool for reducing poverty and combating inequality while rewarding work.

Amber Wallin is a Research and Policy Analyst for NM Voices for Children.

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Tax Credits Make Life a Little Easier for Working Families

If you worked but earned less than $47,000 last year, you may qualify for a refundable tax credit called the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). It could be worth as much as $6,044.

Today is National EITC Day, a nationwide effort to increase public awareness about the benefits of the federal EITC, which is available to low-income working families. It helps people who work hard meet basic needs, and give their children a better chance to thrive. New Mexico’s Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) is based on the EITC and provides additional benefits for New Mexico’s working families and communities.

The EITC has been making the lives of workers a little easier since 1975. Yet the IRS estimates that nationwide one in five eligible workers still miss out on the EITC, either because they don’t claim it when filing or they don’t file a tax return. This is money that can make a difference. Last year alone, New Mexico’s working families received nearly $490 million from the federal EITC and an estimated $49 million from New Mexico’s WFTC. The average amount New Mexicans received last year was $2,500 when the two refunds are combined. That’s money working families are very likely to spend at businesses in their own communities, so it’s good for the state’s economy too.

The amount of the EITC varies by income, family size, and filing status. The EITC is for workers whose income does not exceed the following limits:

  • $46,227 ($51,567 married filing jointly) with three or more qualifying children
  • $43,038 ($48,378 married filing jointly) with two qualifying children
  • $37,870 ($43,210 married filing jointly) with one qualifying child
  • $14,340 ($19,680 married filing jointly) with no qualifying children

The online EITC Assistant can help determine your eligibility and estimate the amount of your federal credit. Free help preparing your return and claiming the EITC and WFTC is available at volunteer income tax assistance sites such as CNM’s Tax Help New Mexico, which has locations across the state. To find a location near you, visit CNM’s Tax Help website or call 505-224-4829. You may also call the IRS at 1-800-906-9887 for assistance.

People who work full-time should not have to live in poverty. Refundable tax credits like the federal EITC and New Mexico’s WFTC are important boosts to hard-working people and their families, and they allow more funds to flow into New Mexico communities. The credits can and do make working families’ lives a little easier.

Amber Wallin is a Research and Policy Analyst for NM Voices for Children

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The Affordable Care Act signals a culture shift, but will it be swift?

January 2014 will mark a new beginning in our country. On that day we will wake up to a new way of thinking about health care.

Currently, if you are rich enough, poor enough, old or young enough, or lucky enough to have a good employer, you get health care. If not, you’re on your own and likely to either go bankrupt or not get the care you need if you get really sick or have an accident.

Beginning in 2014, it will no longer be a question of IF you have health care coverage, but HOW you get your coverage. In spite of all the foot dragging, complaining, talk of repealing, and website glitches, health care will soon be available to all citizens of the United States.

This paradigm shift will take longer in states that are not immediately expanding Medicaid, and some of their most vulnerable residents will continue to be left without coverage. But in New Mexico, access to coverage will be immediate—and so should the cultural shift in attitudes about health insurance.

For years, and especially under the Governor Martinez administration, the leadership at the Human Services Department (HSD) has seen its role as that of gatekeeper. In other words, even though HSD runs the state Medicaid program, they believe it’s their job to keep people from easily accessing it. They’ve done this by instituting policies that make it difficult to apply for and stay enrolled in Medicaid, which explains why thousands fewer children have health care coverage today than when Martinez took office three years ago. They also refuse to cross-match Medicaid and food stamp applications to see if recipients of one program are eligible and could benefit from enrollment in the other. If we are to improve child well-being in our state, we need to lift these kinds of barriers to programs that can help kids and families succeed.

Come January, Medicaid in New Mexico will no longer be the program that just covers certain members of the low-income population. It will become another piece of a national insurance puzzle that draws everyone in under an umbrella of universal coverage. The state’s HSD workers who currently enroll New Mexicans in Medicaid will still determine whether applicants are eligible—but they will have one important new job. According to the law, they will direct applicants who are low-income but not eligible for Medicaid to the Health Insurance Exchange where tax credits will help make coverage affordable. In other words, their role should shift from gatekeeper to facilitator. Just as the Exchange should steer those who don’t earn enough money to purchase insurance (even with tax credits) to the Medicaid program. It’s called the ‘no wrong door’ policy and it is an important part of health care reform.

The Martinez administration has already failed the first test in the no-wrong-door policy by refusing to set up a new computer system so Medicaid and the federal Exchange can talk to one another. Since this is required by law, we now have to spend an additional $18 million to connect the two computer systems even as the deadline fast approaches. Of course, New Mexico would have its own health insurance exchange if Martinez had not vetoed the bipartisan legislation in 2011 that would have created it. This means New Mexicans have to go through the federal Exchange, which had technical problems in its first month of operation.

If the transition from gatekeeper to facilitator is ultimately successful, New Mexicans will be healthier and financially more secure. If that paradigm shift is slow to take hold, our children and families will continue to struggle. Let’s hope the Governor’s commitment to implementation of the Affordable Care Act is deep enough to reach down into the bureaucracy of the Human Services Department… and swiftly!

Bill Jordan is Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations for NM Voices.

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Tax Breaks on Top of Tax Breaks: But Where are the jobs?

Lawmakers talk a lot about accountability when they’re spending taxpayer money on programs and services, and that’s entirely appropriate. We want to get the most from our investments in the state’s human resources, systems, and infrastructure. Programs that don’t work should be overhauled or de-funded. Programs that work well need to be replicated or expanded to better serve unmet needs. Our lawmakers take this part of their job seriously. Too bad the same cannot be said when it comes to lawmakers giving away state revenue in the form of tax breaks.

Think back to early 2003. Governor Richardson is only a few weeks into his first term when he pushes through a massive half-a-billion dollar personal income tax cut for the highest earning New Mexicans that has no accountability measures. Economic developers pushed for it, saying that our high income tax rate was preventing our economy from growing. They promised that cutting taxes would bring more high-paying jobs―and even corporate headquarters―to New Mexico. The tax cuts happened, but not the jobs.

Think back to early 2012. Governor Martinez says we need tax breaks for construction and manufacturing—again with no accountability measures. We’re told that if we pass these tax credits, New Mexico will bolt out of the recession, and construction and manufacturing jobs will suddenly appear. Not only did that not happen, but a year later, our state had the some of the worst job growth in the nation. On top of that, the administration made a ‘mistake’ and the tax cut ended up costing twice the original estimate.

Think back to early 2013. As legislators debate whether to ‘fix’ the 2012 tax mistake, business lobbyists begin the push for corporate income tax cuts. Apparently they’ve decided that it wasn’t a personal income tax cut that was needed, or the tax cut for construction and manufacturing, but the problem is that our tax on corporate profits is too high. So the Legislature cuts hundreds of millions of dollars more from the state bank account on a corporate tax cut that—once again—lacks any accountability measures and ends up costing much more than the original estimate.

In ten short years, state leaders have managed to wipe away billions of dollars that could have paid for education, health care, and public safety. All for the promise of jobs that never materialized.

Instead of “creating” jobs, here’s what we got for those tax cuts:

• We’ve seen 14 percent tuition increases at UNM because we cut our per-pupil higher education spending more than any other state
• We’ve seen the fifth deepest cuts in the nation in per-pupil spending on K-12 education
• We’re dead last in child well-being in the national KIDS COUNT ranking
• We’re worst in the nation in child hunger
• We’re worst in the nation in income inequality
• We have the highest rate of working families who are low-income
• We still have high unemployment and little to no job growth
• And the state was recently ranked dead last for quality of life by Forbes magazine.

And big surprise―we’re now told that, you guessed it, taxes are too high and the answer to all our woes is more tax cuts! Apparently, it was not that personal income taxes and corporate income taxes were the problem, because now we’re told that the real problem with our economy is our sales tax (or gross receipts tax) and its “high burden” on business-to-business transactions.

There’s been no talk of the failure of previous tax breaks, no serious discussion of repealing any of those worthless tax breaks, and no talk of how we might pay for education, health care, and public safety if we keep cutting taxes. In fact, there is little talk of even trying to track how much money we’ve been giving away. Legislation that would have added up all these tax breaks and looked at whether they did what they were supposed to do was vetoed three times! Apparently, someone would rather not know how much the tax breaks cost or whether they worked. If we knew that, or had any accountability at all, it might be a little harder to justify the next tax break!

Bill Jordan is NM Voices’ Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations

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Governor’s ‘Job’s Package’ Helps Intel Hire More Workers… from Out-of-State

The momentum for the Governor’s big corporate tax cut that was passed earlier this year began in 2012 when the Legislature’s tax committee met at the sprawling Intel plant in Rio Rancho. It was there that Intel gave legislators a tour of the plant and lunch, and tax experts explained that Intel was paying more in corporate taxes here than in other states where they have manufacturing plants.

Because corporate taxes are confidential in New Mexico we don’t know for sure how much Intel paid, but it’s probably safe to say the computer chip giant paid as much as $20 million or more in some years. The argument was that if Intel could pay less tax in other states, they would choose to expand operations in those states instead of New Mexico. So the Governor proposed that the Legislature relieve Intel and other manufacturers from the responsibility of paying most, if not all, corporate taxes in New Mexico. In the closing minutes of the 2013 legislative session, legislators agreed to the deal. Taxes were cut by tens of millions of dollars, meaning there will be that much less to spend on education, health care, public safety, and other services.

Lawmakers gambled. They bet that their trade off of education funding in exchange for jobs at Intel or other manufacturing plants would pay off. It took less than a year for Intel to show them just how wrong they were.

Sandoval County—where Intel is located—also bet on jobs. The county made a pact with Intel in 2004 that traded a $16 billion bond deal in exchange for a commitment that 60 percent of its new hires would come from New Mexico. Last year Intel hired 74 new employees and only 19 of those were from New Mexico. The company has missed that 60 percent target three of the last four years, according to the Albuquerque Journal. The reason? Intel said it couldn’t keep its end of the bargain because New Mexico doesn’t have a well-educated workforce. At least Sandoval County had an accountability measure built into their deal: Intel had to pay the county $100,000. But the manufacturer got that back and more in the form of tax breaks from the state.

The massive state tax cut passed by the Legislature had no accountability measures. No triggers, no targets, no claw-backs to ensure that the tax breaks wouldn’t cost the state if they didn’t deliver. Lawmakers reduced the amount of money coming into the state’s budget—money that could have been used to train our future workforce—and instead gave that money to Intel’s shareholders in the hopes that they would expand operations in New Mexico. Not only did Intel not expand operations in New Mexico, the company just announced they are reducing their Rio Rancho workforce by 400 employees. What a kick in the teeth!

But alas, some still say Intel will expand here again. Well, let’s hope. But if they do, don’t expect them to hire New Mexicans, because as they’ve already told us, they can’t hire New Mexicans because we don’t have an educated workforce.

Bill Jordan is NM Voices’ Senior Policy Advisor/Government Affairs

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When it comes to kids, it’s time for a ‘fierce urgency of now’

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the March on Washington, he described a “fierce urgency of now.” He reminded a divided nation that we need one another, and that we are stronger when we march forward, together. “We cannot walk alone,” he said. “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.”

A half century later, Dr. King’s words still have great meaning and life.

For every preschool-age child in New Mexico, whose hope for the future lies in a quality public education system, there is an “urgency of now” for access to high-quality early childhood care and education programs. Children can’t wait until we fund the next study or argue over the next source of revenue.

Studies conclusively show that major economic and social problems in America and New Mexico—poverty, crime, teen pregnancy, high school drop-out rates, adverse health conditions, and more—can be traced to low levels of social skills such as attentiveness, persistence, and impulse control. When these social skills are taught along with cognitive skills at an early age, children are more capable and productive well into adulthood. Developing these skills is a major objective of early childhood education programs—and many studies show that high-quality programs work.

New Mexicans with low levels of education have little opportunity to live the American dream or participate fully in their communities. Without the opportunity that comes from having access to quality early care and education programs, there is no freedom to reach our full potential in the workforce and life. Without education, there is no framework for success and economic security for families trying to work their way into the middle class.

As Dr. King said 50 years ago, the true goal of education is “intelligence plus character.” This is what we must be investing in for the sake of our children and future generations.

So talk to your family, your friends, and neighbors. Partner with trusted resources in your communities, like nonprofits and advocacy organizations. Be a champion for early childhood care and education with other civic and business leaders who are stepping up in your communities.

This is very simply the right thing to do. According to J.D. Trout—“We have an obligation to give as many people as we can the opportunity to be successful, whether they are your own kids or kids that are otherwise invisible to you.”

With good, common-sense legislation, we can be one step closer to fulfilling the dream and the promise for thousands of New Mexico’s children who otherwise will not have access to this opportunity. The time is now; let us not wait any longer to invest in our children, our friend’s children, our neighbor’s children, and the children who are otherwise invisible to us. We cannot walk alone and neither can they.

Kwaku Sraha is NM Voices’ Business Manager

Check out our NM KIDS are COUNTing on Us policy agenda

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A Father’s Day Remembrance – for All our Families

Like most, my dad was not the perfect father. He had his shortcomings and he always struggled to make ends meet for our family of five kids. As a mailman, he didn’t make a lot of money and we had more than our share of tough financial times. He and my mom never wavered in their love and care for us kids. We were always their number one priority.

When times got tough, my parents never told us we had to do without eyeglasses, visits to the dentist, or enough food. Our health and education were a priority for my parents. So when they couldn’t make ends meet, dad went out and got a second job. When we all got a little older and were in high school and college, mom went back to work. Instead of making us do without, they went out and raised more money to make sure we were healthy and well educated.

Not so with New Mexico’s lawmakers. We’re in tough financial times and our kids are not doing well. But instead of raising more revenue for the “family” (as my dad did), they just gave away most of the new revenue we had in tax cuts to corporations whose profits have never been higher. Then they told the cities and counties they could raise taxes on all of us in order to pay for it.

When policy makers put corporations before kids in the “family” budget, here’s what happens:

  • The state is in trouble with the federal government for underfunding education for children with special needs.
  • The state may soon be sued for underfunding our public schools.
  • UNM and other colleges are raising tuition as much as 14% because New Mexico lawmakers have cut per-student funding deeper than any other state in the nation.
  • A new report released this week shows that New Mexico now ranks highest in child hunger.
  • The state is not spending a penny for outreach and enrollment of the tens of thousands of children who are eligible for health care coverage under New MexiKids.
  • There are fewer children with New MexiKids health care coverage today than when the Governor took office over two years ago.
  • Thousands of children have been on a waiting list for child care assistance for years, and most of them will age-out of child care and go to school before they ever get off the waiting list.

On this Father’s Day, I’m especially grateful for all that my father did for me. I also know that not every New Mexico father has the same opportunities my father had—especially during the recent recession. If the state doesn’t lend a hand and kids suffer, we all suffer. At New Mexico Voices for Children, we believe we’re in this together… that each individual’s well-being is tied to the well-being of the whole “family” that is New Mexico.

And so we’re asking our lawmakers to take a good hard look at the state’s priorities. Our kids, their kids, aren’t doing so well, and it’s time to stop giving away our limited resources and invest more in our kids. Now!

Bill Jordan is one of five children of Thomas and Mary Catherine Jordan, proud father of two amazing kids, and grandfather of two adorable grandchildren. He is Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations for NM Voices for Children.

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It’s Past Time for Accountability in New Mexico’s Tax Policy

Once again this year the Legislature overwhelmingly passed a requirement to track all of our state’s tax breaks and, once again, the Governor vetoed it. She said in her veto message of SB-7 that such a report is not necessary because, “the Taxation and Revenue Department (TRD) compiled a thorough report in 2012.” No one I know thinks the TRD report was “thorough” and that’s why SB-7 passed 37-0 in the Senate and 58-10 in the House. Almost all members of both parties obviously felt strongly that the TRD report was not “thorough” enough and wanted a better one. They clearly believe that tracking tax breaks makes for better tax policy and more accountability.

Almost all states and the federal government create a tax expenditure report. It allows the state to see how much each tax break is actually costing so lawmakers can determine if those tax breaks are worth what they cost taxpayers. This is important because it gives lawmakers information so they can consider changes in tax policies that turned out to be too expensive or simply ineffective.

It’s also important because when legislators pass tax bills they only have an estimate of what the eventual cost will be. Lately, the estimates generated here in the Land of Enchantment have been quite disenchanting—and quite wrong. In 2012, for example, a bill that legislators were told would cost just $40 million ended up costing more than $90 million. The mistake was bigger than the tax break!

The big tax bill that was passed in the 2013 session, however, is the bill most likely to go down in legislative infamy. HB-641, which started out as an expansion of film and TV tax credits (and as such was dubbed the “Breaking Bad” bill), was amended in the final minutes of the session. Thirty-five pages of tax law were added to the bill and both chambers were asked to vote on it even though no one had had time to read it. What’s worse—the staffers who estimate what such bills will cost, had no time to issue the required Fiscal Impact Report (FIR). Instead, the Secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration told the House of Representatives that the bill would be “revenue positive”—meaning it would cost the state nothing, but rather bring even more money into the state coffers instead—each and every year.

He was quite wrong. Since the bill was passed, three FIRs have been issued—each subsequent FIR estimating a higher and higher cost to the state. There is no telling how the votes would have come down had at least one FIR been available in time. It’s possible, though, circumspect legislators would have at least mandated that some accountability measures be included.

It’s odd that accountability measures rarely seem to show up in tax bills. And yet, the Legislature has, three times now, demanded the ultimate accountability measure—a tax expenditure report.

The Governor, however, who vetoed the tax expenditure bill practically in the same breath that she signed the omnibus tax bill, doesn’t seem to want any accountability at all.

Since this is the third time a tax expenditure budget bill has been passed and vetoed (the previous governor vetoed the first one), legislators might want to try a different tack. Instead of trying a fourth time, perhaps they should override the most recent veto and finally put some accountability for tax breaks into law!

Bill Jordan is NM Voices’ Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations

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This will surprise you (and should make you want to take action)!

Next to housing, child care is the biggest expense for young couples with kids. Without someone to care for their kids, they can’t work. And yet, policymakers continue to underfund child care assistance programs and the media ignores it.

When UNM announces it might increase tuition by 14 percent next year it makes headlines in the Albuquerque Journal. But to my knowledge, they’ve never reported the fact that high-quality child care for a toddler costs considerably more than the average tuition and fees at our state universities. That’s right—it costs more to send your kid to child care than to UNM. And yet there are no Pell grants, no student loans, no lottery scholarships, and 3 year-olds can’t get on the work-study program. The young parents have to pay the bill—in advance.

According to a recent market survey, child care costs about $6,000 to $7,000 a year. That is a big chunk of parents’ take-home pay. The good news is that New Mexico has a sliding-fee child care assistance program that helps working parents afford to keep their child in a safe and nurturing environment while they work. The bad news is that the state budget crisis in recent years has meant that thousands of families are being turned away or are on the waiting list, and there is little hope they will be served this year.

With all the financial help that college students and their parents get, it might surprise you to know that parents making $15,000 a year make too much money to get any help with sliding-fee child care assistance. That program used to provide assistance to those living at 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level but because of state budget priorities, now only those parents making about 110 percent or less can get any help, and even then huge co-pays are required.

So parents are faced with the choice of spending more than a third of their wages on child care or, perhaps worse, finding affordable unregistered care—which may or may not be offered in a safe environment.

Child care assistance has been lauded by politicians and parents alike as the most effective way to make work pay. New Mexico’s families deserve the opportunity to work with the sense of security knowing their children are not only in a safe place, but spending their day in a place that fosters their intellectual and emotional development. We’re grateful that lawmakers approved an increase in child care assistance funding in next year’s budget, but it’s not nearly enough to serve even all the children on the waiting list. We all need to demand that our lawmakers do at least as much for our youngest kids as they do for our college students.

Bill Jordan is NM Voices’ Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations

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Good tax policy? Umm, not so much…

Media reports on the big tax bill (HB-641) that passed in the closing minutes of the 2013 legislative session noted that while there was little Senate debate and no House debate on the bill, the components of that tax bill had been previously debated in committee. This implies that the bill had actually been debated and found to be good tax policy. What these media accounts failed to report is that the members of the only committee that actually debated all of those components—the House Taxation and Revenue Committee—voted against the big tax bill 9-5. In other words, those who knew what was in the bill and had studied it clearly didn’t think it was good tax policy.  

With the clock ticking toward the mandatory noon adjournment, legislators were asked to vote on the bill and its 35-page amendment, which stood to impact the state by hundreds of millions of dollars.  With no written analysis of the bill in front of them, representatives were instead given a wildly incorrect verbal analysis by the governor’s tax expert, Tom Clifford, Secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration. Twice he said that the bill had a positive fiscal impact in every year, meaning that it would increase money available to the state for things like education. In fact, the bill loses almost $250 million in the first few years, money that will not be there to pay for education, health care, public safety, and other critical state services.

The first written analysis of the bill was released a few days after legislators went home. It showed that Secretary Clifford had grossly misrepresented the financial impact of the bill. There have been two revised reports on the bill since then and each one shows an even greater loss of revenue. 

This isn’t the first time there was a ‘mistake’ in analyzing a tax bill. The governor’s tax experts made a $40 million-plus ‘mistake’ in last year’s tax bill and the fix for that ‘mistake’ was in this year’s bill. In fact, several of the provisions of this year’s big bill were fixes or tweaks to past tax bills.

And speaking of past tax bills… supporters of this tax bill, including the governor, assure us that new businesses will suddenly flock to the state and that will more than make up for this lost revenue.  A past Governor said that about his big tax cut in 2003 and we’re still waiting for those jobs to appear.

With each new deeper review on the impact of this year’s tax bill, the more heartburn we have about it. Perhaps legislators will feel some of the same heartburn and have the courage to come back next year and fix this ‘mistake’ too. 

Bill Jordan is NM Voices’ Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations

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