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Editorial: Ready for liftoff? NM’s newest leaders need to keep their feet on the ground as demands for funding, change rise

Out with the old, in with the new is the theme each New Year’s. Nowhere is that more true than in New Mexico as 2018 ends and 2019 begins.

With the beginning of the new year, New Mexico will be getting a new government, fresh with a new governor, new state office holders and new legislators. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham takes office Tuesday, taking over for Republican Susana Martinez, who will complete her second term on New Year’s Eve. New Mexico could see more change in the coming year than it has in the past eight years. That may or may not be a good thing.

Martinez told the Journal she wished Lujan Grisham success “because her success will be New Mexico’s success.” We do, too. But Lujan Grisham has her work cut out for her as she tries to fulfill myriad campaign promises while making decisions in the state’s best short-term and long-term interests.

Job. No. 1 is the budget, and the governor and Legislature will have an interesting time slicing up the revenue pie, with more than $1 billion in “new money” expected to be available for the fiscal year starting July 1 thanks to the recent oil and gas boom. While state economists are urging caution following the budget crisis of just a few years ago, there are plenty of government agencies and advocacy groups seeking a slice of that new money.

There’s a proposal to raise teachers salaries by $10,000 a year – part of an effort to comply with a vague District Court judge’s order in a lawsuit saying New Mexico’s schools are not adequately funded. The total price tag on proposed fixes to the education system ranges from $350 million to $1 billion.

And there are other unfunded liabilities that need addressing: Two public retirement systems that won’t meet their promises to employees. A $250 million backlog in film incentives. Hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance in state buildings. The state road fund that’s been starved for years because officials have had to scramble to pay off the Rail Runner debt. And the additional $63 million for Medicaid as the federal government scales back its subsidy.

And that’s just scratching the surface.

The state Department of Finance and Administration is recommending reserves of at least 25 percent – a pragmatic move considering state government and lawmakers spent much of 2016 breaking piggy banks and looking under couch cushions to cobble together a budget. Nobody wants to go there again, and the legislative freshman class of 2019 should heed the warnings of experienced upperclassmen and truly save more than a little something for a rainy day.

On that topic, they should also ignore the advocacy rhetoric that the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund is a rainy day kitty to be tapped for any well-meaning yet vaguely defined program that tugs at heartstrings – it is a sovereign wealth fund established to provide New Mexico with a meaningful income stream when oil and gas revenues dwindle – either as those finite resources are tapped out or as green energy takes their place. It must remain healthy as it funds a tenth of our state budget. And so as gasoline prices slide and worries of an impending recession loom, raiding it to throw what amounts to our children’s savings at problems just to keep a campaign promise is irresponsible to the nth degree.

But back to that billion-plus in new revenue. Considering it’s one-time money, it should unequivocally go to one-time expenses that don’t dig future Legislatures a recurring-spending hole they can’t get out of without saddling New Mexicans with new taxes.

And that brings us to long-overdue capital outlay reform. The state continues to dole out infrastructure money in thirds, to the executive branch as well as the House and Senate, which in turn use political patronage rather than an impartial prioritization to build what the state does – or doesn’t – need across 33 counties. This new year’s capital spending would truly invest in New Mexico if it’s based on a system that ranks the biggest infrastructure needs rather than random political wants.

Other proposals promise to keep the Roundhouse humming – earlier this month legislative staff reported an 80 percent jump in requests for legislation to be drafted, compared to similar periods before a 60-day session.

Lujan Grisham will be under a lot of pressure to address the state’s K-12 education system. In addition to trying to interpret that lawsuit ruling – which she should appeal to the N.M. Supreme Court for learned guidance from that panel – she’ll have to balance her campaign rhetoric with accountability to taxpayers, parents and students. The state’s A-F grading system has finally given the public insight into how our 89 school districts stack up academically, teacher evaluations have been adjusted so student improvement on standardized tests accounts for no more than 30 percent, and the PARCC test has provided five years of student results linked directly to the Common Core curriculum – something that would have to be replaced at an unnecessary high cost in dollars and lost data. Lujan Grisham should put students before the small union membership and continue reforms that have more New Mexico students proficient in math and reading, more taking and passing advanced placement courses, and more graduating high school and not needing remediation for college coursework.

Crime will also be on many lawmakers’ minds. Communities that have had to resort to bidding wars to fill their law enforcement ranks deserve a return-to-work program that gets select retired officers back in uniform while holding pension funds harmless. And while the proposed omnibus crime bill has promise, the draft is defendant-centric; victims deserve justice, too, especially when it comes to tougher penalties for child abuse.

In addition to shoring up pension funds, lawmakers must finally get those accounts onto paths of fiscal sustainability. While expecting employees to kick in more for their retirements will be politically unpalatable for many, sticking taxpayers who have no pensions at all with a higher tab is a non-starter, as is doing nothing and breaking a retirement-fund promise to state employees.

Another promise that must be kept is a true state ethics commission that is transparent and accountable to the public. Voters approved one by constitutional amendment earlier this year, and they do not need to be visited by ghosts of proposed ethics commissions past, which would have delivered little more than secretive whistleblower witch hunts.

There’s also ending the disenfranchisement of fully one-fifth of the state’s independent voters by opening our primary elections – which our secretary of state supports – finally banning cruel and indiscriminate trapping on public lands as well as barbaric animal killing contests, continuing to diversify our energy portfolio with renewables that promise a new private-sector powerhouse, regulating the bad actors in our essential oil and gas industries to clean up and protect our air and water, and balancing the desire to grow government exponentially with revenue from legalized recreational marijuana with its huge societal costs.

And so much more. Once again, a new year promises a fresh start for New Mexico, and we wish our latest group of leaders nothing but success in making smart short- and long-term decisions. Our state, and its current and future residents, depend on it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.