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Ex-governor weighs in: It’s time for us to come together for a robust economy

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has effectively flattened the COVID-19 curve. Her directives on social distancing, masks and stay-at-home orders have driven our spread rate down to 1.15%. We are testing nearly 5,000 New Mexicans daily and any New Mexican, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, can now get a free COVID-19 test. The pandemic is still a threat, but New Mexicans remain protected despite the failed federal leadership of President Donald Trump.

Former Gov. Bill Richardson

Former Gov. Bill Richardson

Our hospitals have treated patients effectively and have a sufficient supply of ventilators. When the current governor was secretary of Health and I was governor, we worked together to secure $225 million in health care infrastructure in Albuquerque, Bayard, Roswell and Las Vegas that created more patient services and improved health clinics. Much of the solid public health work done by the current administration is due to those investments, which I was proud to oversee and which the current governor spearheaded. Our governor has been forward-thinking in developing regional western collaboratives to stockpile equipment and resources.

We now have the extremely tough job of figuring out a balance between public health and economic needs. I recently took a drive through Angel Fire, Red River and Questa, and I was met with the dusty windows of shuttered businesses, abandoned main streets and no people. Last weekend, I drove through some of our pueblo areas like Zia and parts of the Navajo Nation and saw a similar scene. We are a state of small businesses: 160,000 that at one time employed 340,000 people. We need to stop threatening each other with lawsuits, disobeying state directives and making partisan threats. It’s time to come together.

As a start, leaders need to regionalize some of our response. Southeast and Northeast New Mexico, with far fewer cases, can have their restrictions loosened sooner than Albuquerque, Santa Fe, San Juan and McKinley. Our beleaguered restaurants should be allowed to gradually reopen with limited capacity and outdoor dining. And perhaps allow one of my favorite spots, Elephant Butte, which often draws over 100,00 people on a holiday weekend, to allow boating first, then a slow opening of the beaches.

As a June special session approaches, our elected leaders should consider the following initiatives to support a robust recovery for our state:

First, draw from the Severance Tax Permanent Fund to give the New Mexico Finance Authority the means to issue low-interest loans to support struggling small businesses and cattle ranchers, improve rural infrastructure, aid tribal entities and increase access to broadband. With the strong likelihood of more of our residents telecommuting and distance learning, it is imperative that everyone in our state be able to access the internet.

Second, invest and develop a space and aerospace economy. With the Spaceport about to launch its maiden flight, let us incentivize companies to partner with New Mexico as a base.

Third, make a major capital outlay contribution to the Tribal Infrastructure Fund. Our Indian tribes have been devastated by the virus, and without investments in water systems, internet access, telemedicine and preschool, their recovery will be stagnant and they will remain vulnerable to future pandemics.

And come January, when it is constitutionally permitted to do so, the Legislature needs to tap the Land Grant Permanent Fund at a 1% increase to protect education and early childhood investments, with proper safeguards. There is no excuse whatsoever not to take this action. Future generations of New Mexicans depend on it.

And a message to legislators of my own political party: don’t raise taxes of any kind. We need to attract new businesses and, if anything, get rid of the onerous double Social Security tax. Republicans, please leave alone the film credits, which have brought tons of good-paying jobs to the state. Let’s continue efforts to respond to climate change, diversify our economy and bring more green jobs to our state.

While I have been armchair quarterbacking from my home in Santa Fe, I still care deeply about our state and believe our best days are yet to come.

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