Editorial: Census wakeup call: State’s low growth shows need for hard conversations and big policy improvements

The federal census numbers are in, and they are concerning. New Mexico has gained only 58,000 residents since 2010 while our neighboring states flourished. More people are leaving than moving here, we’re losing our future leaders and our overall population is getting older.

New Mexico’s overall population has grown by just 2.8% since 2010, the smallest rate recorded since statehood. Meanwhile, Texas grew by 15.9%, Colorado by 14.8%, Arizona by 11.9% and the nation by 7.4%. Utah led the country with a phenomenal growth rate of 18.4%.

There are those who say that’s fine with them, that we don’t have the resources for more people. But low, flat or negative population growth is a symptom of an illness. State leaders should take the census numbers very seriously because they are an indication of our future. Policymakers need to sit down and ask themselves what they are doing wrong, and then figure out how to do it right. And they need to bring in – and listen to – leaders of both the public and private sectors.

If not, we risk becoming an abandoned movie set – literally.

One forecast predicts our population growth will slow to a crawl over the next 20 years and perhaps then decline. And that’s no way to build a strong economy or strong communities. Nobody wants to be the last one here to turn out the lights.

We can’t blame the predicted undercount: New Mexico beat the Census Bureau’s own estimate of population growth by 0.5%. That’s thanks in great part to a concerted effort last year to boost census participation via a campaign of media ads, telephone calls, text messages and mailers. The governor and Legislature authorized $8 million in emergency spending for census outreach efforts, and it was money well-spent given that each New Mexican not counted meant an estimated loss of $3,700 of federal funds per year over 10 years.

As we routinely rank high on the bad lists (crime, hunger, poverty) and low on the good lists (per capita income, child well-being, places to retire, quality of education, jobs) lawmakers now have concrete evidence that people are voting with their feet.

Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, asks “What would be the incentive for someone to come to New Mexico?”

The answer needs to be more than our sunshine, chile and generous Medicaid benefits for almost half our population. It’s terrifying it’s now routine to have DWI fatalities and homicide call-outs. We are over-reliant on government jobs, over-regulate private-sector business and have a tax system that does not compete well with our neighboring states.

It is a bridge to nowhere.

And if we don’t build a bridge to somewhere soon, we’re in big trouble.

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., says the answer is short: People follow the jobs.

Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Orion’s announcements of expanding here, as well Intel’s announcement it plans to bring 700 jobs and invest $3.5 billion in its Rio Rancho plant, are all good news. But we will need many more major announcements to see a healthy growth in population.

For those who say we don’t have the water and infrastructure needed to support the kind of growth taking place in Texas, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, you miss the point. Phoenix, Denver and Houston didn’t have vast water supplies to support exponential growth, but they found a way to grow anyway. And as much as we may denigrate the traffic, congestion and other issues that accompany explosive growth, count how many N.M. native 20- to 40-year-olds you know who now live in those cities – or Seattle or Austin.

New Mexico needs younger workers to not just replace retirees, but to bring innovation, experimentation and entrepreneurship to our myriad sectors and keep our economy vibrant. Yet we’re going in the opposite direction.

• Our population of children under 18 shrank by 8.3% from the 2010 census. In fact, a Legislative Finance Committee report warns of the consequences of overbuilding pre-school capacity and since 2016 public school enrollment has declined 3% a year and higher education has declined 5%.

• The number of high school graduates is projected to decline by a whopping 22% by 2037.

• Our state’s working-age population has declined by 2% since 2010.

• While our over-65 population grew 38%, it’s unclear whether that was due to residents aging in place or retirees actually moving here. Rampant crime and the state’s policies of taxing Social Security, pension and military retirement do nothing to attract them.

Sanderoff points out successful retirees often have a second home in New Mexico but keep their main residence in Texas, where there is no income tax. He and others question how New Mexico could be so flush in oil royalties recently, yet residents failed to see any broad tax relief.

To grow, we need jobs, a good education system, lower crime rates and to be tax and entrepreneur friendly.

“We’ve got to start thinking about how to keep young people here,” Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, recently said.

And we have to think beyond his successful push to legalize recreational marijuana.

A first step could be for the governor to tap a group of leaders in the private sector – including entrepreneurs, investors and business owners – as well as public policy experts and give them the task of coming up with a dozen top-line recommendations for making New Mexico more competitive.

New Mexico has much to offer with its dramatic landscapes, exciting outdoor opportunities, diverse cultures, rich traditions, temperate climate and genuinely friendly people. And we still beat our neighbors in affordability.

However, without quality education, safe communities and a strong private sector, it’s a nice place to visit – but as the census shows, many just wouldn’t want to live here.

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.

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