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Stamp cost rise would hurt N.M.

It may have become part of our digital age’s lexicon to refer to the kind of mail we receive in mailboxes as “snail mail.” It does not travel in the milliseconds of email. But it is still enormously important to New Mexico.

And it is overall pretty reliable.

Our United States Postal Service, however, has been in trouble for some time. The loss of First-Class mail to the Internet has been unfortunate, because it was once the first class stamp that paid the vast majority of the bills for this $65 billion government corporation.

The Postal Service has been trimming its workforce and facilities, but it continues to lose money. What it needs is a boost in its ability to manage its other costs as well – specifically, Congress needs to change the laws that govern it, particularly an unfair $5 billion a year prefunding requirement for its retirees’ health care. But it is Congress moving at the snail’s pace, not the mail.

However, the inaction of Congress does not justify the possibility of a major postage increase next January. That is what the U.S. Postal Service’s Board of Governors may be considering. It will be self-defeating.

The law permits an annual postage increase, which usually occurs in mid-January, so long as the Consumer Price Index sets the ceiling for the increase. It allows much larger increases if the Postal Service faces an “exigency” or emergency. This allowance has not yet been used since the price cap went into effect in 2007, so no one is quite sure what qualifies as an “exigency.”

But the completely foreseeable creep of digital technology into Americans’ communications habits is not an exigency. It is just a reality.

USPS saw it coming, but its heavy labor costs prevented it from moving fast enough to avoid the impact. Congress certainly saw it coming and has held hearings for at least five years to discuss it. Like other important national issues, this one remains stuck in Capitol Hill’s gridlock.

So the governing body of USPS seems to be thinking it will get its money from the pockets of the public, especially small businesses and rural customers that are most dependent upon the mail. In a state with sweeping expanses of rural areas, like New Mexico, the burden of major postage increases will fall heavily upon small towns and ranches.

When barely two-thirds of the state has access to the Internet and many who do simply cannot afford to use it, the mail is the lifeline. A big postage increase would also mean the small businesses, which make up 90 percent of the employer firms in the U.S. and create most of the new jobs, will be hit hard.

The rural poor will be hit hard.

Businesses and individuals who can afford to abandon the mail will do it faster if the cost spikes but that is not good either if we hope to preserve a national postal system. Some mail users will go away forever. In 2008, for example, a low double-digit rate increase for catalogs caused volumes to fall 23 percent.

Those who cannot leave the system will have to do without some other essential.

Either way, the result is not good for New Mexico and certainly not good for the Postal Service, which needs to hang onto the mail it now has.

This is a problem that rests at the doorstep of Congress. Though bills to help our nation’s mail service out of the ditch have been introduced, it appears this first session of the 113th Congress will end without passage of any of them.

The Postal Service Board of Governors, chaired by Albuquerque attorney Mickey Barnett, has some hard choices to make. The board should not confuse hard choices with bad choices.

The right answer is to continue belt-tightening and communicate loud and clear to Congress that it is time for action. It is not time to hit New Mexicans with big increases in their mailing costs.

Merle Baranczyk is publisher of the Mountain-Mail in Salida, Colo.