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NM needs jobs, highway repairs, but not more debt

New Mexico needs more jobs, and we need them now. That is what we hear from folks in the cafes and diners in Deming and across our state.

It was confirmed in a recent study by the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research: We are ranked one of the worst in the nation when it comes to economic and job growth – 48th of 50 states. That is a tough situation for families.

So what can we do to jump-start jobs and get the economy growing again? One simple way is to address New Mexico’s huge, unmet highway and road needs.

There is a gap of about $250 million per year between available money for road projects and identified need for new roads and maintenance.

New Mexico is a rural state. Long stretches of desert and mountains separate our cities and towns.

Roads and highways are the lifeline, keeping our economy going by connecting workers to jobs and businesses to customers. Road construction projects create not only better infrastructure, but good jobs.

Gov. Susana Martinez proposes a $300 million package of road and highway projects to begin work in July, and Senate Democrats support road jobs. This initiative could create up to 4,000 jobs around the state right away. The workforce does not have to be trained — those who do it are ready to work.

Where we disagree is how to pay for it. It is an important disagreement with consequences for the future.

Federal funding available for road projects has been falling for more than decade, presenting us with real challenges. Congress holds the purse strings, so we don’t know what next year may bring.

The governor wants to borrow the money for the roads plan. That is wrong.

The responsible way is to increase the gas tax today, and to export some of the cost to long-haul, out-of-state trucks that use our roads – and put a lot of wear and tear on them.

Think of it as a user-fee.

Borrowing the money to pay for road projects we need now leaves a future generation of New Mexicans to pay off the debt – for our children and grandchildren. That is what the governor’s proposal would do – finance current highway projects by issuing new debt that would be paid off over many years using borrowed money from the state’s severance tax on oil and gas production.

By contrast, one Democratic proposal would increase the state’s gas tax rate from 17 cents per gallon to 22 cents by 2019.

My bill would increase the gas tax by 10 cents, and split the revenues evenly between state and local road repair projects. That is an additional $140 million annually for road jobs.

We can afford to do this: New Mexico has the lowest gas tax rate of all states in the region. And with gas prices down 40 percent since last June, drivers won’t feel the pinch as much if we pass it now.

We can get more funds for road projects by increasing the weight-distance fees on out-of-state trucking firms that speed along our interstates and highways on their way to California and other places. The fee is based on vehicle weight and miles traveled on New Mexico roads.

Those heavy big-rigs cause the most road damage, and our taxpayers foot the bill. A weight-distance fee increase could bring in millions more.

Borrow-and-spend has gotten us into big trouble in the past. Today we are overextended and are paying $165 million every year just for road money that was borrowed by previous administrations. The governor’s road repair plan isn’t free. We should be more careful with taxpayers’ money.

Another good Republican, President Ronald Reagan, sometimes had to make decisions that were unpopular, but were responsible.

In 1982 he called for raising the gas tax – not borrowing – to pay for fixing the nation’s roads. “The bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost,” he said.

The potential benefits of investment in our roads and highways are clear. We need the jobs. But let’s do it responsibly.

Sen. John Arthur Smith is a Deming Democrat.

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