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Domenici Conference speakers urge investment in education

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – Speakers at the Domenici Public Policy Conference on Wednesday offered New Mexicans a one-two punch of advice for the state’s economic growth: Invest in education and infrastructure.

Neither offers an easy fix for state leaders bent on generating jobs and wealth in New Mexico with limited resources, but the program’s experts hammered home just how important such investments are to creating a growth environment.

Former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt opened the two-day conference by challenging New Mexico to follow his home state’s example.

Hunt said North Carolina “created a blueprint and largely stuck to it over decades” that involved committed investment to education, especially science and technology, and a tax strategy that “was fair to taxpayers but that generated sufficient revenue to invest in education.”

North Carolina harnessed the potential of its research universities to foment innovation and incubate new businesses, Hunt said, as the state watched its historically strong industries – tobacco, textiles and furniture – decline.

Today the state is a model for growth, thanks to long-term investments in education, paid for in part by a controversial food tax: Its Research Triangle Park hosts more than 200 businesses and employs 50,000 people, he said.

During his four terms as governor, Hunt, a Democrat, led North Carolina through education reforms, including creating an early childhood program called Smart Start that has served as an example for others like it around the country. Pressed by a student, Hunt said that he supported standardized testing – a hot-button subject in New Mexico – and that the public has to find out whether students are learning.

In his last decade as governor, North Carolina raised its scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress more than any other state.

Much of the rest of the conference centered on America’s aging infrastructure: how underinvestment inhibits growth and what states can do about it.

Former American Society of Civil Engineers President Andrew Herrmann runs through the nation's infrastructure "report card" at the Domenici Public Policy Conference on Wednesday, Sept. 19

Former American Society of Civil Engineers President Andrew Herrmann runs through the nation’s infrastructure “report card” at the Domenici Public Policy Conference on Wednesday, Sept. 19.

Nine percent of New Mexico’s bridges are “functionally obsolete,” meaning they don’t meet current engineering standards, and more than half the state’s roads are in poor condition, said Samara Barend, development director for public-private partnerships, or P3s, with AECOM Capital.

How can New Mexico solve its infrastructure problems?

In times of tight budgets, public-private partnerships are one answer for states wanting to invest in big public works, including roads, bridges and schools, she said.

Public-private partnerships can allow states to better allocate risk and bring greater accountability to major infrastructure projects, she said. But they are not the same thing as privatization, she said.

“The key to the success of a public-private partnership is not turning everything over to the private sector but balancing the skills of both,” Barend said.

Concrete goals for transparency, job creation and accountability are key to allay public concerns about privatization, she said.

“The approach that New Mexico takes has to be unique to New Mexico,” she said. “It has to be shaped by policy objectives. You can’t just take what Texas is doing and insert it into New Mexico.”

“America’s long-term underinvestment in infrastructure has, and will continue in the future, to limit our economic growth if we don’t do something about it,” said Mary Peters, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation. “How can we get back to the head of the pack? We need to educate the public that investing in safe infrastructure will grow our economy and create jobs.”

More than 900 people registered for the Domenici Public Policy Conference in its eighth year, including students from New Mexico State University, the University of New Mexico, Western New Mexico University and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

“What a marvel to find that New Mexicans were truly interested in doing more as citizens,” former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici said of how the conference that bears his name has grown.

New Mexico’s longest-serving U.S. senator, Domenici, a Republican, is well-known for his bipartisan collaboration in solving public policy problems over 36 years until his retirement in 2008.

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