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Corruption, scandals bad for NM business

Recent coverage by the Business Outlook of a University of New Mexico study of corruption, cronyism and the business climate here, hit too close to home. When I moved from California to Santa Fe and started up my company, EnRoute Strategies, I had no idea of the oversized importance of personal connections and lobbyists in the award of contracts and the passage of bills giving special breaks to favored companies.

It was an important revelation because my company helps small businesses design and execute sustainable growth strategies.

It’s not easy for a lone individual to start a new business and I feel that entrepreneurs are essential to our state’s economic development.

One of the assumptions small businesses make is that there is a relatively level playing field that will, in true American style, allow anyone with a good idea and a willingness to work hard, succeed. Otherwise, why would anyone may the effort?

Michael Rocca’s report gives specific examples of companies like Eclipse Aviation and Union Pacific Railroad who got tax breaks and special treatment. The report verifies specific instances of pay-to-play politics and corruption.

Even if the facts were not so glaring – the perception of corruption is bad enough. When there’s even a belief that cronies and lobbyists trump worthwhile – but unconnected – businesses, then economic transactions decline, and so do hopes of development.

Scandals like those involving our state’s chief ethics official, former Secretary of State Dianna Duran, and Sen. Phil Griego, whose conflict of interest forced his resignation last year, don’t help either. They discourage businesses from locating in the state and fuel polls that indicate the public believes New Mexico is on the wrong track.

Rocca points to dependence on the government sector, an unpaid Legislature, and the lack of transparency when it comes to tax breaks, lobbyist reporting and contributions from independent PACS. He says the combination creates “the perfect storm” for corruption.

I agree, but all is not lost! We can do better, as other states have done. New Mexicans, particularly those who choose to move here, have a record of reinventing themselves.

We can start by establishing an independent ethics commission as Rep. Jim Dines has proposed in this year’s legislative session. An independent body that makes sure the law is enforced and allows anyone to bring a complaint against a public official would give the business community confidence that the rule of law, not personal relationships or partisan politics, prevails.

The UNM study also advocates paying legislators a salary. New Mexico’s lack of a professional Legislature, he says, makes us susceptible to influence pedaling and conflict of interest.

New Mexico is the only state not to pay its legislators. We ought to give this a try, not to the level of California but at the part-time level suggested by Rep. Terry McMillan – $45,000 a year.

It will be an uphill battle, given that this will require a constitutional amendment, and success at the polls. The less faith the public has in its elected officials, the less likely it is to pass.

We’ve dug a deep hole on this one, but we need to discuss what it would take to incentivize better constituent service and encourage small business owners who cannot subsidize their own service to run for the Legislature.

Even before this year’s scandals, polling data carried in your newspaper point to the disclosure of all contributions and lobbying activities as a popular mandate. Rep. Jim Smith, from Albuquerque’s East Mountains, and Rep. Jeff Steinborn, of Las Cruces, have legislation in this year’s session requiring more transparency in both areas.

The business community, the governor and everyone concerned about New Mexico’s economic future should support them. All officials must be accountable for their contributions and the reasons – good or bad – for their decisions. Only then will ordinary citizens and businesses regain the confidence they need to invest and, yes, even to vote.

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