Matt Geisel had a challenging October. Appointed by the governor to lead the New Mexico Economic Development Department in the wake of Jon Barela’s departure for the private sector, Geisel was immediately tasked with implementing a 5.5 percent budget cut mandated by the Legislature. How did he do it?
“I really tried to make it a bottom-up process,” said Geisel, formerly an economic development official for the city of Rio Rancho. “I said to the staff, ‘I’m the new guy. You guys can do a better job of telling me how we can cut, where we can cut, how we can get there.'”
Several frozen positions and restructured contracts later, the department has been streamlined, and Geisel is thinking about how to approach the next two years. He sat down with the Journal to talk about what he hopes to accomplish.
Q: Tell us about your plans.
A: In a lot of ways it’s running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace, because there is a finish line or an expiration date in this situation. We’ve really started seeing some forward momentum over the last couple of years. How do we accelerate that? To me, that means more (economic development) projects, a higher quantity of projects and more quality in the projects that we’re seeing. Also seeing what we can do to support projects and job creation in non-metro areas across the state.
Q: What is holding us back economically?
A: The way I look at it is: Where were we five or six years ago, where are we today and where are we going? Five, six, years ago, we couldn’t compete with neighboring states. We are competing with neighboring states today, obviously, Facebook (the new data center in Los Lunas) being a great example. We have an opportunity to continue to highlight the opportunities, tout our successes, tout why New Mexico is a great place to locate, why New Mexico is a great place to do business. We need to continue to push forward.
Q: The economic development conversation in New Mexico rarely focuses on poverty. Jobs are clearly a big piece of the economic puzzle, but what about the people without jobs?
A: In a lot of ways, when we’re successful in economic development, we’re chipping away at solving social issues. When we’re able to create jobs, we’re creating an opportunity for people to be able to provide for themselves. Different jobs play different roles. Call centers, for example, are a sector of our workforce we should embrace. For one, it’s a fantastic workforce training tool. But specifically to your question on poverty, (call centers) hire a lot of nontraditional candidates. They are giving people the opportunity to get back into the workforce, or to get into the workforce if they don’t have a traditional background.
Q: What about keeping companies accountable for job promises, particularly those organizations that receive taxpayer-funded incentives?
A: There are different structures to the incentives: pre-performance and post-performance. (The Job Training Incentive Program) is a great example of a post-performance incentive, because you are reimbursed under JTIP for accomplishing what you said you’re going to accomplish. (Local Economic Development Act) contracts are administered through local entities, but we do annual job-creation audits for all the companies that are under contract.
Q: There are those who have characterized the use of incentives like LEDA, as well as the corporate site-selection process, as a “race to the bottom.” What is your response?
A: Without LEDA, we don’t compete with 35 states. Do we not want to compete with 35 states when it comes to recruitment, retention, expansion of businesses? That’s a philosophical question. We also know when to walk away from a deal. I walked away from a deal last week. My staff is very judicious with the money because they’re public servants, and we take the notion of protecting the public’s money very, very seriously.