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A Voice of Reason in A Political Season

By Winthrop Quigley
Of the Journal
          After watching our gubernatorial candidates sink deeper and deeper into the mud they seem committed to slinging at each other, it is refreshing to spend a little time with former Gov. Garrey Carruthers. Instead of the simplistic and simple-minded bombast we've come to expect from office seekers, Carruthers gives you facts, insight and honesty.
        Carruthers, now dean of New Mexico State University's College of Business, is as politically astute as they come.He served as New Mexico's governor from 1987 through 1990.
        Unlike more recent political candidates, Carruthers is not big on insulting people or appealing to the uglier impulses of the electorate. He's practical, good humored, smart, imaginative and very, very busy. He loves New Mexico and he believes his political opponents love it too.
        A data point he offered during a speech earlier this month to Economic Forum about the findings of the Committee on Government Efficiency that he chaired got some of the local movers and shakers talking. The way he explained his point says a lot about the quality of his thinking and makes one long for a political campaign where ideas instead of character assassination are offered to the voters.
        Carruthers said that in 2008 New Mexico employed 7.3 people per thousand population to administer and provide support services in the state-run institutions of higher learning. Arizona had 2.8 employees per thousand population, Colorado had 4.6, and Texas had 3.3.
        It's a comparison that suggests an outsized layer of fat chokes state community college and university classrooms where the real work of education ought to be done. It has the makings of a great sound bite, were Carruthers running for anything, which he is not.
        It's not so simple. The analysis was done in a hurry, the dean said. "The economists said, don't go overboard; we need to drill down on this."
        A number of things could be behind that number, he said. Arizona, for example, has a population more than triple ours. That alone would give you a bigger staffing ratio in New Mexico simply as a matter of arithmetic. Arizona also has fewer state colleges and universities, which means each school on average has a bigger student body than ours do.
        "You could argue that we have too many institutions," Carruthers said. "The tough question is, what are we going to do about it? The answer is, there isn't much you can do about it. The seven four-year schools are all written into the state constitution." To eliminate one would require approval by the voters. "I'm not sure you can win that. Other states have tried it. It's very challenging politically. Every community loves its community college or university. It's part of their community."
        The efficiency committee in January proposed changes in state government that could save an estimated $129 million for the taxpayers. Some of those changes were introduced in the last state legislative session and not one made it through committee. There's another opportunity for a great incumbent-bashing sound bite.
        Not so fast. Legislative leaders already had a plan to deal with the immediate budget crisis, Carruthers said. They knew they were going to spend the rest of this year coming up with a long-term solution to New Mexico's financial problems, he said. "That's probably why we didn't get that much traction in the last legislature."
        The committee (composed of Finance and Administration Secretary Katherine Miller; her predecessors Dan Lopez, Willard Lewis and David Harris; former DFA budget director John Gasparich; and former Insurance Superintendent Chris Krahling, who helped design the last major governmental overhaul under Gov. Jerry Apodaca) suggested we eliminate several of our hundreds of boards and commissions. They all require staffing, and many of them either duplicate each other or do no obvious good. The committee suggested combining the Higher Education and Public Education departments. It proposed a new Commerce Department consisting of seven current departments and agencies. It proposed changes in Medicaid benefits.
        Carruthers called the committee one of the best groups he's ever worked with. Members were completely candid about the problems, some of them problems that Santa Fe has known about for years. "If they had any concern for their political futures they wouldn't have recommended reducing the number of school districts."
        Regardless of which proposals are adopted, if any, there is a bigger issue here, Carruthers said. State government can't simply be scaled back a little until economic growth resumes. It has to be re-engineered until it affordably fits New Mexico's needs for the long haul.
        The next legislature "is going to have one honking big deficit when the federal stimulus money goes away. Some of it is in education. A big share of it is in Medicaid. They are going to be looking at bigger deficits than they've ever seen before."
        Mustering the political will to do more than tighten the belt, mustering the will to completely change the way we do business "is the crux of the matter. Giveaways are easy. Takeaways are tough. We are going to have to do takeaways."
        It's the kind of job that calls for maturity and wisdom, not only on the part of our politicians. Ultimately, we citizens own this problem.
        Thus far in this campaign we've heard that Lt. Gov. Diane Denish is a Richardson clone, which she is not, and that District Attorney Susana Martinez coddles criminals, which she doesn't. These are campaigns noticeably bereft of wisdom and maturity.
        When the candidates are done smearing each other, it would be nice if they noticed New Mexico has some of the nation's most pressing social needs and can't afford to address them.

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