Beginning Dec. 15, bills can be pre-filed for the state legislative session that begins in January. The anatomy of the session will develop as the goals and motives of lawmakers become clear. This even-year, 30-day session is dedicated to fiscal matters and, of course, we know there will be continued budget wrangling and copious hand-wringing related to tax increases.
The good news is there also will be a strong move to create a state ethics commission, State Auditor Hector Balderas will push for legislation that puts snap in the whip of financial accountability, potential strategies will be proposed for better oversight of the State Investment Fund and, finally, some kind of pinch will be put forth regarding the public employee practice known as “double-dipping.”
These initiatives point to the upside of the economic crisis: In the scramble to cut costs, we may root out waste and corruption, and find we’ve been pissing hundreds of millions into the dirt for years.
The bad news is some legislators will angle for what they see as an easy way out, like reinstating tax on food purchases. Data shows that more than 14 percent of New Mexicans were “food insecure,” with another 5 percent at the tipping point in 2008. I think we know how that tipped in 2009. Legislators flirting with a food tax should stuff the idea down a deep, dark hole, possibly ones found on their own bodies.
But my personal pet peeve is all the stuff legislators should consider, but never get around to. Here’s a list of needed reforms you won’t hear a peep about this January*:
While a return to a food tax would be regressive, sodas and mass-market sugar beverages ought to be taxed just like liquor and cigarettes. In a Nov. 19 article for the New Mexico Independent, Marjorie Childress estimates that a soda tax (one cent per ounce) could raise $153 million annually in New Mexico. Some argue that taxing an individual “food” item plays favorites and forces people to make food choices based on cost. But soda isn’t necessary to anyone’s diet, and there is good evidence it contributes mightily to obesity and other health problems. The governor’s budgetary task force, however, has apparently decided it wouldn’t want to do anything to offend Coca-Cola.
Way back in the 19th century when New Mexico tax payers got burned by the state’s reckless railroad investments, the anti-donation clause was adopted to put some oversight on state spending in relation to private enterprise. Today, the anti-donation clause should be axed; it radically limits the ability of state and local governments to help nonprofits, promote economic development and develop fruitful private/public partnerships. The current practice of using state funds to finance film production demonstrates the state is willing to ignore its own constitution when convenient. So let’s take the thumb screws off the little guys and add focused oversight to state spending, rather than blanket, reactionary blockades that don’t work anyway.
New Mexico’s liquor licensing process must be revamped. As near as I can tell, it’s built around ensuring the fat pockets of the dozen or so folks around the state who routinely profit off the sale of liquor licenses. Freeing beer and wine sales from the yoke of a restaurant kitchen will change almost instantly the landscape of economic development, small-scale entrepreneurialism and nightlife. Taking the private profiteering out of liquor license sales, increasing the amount of licenses, and upping the state fees to create revenue for treatment and education programs will help everyone.
Create real campaign finance reform: Snowballs and hell, pigs and flying, etc.
Just legalize it, dudes: The “it,” of course, is marijuana. Such an action would obviously push the buttons on US Attorney General Eric Holder’s laissez-faire attitude toward medical marijuana, but it would be a bold, media frenzy of a revenue plan to toke up.
We don’t yet know whether we’ll see the return of some good as-yet-to-be-passed bills, all of which I consider fiscal in essence. Santa Fe Democratic state Rep. Brian Egolf’s charge to ensure that property owners who are victims of the split estate are notified when the mineral rights associated with their land are up for sale is a no-brainer.
A farmer protection bill that would prevent the Monsantos of the world from suing New Mexico farmers should be put back on the table. The previously axed proposal was among the most progressive ever considered by any state. Now is the time to take the national lead in creating policy that enables economic growth for independent farmers, regional consortia as well as trade and distribution among adjacent food sheds.
Finally, the epic struggle of Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, to close corporate tax loopholes ought to finally be given its fair shake, times being what they are and all.
*Or I’ll eat my hat