New Mexico is a perfect example of what happens when a government is run by people who hate government; who want to run government “like a business;” who make a virtue of selfishness; who think those with low incomes are inferior to the wealthy; who give lip service to caring for the unfortunate, the old, the mentally frail, the physically infirm but whose policies of neglect consign them to the wood chipper of Republican politics; who hate the “foreign” and the “new” and are terrified of science and fresh thinking and culturally different perceptions; who politically pave the way for pollution as the road to profit; who abhor taxes and the whole concept of “public” needs, public education, public infrastructure so much that their governments actually take credit for demolishing “progress,” and replacing it with nothing but rubble.
New Mexico has been a laboratory for these kinds of people for nearly a quarter century. Like the sucking vacuum it is, the Far Right has almost sucked the life out of our state. The mad cap, deadly partisan, hysterical Far Right has been in power here for 16 out of the last 24 years.
And in the last week we’ve seen what could become among the most notorious anti-government acts in our history – the complete (and we pray temporary) defunding of higher education and the entire legislative branch by a governor whose party lost the State House and the State Senate, and other key posts in last year’s elections.
The chief culprits in this near quarter century of political mayhem are sitting governor Susana Martinez who was elected in 2011 and whose term will be over – and not a moment too soon – on January 1, 2019. It was all started by libertarian Governor Gary Johnson who served from 1995 to 2003. In the middle of these two government haters was the quixotic, peripatetic and unhappily scandal-bruised Bill Richardson who served as governor from 2003 to 2011.
I always used to think Gary Johnson was the worst governor in New Mexico’s modern history. But Susana Martinez is rapidly taking over. Still, Johnson wasn’t known as “governor veto” for nothing. Johnson holds the record for vetoing legislation – 739 in eight years. If a bill had any impact on, or required any assistance from, “government,” Johnson axed it. He hated government so much, his administration accomplished virtually nothing to lift the burden of poverty, pollution, and institutional neglect that much of New Mexico’s population suffers as citizens of a state that is often ranked the poorest in the nation.
Johnson, like all libertarians, fails to see the connection between the abstraction of “government” and the real people – rich and poor – it is designed to serve. No member of the Chamber of Commerce could make a single buck without public roads, public water utilities, public schools, public assistance for those beset by private and social ills, and the police and firemen who serve the public’s interest.
Johnson was particularly blind to the usefulness of government. He was a foe of taxes as well as public education, advocating an educational voucher system during most of his administration. He boasted of shrinking state government. What that really meant was that more than 1,200 state employees lost their jobs, damaging the health and quality of life of their families and their communities across the state.
Under his tenure, tribal casinos were established but with controversial fee and tax provisions that pleased no one and required the courts to intervene. His most useful accomplishment in my view was widening the death-trap US 550 from Albuquerque to Bloomfield to a four-lane highway. Unhappily, the road began to deteriorate not three years after it was finished and there was trouble with a federally backed warranty. The sole bidder for the job was Koch Industries who promised state-of-the-art work. Johnson also received much praise for his dedicated handling of the catastrophic Cerro Grande Fire near Los Alamos in 2000.
Winning his first term with less than 50 percent of the vote, he beat former Governor Bruce King and Green candidate and former Lieutenant Gov. Roberto Mondragon. To gain a second term, he won a landslide victory over Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez. Johnson’s libertarian bona fides were given some glitter when he advocated the legalization of marijuana.
By the time Johnson’s government-hating reign ended New Mexico was still at the bottom of the pit of economic distress in the nation, along with Mississippi and Louisiana. And nearly 26 percent of its children were living in poverty. New Mexico was ranked 48th in poverty rate. A lot of good that hating government did for all of us who depend on citizen-supported public services to pave the way, literally and figuratively, for economic growth.
The Johnson years gutted the initiative, the creativity, the optimism of the people who make up the “government” – patriotic citizens, elected representatives, and the committed community of public servants who give a state like ours, financially enfeebled as it is, a chance to run more or less efficiently and honestly. When you hate government, and do everything you can to thwart it, you are disempowering the best of its employees and leaving the state without teeth, or muscle or intelligence, virtually helpless to thrive and sustain itself on its own terms.
Eight years later, when Susana Martinez took over the governor’s office from Bill Richardson in 2011, the state still had not recovered from the Johnson era. And Governor Martinez, everyone thought, was cut from the same libertarian cloth as Johnson. It turns out to have been much worst than that. Martinez is not only a government hater, but she is a combative, true believer of partisan dogma, a Ryan-McConnell hard-liner with no sympathy for public education, income equality, campaign finance reform, a clean environment, or getting along with anyone but her ideological hit men. Much could be said about the various Svengalis and cronies swirling around the governor’s suite, but that’s for a different column.
For all that, Martinez has an independent streak. Her bona fides as a troublemaker were polished up when presidential candidate Donald Trump came to New Mexico and insulted her, saying she was “not doing the job.” What job he meant was unclear. But even with Trump’s hammer blows to her conservative reputation, she still doesn’t oppose his culturally and economically disastrous border wall. Some of her legislative signings this year, though, have taken the edge off her occasional foul mouth and general nastiness as a public figure. She did the right thing in signing into law a bill that keeps “conversion therapy” out of New Mexico. Such therapy is the misguided practice of viewing homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice” that can be trained out of a person. She also signed a bill into law that makes a drug that can help in preventing heroin overdoses more available in the state.
But those were the exceptions. She vetoed the minimum wage bill that would have upped the wage to $9.25 an hour, giving a worker some $3,000 extra a year from a 40-hour week. She vetoed legislation favorable to teachers, legislation that would have helped to coordinate emergency services across the state for heart attack victims, and a bill that would have lifted some of the Citizens United secrecy from campaign spending by nonprofit groups in New Mexico and lower the amount that can be spent to elect a candidate. She vetoed a bill that would have ameliorated the barbaric practice of keeping people in solitary confinement long enough to drive them mad. She vetoed a bill to require domestic violence abusers to turn in their firearms. She also showed her hostility to environmental issues and renewable energy by vetoing a bill that would have retrofitted some 750 state buildings with renewable energy technology. And so it goes.
When all is said and done, Martinez is a nastier and meaner Gary Johnson. She has laid waste to New Mexico’s economy with hyper-Johnson-like efficiency. Nearing the end of her term, New Mexico has actually been losing jobs, not gaining them. Albuquerque alone has lost some 2,700 jobs during her last term in office. In national poverty rankings, the Martinez era is even worse than Johnson’s. When it comes to child well-being, which is a reflection of the social and economic health of the state’s population as a whole, New Mexico under Governor Martinez remains 49th in the country in economic vitality, education, child health, and the robustness of family and community support. This is what a hatred of taxes, of innovation, of breaking out of the status quo, and a loathing of public servants in general and public school teachers specifically, will do to a state.
When you oppose government action to protect the environment from pollution and polluters, you help create a state like ours with the worst rural air in America in the Four Corners, with almost ubiquitous and frightfully large water pollution events in or near our major population centers, an epidemic of radioactive mine waste, an endlessly slow clean up of nuclear waste at New Mexico’s national labs, and a state government that loves fracking.
And when you are a ruthless partisan politician, you ruin some of the state’s most important behavioral health non-profits, accusing them of fraud, depriving them of funds, driving them out of business, leaving their struggling patients and clients high and dry, and then give behavioral health contracts to conservative Arizona companies. The New Mexico NGO’s had no way to defend themselves from the charge of fraud. Lengthy audits were conducted. And to my knowledge none were found guilty of fraudulent behavior. In fact most all were exonerated of even minor infractions – but that was way too late to save them.
And now last week Martinez’s war against tax increases continued with her muscling the legislature into a special session with the brutal leverage of vetoing the legislature’s operating budget and defunding every public college and university in the state. Now that’s a movida as dastardly as any I can think of. It has sent pulses of depression and rage throughout the higher education system. It makes NM look like the authoritarian junk bond state. It’s so far beyond the pale, it could get her impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. Nothing but ill can come of it, even if it is “only” a political ploy to buckle the resistance of the Democratically controlled legislature and its modest plan to raise revenue.
Martinez makes Bill Richardson, her predecessor, who served from 2003 to 2011, look like a dynamic go-getter. And comparatively speaking, he was just that as far the environment is concerned.
Richardson served from 2003 to 2011. A year before he left office he signed an executive order that sets out, in his own words, “a bold agenda for the future of New Mexico’s Green Economy.” He created a Green Jobs Cabinet with five goals for New Mexico: “to become a leader in renewable energy export; to become the center of the North America solar industry; to lead the nation in Green Grid innovation; to continue being a leader in green building and energy efficiency; to have an educational system that prepares New Mexico for jobs in green technology.” What became of those sensible goals in the Martinez administration? Tossed with out a second thought.
Perhaps the most important of Richardson’s environmental initiatives took place early in his administration when he and Environment Secretary Ron Curry took on both of the state’s sacrosanct scientific labs, Los Alamos and Sandia, declaring them to be of “imminent and substantial endangerment” to the people of northern and central New Mexico for their mishandling of vast amounts of hazardous nuclear waste. Both labs, though denying any culpability, signed consent decrees and agreed to clean up their unconscionable toxic mess. That was undertaken in 2004. Clean up, from what is possible to know, appears to be still going on, despite the lack of pressure from the Martinez administration. Curry and Richardson also set up an Environmental Justice Planning Committee in New Mexico to document pollution in impoverished neighborhoods, villages, and tribal lands.
Like Richardson or not—agree with the Spaceport America idea or not, admire his support of LGBT rights or not, his signing of a concealed handgun law, his ban on cockfighting, his repeal of the death penalty, his “pay to play” troubles—he was an active governor, someone who understood that government could do some some good, if you knew what to do with it.
Governors, of course, are not dictators, but they set the tone for a state. The tone set by Martinez and Johnson has left New Mexico depressed and adrift. And when Martinez threatened recently to shut down state museums to save money, the state’s cultural community experienced a mixture of despair and disbelief that fast spread to the communities that depend on New Mexico cultural heritage to keep alive.
What might happen next year if Democrats hold the state House, get a larger majority in the state Senate, win the governor’s office, win back the state land office, and get an Albuquerque mayor? What would Democrats do with that advantage?
Could they reinvigorate local government, lift New Mexico from its doldrums, create new revenue sources for our schools and universities, take better care of our impoverished children and their families, create a states’ rights environmental agenda to clean up our sordid toxic waste and air pollution, and take care of our water, find a way to increase state repairs of our crumbling infrastructure, and make politics in this most political state in the union respectable again? What is the new Democratic narrative in the Age of Trump and its efforts to dismantle the “deep state,” in other words ruin the federal bureaucracy and undermine government so that it’s the baby that’s tossed out with the bath water? Will we see anything clearly different, humane, and responsible from Democrats in New Mexico? With young blood and wise veterans influencing the party—like Egolf, Candelaria, Wirth, Lujan-Grisham, O’Neill, Toulouse-Oliver, Morales, Ortiz y Pino to name a few—there’s a fair chance we will.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it
Gary Johnson image from Gage Skidmore.