Op-Ed: State Economy Needs Investment, Vision

By Liddie Martinez, chairwoman of the Economic Recovery Council’s Subcommittee on Economic Relief
Brian O’Leary, chairman of the council’s Subcommittee on Economic Development

As the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham continues to carefully follow through on its plan for gradually reopening the New Mexico economy, it’s time to start focusing our attention further out on the horizon.

The first order of business should be to extend a helping hand to the many homegrown, small businesses struggling to recover from the damage inflicted by COVID-19. Federal aid has been helpful, but more needs to be done. The Economic Recovery Council has supported the development of a new low-interest loan program likely to be considered in this week’s special session. We strongly encourage the Legislature to take this step.

Next is the long-term health of our economy. There’s no denying the pandemic hit us with a body blow, so it’s important we regain the momentum we had going into 2020.

Before the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in New Mexico, the state’s economy was growing far faster than the rest of the United States. New Mexico’s private-sector job growth was in the top 10 nationally, GDP was fourth nationally, and both personal income and wages were accelerating.

This progress was a long time coming. After the Great Recession, New Mexico’s job growth was almost dead last among the 50 states. Young professionals were leaving — education in hand — for opportunities elsewhere.

Among the factors that turned the state around were investment in business expansion and relocation and workforce training through two signature economic development programs — the Local Economic Development Act and the Job Training Incentive Program. This has been wise and strategic spending by the Legislature and planning by the Lujan Grisham administration. Now is not the time to go backward.

Both programs have helped New Mexico attract companies with global footprints — NBCUniversal, Netflix, Facebook and, most recently, SoftBank’s planned investment at Spaceport America. The assistance also has helped homegrown companies add employees and expand, including a family ranch, meat processors, and local breweries and wineries.

This assistance is the backbone of a stronger economy and higher salaries. The investments the state of New Mexico has made from the LEDA fund since Lujan Grisham took office have created jobs with an average annual salary of almost $60,000, compared with a state average of $47,000.

Meanwhile, the JTIP grants have trained 2,721 workers at 115 businesses since January 2019 — jobs in agriculture, manufacturing, biosciences, aerospace, film and television. They are jobs that diversify New Mexico’s economy and give our children an opportunity to work and raise their families in their own communities.

We must also find a way to accelerate investments in broadband and other infrastructure so all of New Mexico can take part in the 21st-century economy. The pandemic has made it painfully obvious how critical information technology is to a sustainable economy.

Many of the jobs that transitioned to telework over the past few months likely will stay that way long after we’ve controlled the virus. Attracting new, well-paying jobs and sustainable careers will depend on a workforce that can depend on the infrastructure needed to take part in the new economy.

And then there’s the workforce itself, the real key to building a strong economy. We understand the difficulty legislators will face trying to balance a budget hammered by the economic slowdown. But to ensure that slowdown remains short-term, New Mexico must continue its investments in education at every level.

We know businesses already here want to hire workers and expand. And we know many outside the state are asking about New Mexico, thanks to its talented, diverse workforce and more appealing lifestyle. Only by investing in our economy can the state return to stronger job growth and a sustainable recovery.