Part 1: New Mexico’s Real Crisis - Political Leadership
Originally published on Good Friday April 10th, 2020 as Michelle Lujan Grisham cancelled Easter. It was the first time New Mexico had not celebrated Easter in 327 years.
Please take the time to read this on this Thanksgiving Day. I will release part 2 tomorrow on what would be traditionally known as “Black Friday”
Dear New Mexicans,
You fear we are in the midst of a crisis. Sadly, I must confirm your fear…to an extent. It is true we are in the midst of a crisis. But it is not the crisis you have been led to believe. And we have brought some of this on ourselves.
We, the citizens of this Land of Enchantment, are in a crisis of leadership. It is not a new problem, either. But the current circumstances have brought it to the fore, if not into focus.
I would suggest that the reason we can’t bring the cause of our crisis into focus is we have accepted a false characterization of politics in our fair state. We like to think we are like the rest of the country in having a bipartisan government. We have elections, some members of the minority party win positions, there are some communities where the minority party holds local control, and we call that bipartisan. But our State government isn’t bipartisan. Partisan politics in Santa Fe is pervasive, and casts a pall over our entire state, negating most local power. That creates a dysfunctional dynamic at the root of our leadership problem.
Before my assessment is dismissed as rantings of a lone-wolf, conspiracy theorist, I will tell you that I am not alone. There are many voices in the state raising similar concerns. The fact that they are so easily muted in the political debate is, in fact, a primary piece of evidence that my premise is correct. How the muting occurs is not my focus today.
Returning to my main point, I would suggest our state government dysfunction has been growing for decades. Reviewing some legislative history may help shine a light on how our government has evolved.
Forty years ago, Representatives from both parties formed a coalition and ousted the sitting Speaker of the House. The new Speaker, also from the majority party, appointed committee chairmen from both sides of the aisle. That coalition-led House passed proposed legislation, sent it to the Senate, compromises on issues were made, and final bills went on the Governor to be signed.
Everybody did their job in good faith. That is the way bipartisan government is supposed to work.
By contrast, a few years ago, for the first time in 60 years, the minority political party in our state won a majority of seats in our House of Representatives. It lasted for one term, or two short years. It has been alleged that because of the minority party’s failings in the House, the legislature failed to accomplish important work during that period. But it is a fact that the House passed well over 100 proposed pieces of legislation, sent them to the majority-party controlled Senate to be addressed, and the leadership of the Senate prevented those bills from being reported out of committee for consideration. In many cases, committee chairmen, who were appointed by the majority-party’s leader in the Senate, didn’t allow the proposals to be brought up in the committee proceedings.
To me, it sounds like the House did its job, and the Senate didn’t. That is New Mexico partisan politics.
How did it come to this? How has our state’s political environment deteriorated so far? I suspect the genesis may actually be partially attributable to the events 40 years ago. But again, that is not my focus today.
The unfortunate fact is, due to this deterioration in our political environment many of our current government leaders have marinated in the poisonous juices of disdain for those outside of their own party for years. That is not only a recipe for partisan government, it is a recipe for bad leadership. For, if you are closed to considering the opposition’s positions, you build potentially dangerous bias into your decision making.
If you don’t think that is significant, let’s look at a consequence of our most recent legislative session. As a result of the actions of our legislature, with both houses controlled by the state’s majority party, and our governor, also a member of the majority party, we citizens are facing an increase in the state budget from $6.4 billion to $7.7 billion. That’s a 16.8 percent increase year over year. We were told this was justified because it could be covered by a budget surplus, which surplus was due to increased revenues associated with the performance of a strong oil industry. However, the surplus actually wasn’t sufficient to cover all the new expenditures, so a tax increase was also required. Additionally, a significant amount of legislation included in the output of this session is designed to kill the oil industry within the next 20 years. There were minority voices warning that it was imprudent to use a short-term windfall from a volatile industry, which you plan to abolish as quickly as possible, to justify committing to long-term expenditures. They were ignored. Partisanship ruled the session.
So, along comes a crisis, and it’s still not the one you are thinking of (COVID). The bottom has dropped out of the oil market, and the golden goose that was necessary to support the poorly conceived spending increases has died far earlier than planned. We are looking at having to call a special legislative session. And the cause of this catastrophe is outside of our control. Russia and OPEC are having a spat over oil production, and there’s not much anyone but Russia and OPEC can do about it. A special session means expenses to pay when the problem is we don’t have money to begin with. It also means allowing the same partisans, who made poor decisions during the first session, to try and undo the fiscal mess they created.
If only we had a leader who could have seen that committing the entire surplus, and then some, to ongoing new programs wasn’t a good idea. If only we had a leader who could see beyond the political capital that could be generated by spending it all. If only we had a leader who had instead chosen not to commit us, the citizens of the state, to pay for these projects.
Maybe, with the expense of a special session, some of the poor decision making can be reversed. Maybe, but there is a complication. You may have heard we have ourselves a good, old fashioned pandemic. You know the one: COVID-19. Our Governor has issued a statewide stay-at-home order. But, it seems that our state constitution may not allow a special session to occur while complying with that order.
Nor should it. Carrying on debate requires communication, even amongst partisans. Most of what we communicate comes not through the words, but through non-verbal aspects of interaction such as tone or inflection, facial expressions, and body posture. These are lost, to one degree or another, with all communication at a distance.
And now, let me move from generalities, to specifics, and to the situation which is currently causing so much fear in our state. Our Governor’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to issue a stay-at-home order. In so doing, I believe she is failing to meet her leadership responsibilities to the citizens of New Mexico. I would attribute her failure in part to the dysfunctional partisan political-think which is so pervasive in our higher levels of government; it allows her to discount opinions coming from political rivals too easily. I also believe she isn’t looking beyond the information being given to her regarding the potential impact of the virus and placing it in a proper perspective relative to the multitude of other elements that contribute to our New Mexican society.
I would suggest on, the legislative front, she needs to call the special session and charge the two chambers with cutting the budget by 40%. I would also urge her and Mayor Keller to cut the State and City employees by the same proportion as the private sector has suffered. To facilitate this, she needs to rescind the restrictions of the stay-at-home order as it might apply to the session. The members of the two houses are presumably adults and capable of taking appropriate precautions to conduct business while minimizing their risk.
For the rest of us, extending the stay-at-home order indefinitely, as she seems willing to do, is not a solution. It is costing jobs and businesses, and the longer it is kept in place, the greater the losses will be. As a consequence, it is going to cause social costs in disruption of families and emotional and health tolls that will be felt in the state for years.
Make no mistake, using people’s fears to justify imposing such measures is not leadership. The Governor keeps saying that we must accept strict compliance with her directive because it is unacceptable for one person to die from COVID-19 who might not have. Exactly the same logic can be used to justify banning private cars so not one more person dies in an auto accident who might not have. Before you claim that the two are different, consider the facts. We know that most people who get in a private car will not die, just as we know most people who contract COVID-19 will not die. We know that some people will die from both. We allow people to drive anyway but recommend they observe precautions, such as driving the speed limit or buying a safer car or staying at home, and we are supposed to incarcerate people who recklessly endanger others. We know that there are precautions we can take to limit the risks from COVID-19, such as wearing a mask and gloves in public or maintaining social distancing or staying at home. If we are adults enough to make the decision about driving, then why does the Governor get to make the decision regarding COVID-19. We would not accept her infringing our freedom if she attempted to place a ban on driving. Why should we accept her judgment regarding the stay-at-home order?
For those who say, aren’t things terrible in New York City, I say, yes. But that is not terribly relevant to discussing New Mexico’s situation. New York City has a population of approximately 8.4 million people living in an area of 302.6 square miles. New Mexico has a population of 2.1 million people living in an area of 121,697 square miles. New York City has a 98-story residential building, amongst multiple buildings over 50-stories. New Mexico has one 22-story building. That means, in New Mexico we have one-quarter of the population spread over 400 times the space. The solution to maintaining social distancing in New Mexico is vastly different than what will work in New York City.
Of course, there’s also the flip-side of the Governor’s “not one death that might have been prevented” argument. Who will you give the right to decide who will die? I admit, I don’t have that right. But every Governor in the country, whether they are conscious of it or not, makes exactly that decision when they address health care and countless other issues under their control. Every decision allocating funds to one priority and not another has the potential to impact someone in a life-or-death matter. It’s part of the job. We should elect Governors who will make decisions in an adult manner, and not like a spoiled child loose in a candy store. Or worse, like a frightened child.
Grave times require courage, from leaders and citizens alike. When he accepted the position of Prime Minister in 1940, Sir Winston Churchill could have saved the lives of thousands of British military personnel and civilians who would die continuing the fight against Germany. He could have capitulated. But what would the cost have been? We think we know, with the benefit of hindsight. He had no way to be certain. However, when the new Prime Minister first spoke to Parliament that May, he clearly understood the gravity of his decision. He told them and the British citizens, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” But there was something just important he didn’t tell them. He didn’t tell them to go and hide in their homes. Nor did they.
Here’s a final observation regarding the stay-at-home order. How exactly do you decide which “essential” businesses should remain open? The fact is, nothing is essential until you need it. Air isn’t essential until you are hypoxic. Water isn’t essential until you are dehydrated. Food isn’t essential until you are hypoglycemic. A plumber isn’t essential until your toilet backs up. A dentist isn’t essential until you have an abscessed tooth. A new car isn’t essential until your old one breaks down. Your elective joint-replacement surgery isn’t essential until the pain and debility cause you to fall trying to go to the bathroom, and the intracranial hemorrhage from hitting your head kills you. A new recliner isn’t essential unless you are spending hours at home because the Governor has ordered you to lock yourself in. It’s a constantly changing continuum, and the Governor doesn’t know what your essentials are. In some cases, her failure to recognize yours will kill you as certainly as COVID-19. But, in such a circumstance, your death won’t be counted in the COVID-19 toll, nor will she be held accountable. There are also problems with her definition of essential. For example, with apologies to the industry, ask yourself the question, how many more people are involved in preparing your food if you get it from a restaurant?
I have another essential for you. This is especially true in our interconnected society. Human interaction isn’t essential unless you want to stay alive.
So, let’s tie this together. I would argue that the impending financial crisis our state is facing is a result of poor leadership. The financial issue’s existence is obscured, and its potential long-term impact is exacerbated, by the COVID-19 pandemic and the turmoil created by the Governor’s stay-at-home order. Her leadership style, in particular, is inadequate to the task at hand. Her partisan political training allows her to tune out conflicting views from outside her circle of advisors and justify forcing New Mexicans to stay at home, thinking she is going to save them. She is apparently too afraid to take responsibility for making the difficult decisions that would allow most of us to continue to work and sustain the socioeconomic activities that provide resources we will desperately need if we are to continue responding to these and future challenges.
Another leader, coincidentally a close friend of Churchill’s, once told this nation, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I would hope that we New Mexicans can stop being fearful. Some damage is irreversibly done. But, with good leadership, the damage doesn’t have to continue indefinitely. Instead of prolonging her edict, the Governor should be developing processes and procedures to hasten a return to productive activity for all citizens, and preparing us for that return. We can build on the strategies that have been employed to manage risk in those businesses that have remained open, and translate them to many other settings. We can also acknowledge that our unique circumstances dictate that our solutions should not be the same as what is done in New York City. Ultimately, success in negotiating these grave times will not be measured by how few deaths are finally attributed to COVID-19, but by how little we allow these circumstances to damage the fabric of our New Mexican culture.
Happy Easter Monday!
Eddy Aragon is the afternoon host of “The Rock of Talk” which airs on his radio station in Albuquerque, 93.7 FM/AM 1600 KIVA. He’s a graduate of the University of New Mexico with degrees in Political Science and Economics. He has been recognized by the Albuquerque Journal as Radio Personality of the Year every year since 2017. He has appeared on Fox News, CNN and over 40 radio shows throughout the country. Eddy is an 11th Generation New Mexican. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org