Jobs Council focuses on economy, not politics

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By Sherry Robinson

Every year in the Legislature we see dueling jobs packages. This year, the focus is on one package coming out of the Jobs Council.
The council is an interim committee, co-chaired by House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, and Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. Between sessions, the nonpartisan council met and, with input from business and economic developers, produced something like a road map.
Usually economic development bills range from inspired to inane. Because few legislators understand economic development, their proposals have more to do with party dogma than job creation.
One of the first things Martinez did last year was bring in Mark Lautman, a veteran economic developer who has taken to speaking and writing about the process, and, along the way, become something of an economic development guru in New Mexico. He’s demonstrated that economic development isn’t wishful thinking. It’s a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other discipline.
When I met him in the 1980s, he was working in Grants. The uranium industry had crashed, and Grants was trying desperately to survive. The walls of Lautman’s office were covered with charts and lists. And, boy, was he busy!
Back then, this was economic development:
Step 1: Understand your town and its assets — every empty building, every vacant lot, the education and experience of your labor force; the condition of and access to roads, railroad tracks and airports. Figure out how many jobs you need.
Step 2: Understand your local and state regulatory process. If it’s not speedy and efficient (time is money), fix it.
Step 3: Figure out which industries would work here, which improves your success rate and keeps community leaders from jumping at any fast talker with a business plan.
Step 4: Identify companies within Step 3 that might consider moving. Lautman made hundreds of cold calls, charted every call that was a yes or a maybe, and followed up, again and again.
Some of this may sound elementary, Watson, but you’d be surprised at how often the basics are missing, how many communities don’t know how many jobs they need or what kind. They just want some jobs. Any jobs.
The council proposes to add 160,000 economic-base jobs by 2023. (Economic-base jobs draw money from outside the state, as opposed to jobs that simply recycle local money.)
It also calls for a closing fund (so does the governor) and increased funding for tourism marketing, among other steps.
Here’s the neat thing: Once they focus on process, needs and data, the politicking falls away.
“The most important thing I’m seeing is, we have the governor, the speaker and the pro tem talking the same language on economic development,” Lautman told me last week. “They’ve pushed aside political rhetoric. During seven all-day meetings with 60-plus people, I didn’t hear any political rancor.”
Last year’s compromise tax package was both practice and motivation. Passed in the final minutes, the bill gave a variety of players something they wanted. The Ds and Rs remembered they could work together on a major initiative, and because all of their fingerprints are on it, they will try harder to make it work.
A new Ernst & Young report indicates that New Mexico has the lowest tax rate for manufacturers, after factoring in tax breaks, among nine Western states. That’s the kind of data economic developers wanted to help sell the state.
The tax measure also came with some costs. Stretching to pay for a tax cut, lawmakers took back the payments promised to municipalities to compensate for their loss of food tax revenues. Lawmakers will need to fix that.
This is an election year, which complicates everything. Lautman describes himself as “relatively optimistic.” He likes the governor’s proposals and is pleased with the council’s progress.
Ken Martinez is downright excited, saying, “All of us are astonished at how well it worked.”