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Removing thorns of uncertainty

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By Sherry Robinson

New Mexico’s unemployment numbers are looking a little better. So why is it still so hard to find a job? Why is our economy in slow motion while surrounding states rebound?
“We’re not adding jobs,” said Beverlee McClure, president of the Association of Commerce and Industry, during a talk last week to business leaders.  
Employers aren’t willing or able to do much hiring. (Unless they’re in Artesia. An ACI member there told McClure, “If you can fog a mirror, we can put you to work.”)
McClure’s message: “If we’re not talking about jobs, we’re not talking about the right thing.”
During the regular session last year, jobs weren’t on anybody’s to-do list. Gov. Susana Martinez entered office with no plan other than a promise to scrutinize regulation, and the Legislature was preoccupied with balancing the budget. Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela has been invisible, I’m told by good sources, because he’s under the governor’s thumb. “But he has a lot of good ideas,” say his supporters.
OK, let’s see some.
McClure predicts greater focus on jobs in the next session. “I hope we will come together and pick three to five things we can make happen.”
So far, it’s one step forward and one step back.
Job creators, anxiously watching for signs of an economic thaw, are keeping an eye on the state’s dwindling unemployment fund. During the regular session legislators approved a proposal, supported by business groups, to raise unemployment insurance premiums then rather than face a big hike later on.
The governor vetoed it, Democrats challenged it in court, and compromise proposals failed during the special session. If the court overrules the veto, New Mexico has no rate, and the federal government can step in, probably setting the highest rate, McClure said, although the next session may see another compromise.
Behind the headlines: Martinez refused to raise what she insists on calling “taxes” because it might hurt the image she’s cultivating. She resisted proposals from McClure and Terri Cole of the Albuquerque Chamber – two powerhouses in the business community – because she thought they were too close to former Gov. Bill Richardson. Note to governor: It’s the job of people like McClure and Cole to maintain ties with governors.
Had Martinez checked, she would have found McClure as far to the right as she is, and nobody would mistake Cole for a liberal. The three later came together and made nice. McClure and Cole got behind the governor, sort of, and since then McClure’s comments on the unemployment fund have been cautious.
Martinez was sure her regulatory fixes and an improving economy would stabilize the fund. That didn’t happen.
Back in the real world, employers are operating in survival mode, maintaining skeleton crews and trying to hang on to their best people. A rural contractor told me that with fewer people, the jobs take longer, and it’s a reality he has to accept. If his unemployment premiums jump, he could be paying $600 per employee every quarter instead of the present average of $215, and his already thin margins get even thinner.
Business people hate uncertainty, and New Mexico has it in abundance. By signing the original compromise bill, Martinez could have removed one thorn of uncertainty from the business paw. Instead, the problem has dragged on for a year.
On the positive side, Martinez is making good on her promise to ease job-killing regulations and make New Mexico more competitive.
Last week hearings ended on the cap-and-trade rule – Richardson’s parting shot at New Mexico. Climate change is real, but this rule will do nothing but increase costs to the energy industry and consumers, and it’s already driven away prospective employers. Martinez’s appointee to the Environment Department testified that his agency no longer supports the rule.
Shelving state cap-and-trade would remove another big thorn. It’s a good start.

Sherry Robinson
 New Mexico News Service