Jobs Council takes development approach

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By Harold Morgan

By 2023, we need 160,880 economic-base jobs to return to pre-recession employment levels in the state. The figure is adjusted to allow for population growth, says House Speaker Ken Martinez, a Grants Democrat.
The figure comes from the Jobs Council, an interim legislative committee that is generally considered a Martinez project. Despite the numerical precision — it’s not rounded to 160,000 — “granular certainty” in Jobs Council numbers can’t be done and is unnecessary, said Mark Lautman, long-time economic developer who is consulting with the Jobs Council and acting as project leader.
The important thing about the jobs number — that 160,000 — is the size, quite large enough to get attention, said one lobbyist at the Jobs Council meeting Oct. 9 in Silver City. The next Jobs Council meeting is Nov. 8 in Santa Fe.
Those 160,000 jobs (in 36 economic subsectors) over 10 years turn into 16,000 needed jobs per year, more than double the current pace of wage job growth. A challenge.
The idea of a “procurement agent,” a person or organization that drives economic development activity, was central to the day’s discussion. The idea showed in its absence from a discussion led by two men prominent in the southeast. WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, should be expanded to take additional nuclear waste. But who should lead the project, be the procurement agent, they wondered.
In the open meeting, no one posed an answer. As I listened, a potential and obvious answer occurred. Our United States Senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, should lead this charge. The southeasterners confirmed my instinct. Such a role is the job of a U.S. Senator, but beyond platitudes, Udall and Heinrich are invisible.
What the council lacks is an acknowledgement that politics might — just might — affect economic development decisions. Yet the whole thing is allegedly about providing a framework for decisions about allocating public money for economic development activity.
There isn’t much involvement from the Susana Martinez administration. Speaker Martinez said he talked to the governor about the effort. A mid-level economic development department manager attended the Silver City meeting.
Within the assumptions, two major conceptual flaws emerge. The idea, council materials say, is to direct policy decisions with the idea of getting the state to “full employment,” meaning 4 percent unemployment, a fantasy from my view. We have only occasionally had 4 percent unemployment. The analysis accepts the state’s rotten labor force participation rate — 48 percent.
The idea that all these jobs need to be recruited or happen through specific action(s) called “transactions” isn’t quite the case, though the analysis pushes thinking in that direction. That is because the focus is on creating a mechanism by which the legislature can evaluate and choose among proposals seeking money with a claim of job creation purpose. But if no procurement agent emerges, the jobs must develop “organically.”
Job creation numbers by sector are wild guesses, Lautman said. That’s in part because no one knows and also because different people have attended the five council meetings. Economists have supported the guesses, he said.
About half the Silver City group had come to a previous meeting. People staying for the entire meeting have greater influence by virtue of sticking around.
“The power of this process,” Lautman said, is to change the culture of economic development thinking at the local level.
The quarrel is not with the process, which, while complicated and difficult, seems reasonable enough. The Jobs Council remains a legislative project. That’s the important fact. The administration is involved, sort of, which isn’t nearly enough.