Fischmann: Lawmakers need to get to work
The election is over, and odds are you’ve figured out that our political parties have been far more concerned with bashing one another than taking care of us.
Big corporate and financial interests have been funding the battle, and lawmakers have returned the favor by enacting policies that make fat cat donors fatter. Meanwhile, most of us watch our long term economic prospects fade. New Mexico poverty is up; growth is down and we suffer the greatest income inequality in the country.
It’s not that partisan leaders set out to hurt common folk. They just know who butters their bread. They have camouflaged their shameful neglect with a series of pointless high profile showdowns. Invented crises over driver’s licenses, the death penalty, and confirmation of the Education Secretary have helped no one.
With New Mexico’s House flipping Democratic, and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez losing his seat, new leaders have a unique opportunity to shelve a history of political theater and focus on the real work: ensuring there is food on the table and a sound roof over head for everyone in our floundering state.
We can fix a slew of policies that create poverty without spending a penny. But legislators must look the fat cats in the eye and tell them the welfare of everyday New Mexicans comes first.
Here’s a sampling of what that looks like:
1. Raise the minimum wage. Index it to inflation once it has been brought up to a reasonable level. The three largest cities in the state have already increased the minimum wage, and there is no evidence that fair wages have hurt their economies. A fair minimum wage has strong public support, and it keeps folks off welfare.
2. Put an end to wage theft. Wage theft is an endemic problem that robs low income workers of untold millions annually. Lawmakers should provide workers quick and fair recourse when employers don’t pay for full hours worked, overtime, or ignore minimum wage requirements.
3. Stop utility monopoly plundering. PNM and El Paso Electric have been caught inflating long-term revenue needs by hundreds of millions of dollars in recent cases before the Public Regulation Commission. It took outside intervenors to identify the rip offs. Commission staff has resolutely looked the other way. Low-income residential customers suffer the most. Introduce competition and strict independent financial review to the utility industry.
4. Stop predatory lending. Borrowers are scammed for about $200 million annually in excess fees on loans with interest rates of 50 to 800 percent in New Mexico. State regulators inexplicably claim these rip offs are good for low-income borrowers. Put a hard cap on loan interest rates of 36 percent or less. Independent research tells us economic distress has been reduced in states that have implemented similar caps.
5. Make prescription drugs affordable. Work with the federal government to end legal bans on Medicare price negotiation with pharmaceutical companies and to end FDA created monopolies in certain drug categories.
6. Ban the practice of charging three to 10 times as much for medical services to the uninsured. It makes no sense to charge more money to those who can least afford it.
7. Repeal and replace the lottery scholarship. The average lottery ticket buyer has a family income of $40,000 or less. The average lottery scholarship recipient has a family income of $80,000 or more. Lottery ticket buyers pay $140 million annually to create just $40 million in scholarships for people who are less needy than they are. An efficiently funded, needs-based scholarship program is what New Mexico truly requires.
New Mexico’s leaders face a difficult challenge. State revenues are shrinking and regular folks who are falling behind need help. Legislators have given out special interest tax breaks like a drunken sailor under our last two governors. We are now paying the price.
But with all due disrespect for the standard tax and spending debates, our most impactful policy options may have little to do with taxes and budgets. The prescription for New Mexico’s government is clear. Stop enabling rip offs of our struggling working class.
Steve Fischmann is a former state senator and co-chair of the New Mexico Fair Lending Coalition.