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Friday, January 08, 2010

Stephen Jones: A Progressive Pathway through Tough Times in New Mexico

This is a post by contributing writer, Stephen Jones, who is a progressive political activist and a resident of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Like many of New Mexico’s residents I am an immigrant. In my case I arrived in this “land of enchantment” as a former resident of the Midwest. When I made that passage, by highway, I came from the east to my current home in Las Cruces, I made the pivot from westbound I-40 and onto southbound I-25 and passed under Avenida César Chávez, a major thoroughfare in the city of Albuquerque, and something of a symbolic passage, for me, into a diverse state, that, unlike some of its neighbors, is proudly multicultural.

My passage from the Midwest to southern New Mexico is a route that has been followed by travelers, traders and settlers for centuries. As we all know, New Mexico’s position as the hub between the old Santa Fe trail to the east and the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to the south established it historically as the center of trade between the United States and Latin America.

For our state the past ought to be prologue. As our legislators return to Santa Fe and Washington this month to face the States’ and Nations’ myriad difficulties, they need to begin to lay the groundwork for a brighter and more prosperous future. Despite our problems, our state is uniquely positioned among both our neighbors and those states further afield from us. We ought to face our challenges head on.

First among our comparative advantages, to use an economic concept, is the fact that New Mexico has the largest percentage, per capita, of bilingual speakers in the United States. This fact can, and should, place the state in a unique position to stand today as the pivot between emerging economies south of the border and the rest of the United States beyond New Mexico, much as it played that role, as the center of the trade exchange a century and a half ago.

To make New Mexico an economic winner in this marketplace we need the infrastructure and the educational opportunities to build and use that infrastructure. One area where our state needs to take the lead is in rural broadband. If corporations can “outsource” jobs and opportunity to India and the Philippines, they can just as easily “in-source” those jobs to New Mexico. However, to do so needs infrastructure and trained technicians to build and maintain that infrastructure, and further down the road, to innovate new avenues of communication.

Only government, both State and Federal, can make rural broadband a reality. There simply isn’t the market to support the extension of high speed telecommunications into small remote communities and make them profitable. In the absence of rural broadband we will continue to see the growth of poverty, and the continued, steady decline of traditional communities; a brain drain out of our state and dwindling tax revenues to support the rest of New Mexico’s long term needs.

Earlier this week USDA Rural Development State Director Terry Brunner announced that rural development (RD) funding had almost tripled over Fiscal Year 2008, largely through the stimulus funding passed by Congress last year. Brunner announced that this years’ $354 million in RD funding paid for the “construction of water and wastewater systems, community facilities, business development, homeownership, electric and telecommunications projects.” Of this total over $199 million went to electric and telecommunications projects.

The New Mexico State Library also announced a $1.5 Million grant to fund its Fast Forward New Mexico initiative. This grant will be used to increase rural broadband adoption and promote computer literacy and Internet use among vulnerable populations, Hispanic and Native American users, small businesses, and entrepreneurs.  

These two announcements represent a good start, and are good examples of America’s tax dollars at work, but we must do more, much more, and we must act now. While building infrastructure is critical, so too must we provide the educational opportunities to teach new technologies in our schools, at local continuing education facilities and at our public libraries.

Secondly, our state needs to stop competing for the relocation of corporate entities with the use of tax credits unless those corporations actually produce the jobs to New Mexicans that they promised. These funds are better spent on small loans and grants to small companies and startups that will locate in New Mexico permanently and become good corporate citizens for the long term. These small businesses are the real engine that drives economic development and hires local labor. In conjunction with support for small business we need to step up our support for our two largest universities, UNM and NMSU, and partner with these universities to turn this state into a laboratory of economic development.

Our greatest economic asset is our natural environment. New Mexico is rich in renewable energy, and we need to insist that our elected officials take the lead on both green jobs and protection of the environment. Our friends in the gas and oil industry would have us believe that fighting climate change will cost us jobs and revenue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cap and trade legislation and other environmental protection initiatives are good for New Mexico and will help propel our state into the leadership in the jobs of the future.

Another of our great environmental assets is our vast expanses of natural lands. Our two Senators have taken the lead in working toward expanding the designated wilderness areas of our state, but we need to do more. The Organ Mountain Wilderness proposal is finally on track toward passage, but the Otero Mesa needs to be protected as well, and, and we need to protect these grasslands now. Other natural areas need to be protected and developed with an eye toward both conservation and attracting visitors.

Wilderness protection and good stewardship of our natural areas builds and promotes tourism, and as any resident of the city of Santa Fe can tell you, tourism drives our local economies and provides real jobs to New Mexicans that stay in New Mexico.

As our representatives return to work in Santa Fe and Washington, we need to remind them that, while addressing serious problems that currently face our State and Federal budgets, there are more budgets coming down the road, just ahead, and they need to begin to plan for our long term future, and our children’s and grandchildren’s future as well.

New Mexico’s natural and human resources are our greatest asset. Let us build on them.

To read more posts by contributing writer Stephen Jones, visit our archive.

January 8, 2010 at 02:37 AM in Broadband, By Stephen Jones, Contributing Writer, Education, Energy, Environment, Green Economy, Hispanic Issues, Jobs, Land Issues, Progressivism | Permalink