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Friday, March 23, 2012
Civic Engagement Effort Fosters Values of Transparency, Accountability and Fairness
It’s a truth that should be self-evident – but it cannot be restated often enough.
New Mexicans deserve transparency and accountability – especially when it comes to votes cast on vital issues by their elected lawmakers. Typically, however, legislative decisions on complicated issues like tax policy fly under the radar of media scrutiny and public perception.
The last legislative session offers a perfect example with the historic effort to close that monstrous corporate tax loophole which allows out-of-state Big Box retailers to avoid paying income tax on the massive profits they earn in our state.
The Monstrous Corporate Tax Loophole
To be clear, calling it historic is not a nod to hyperbole. The bill to eliminate this massive corporate tax giveaway (Senate Bill 9 – the Corporate Fair Tax Act) succeeded in passing both houses of the New Mexico legislature this year after eight previous attempts over the last decade had met with failure. In fact, those prior bills usually failed because they were killed in the committee process.
Two committees in particular have proven to be a particular problem.
Tax reform bills must run what at times seem to be two impassable gauntlet -- the Senate Corporations and Transportation and the House Business and Industry Committees. And always, a phalanx of corporate lobbyists are posted at these gauntlets, standing guard to protect entrenched power and privilege. Their inordinate influence at the Roundhouse can make them into something akin to an extra-constitutional “third house” of the legislature.
But this year was different. These obstacles were surmounted and the bill passed! This was a landmark event and a time for celebration.
For this was the year legislators that got the message from their constituents – an newly informed citizenry who understood the fundamental value at stake in this fight – it was the value of basic fairness for New Mexico families and for our local businesses who had been placed at a competitive disadvantage.
Oh, and let’s not fail to mention that SB9 actually cut taxes for New Mexico business corporations and that it was a net job saver as well?
For every one job created by a big box retailer like WalMart, 1.4 jobs are lost to existing local businesses that downsize, according to a University of California-Irvine study.
Alas, the celebration was short-lived, for on March 6th SB9 crashed into the last redoubt of corporate power and influence – the Governor’s office. On that day Governor Susana Martinez vetoed SB9. Once again, New Mexico was left as one of the only remaining Western states to still permit itself to be taken advantage of by corporate greed.
What this means, of course, is that the fight for tax justice will go on a little longer. Rest assured that the bill will be coming back in the 2013 legislative session.
Check your mailbox
And this is precisely why constituents of a number of New Mexico state legislators are this week receiving post-session follow-up educational mailers that explain the fate of Senate Bill 9 and how their particular senator or representative voted on the bill, and encourage them to engage these lawmakers in a continued dialogue about tax policy and budget priorities.
New Mexico’s Center for Civic Policy (CCP) and the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) have proudly partnered to produce these mailings. Our two organizations share a core mission that obligates us to educate the public about policy issues that impact their lives and to foster greater civic engagement with the policy-making process and elected officials.
Prior to the legislative session, CCP and SWOP distributed another set of educational mailers to the districts of legislators who sat on those key committees that would hear and vote on SB9. To say that we were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response to those pre-session mailers is an understatement. Those mailers contributed to generating hundreds of constituent phone calls to legislators during the session. And those phone calls made a difference.
We learned an inspiring lesson. Civic engagement (aka democracy in action) works! Legislators responded. Senate Bill 9 passed.
Civic Engagement Works
Democracy is never easy. It requires eternal vigilance and careful attention. And a constant learning and re-learning.
Another lesson worth relearning is that we must never forget that most legislators are seriously well-intentioned individuals who do care about the common good. New Mexico’s unpaid citizen legislators make considerable sacrifice to serve.
Nevertheless, we cannot stress enough the importance of our lawmakers hearing from their folks back home on the issues that impact the everyday lives of working families – because if they don’t get that call, the only voice they will hear at the Roundhouse when it’s time to vote is that of the corporate lobbyist whispering in their ears.
The incentives to do the wrong thing are ever-present. And sadly, herein lies another essential lesson.
All too often we see lawmakers succumb to lobbyist pressure (not to mention the inducement of campaign contributions). Thus, they take the easy way out. And it’s this go-along-to-get-along S.O.P that enables bad outcomes when it seems like nobody back home is really paying attention to the fuzzy policy details and that nobody really cares.
However, we’re pleased to report that people do care. And on the issue of the out-of-state, corporate tax loophole, polling released by the Green Chamber of Commerce shows that 70% of New Mexicans care a great deal!
The people just need accurate and complete information. And, above all, they need that spark of an idea that helps them realize that their participation can actually make a difference. Then they will act.