If you watched our governor’s speech during last week’s National Republican Convention in Tampa, you saw why she’s such a popular figure in New Mexico. She looked energetic and caring. She looked different from most of the other GOP poobahs on display that evening. Even her initial nervousness added a note of genuineness and sincerity.
The story she shared was compelling—her humble beginnings, her conversion from Democrat to Republican. She went from pistol-packing security guard to justice-dealing prosecutor who specialized in locking up child abusers. She went from small-town district attorney to first Hispanic female governor in the U.S. It was a story laced with just enough Spanish to convey the subliminal message: Our tent is as big as your tent, President Obama.
No doubt about it, as theater, Gov. Susana Martinez’ speech was a solid hit.
Unfortunately, as a narrative, it was marred by that tendency shared by so many speakers at the convention, that cavalier attitude about the truth. History was mangled by Paul Ryan into whatever fabrication he wished. And Martinez, when she spoke of policy rather than autobiography, proved just as prone to ignore inconvenient facts.
Martinez, though, hasn’t been taken to task for her errors.
Ryan’s “truthiness” has been dissected by many pundits since then. Martinez, though, hasn’t been taken to task for her errors. It’s crucial that the record be corrected because, repeated often enough, her false narrative morphs into reality in the public mind. Future policy in the state could be justified based on those foundationless tales.
Her Tampa speech repeated a core theme of her State of the State address in January: I inherited the largest structural deficit in state history, she intoned, and with bipartisan legislative support, we were able to turn it into a surplus without raising taxes.
It’s a line that got great applause when she used it in Tampa, just as it got applause in Santa Fe at the beginning of the year. Problem is, it’s not even close to true. It has to be challenged, I’m convinced, because it creates an imaginary standard for how our state should respond to budget problems in the future.
First, it’s based on a false premise. She did not inherit the largest deficit in New Mexico history. Martinez was sworn in on January 1, 2011. The budget gap then was nowhere near as bad as the ones faced by the previous administration and Legislature in the Januarys of 2009 or 2010.
A lot of the politicians who made those choices lost their subsequent elections.
Now, I know it isn’t as dramatic to say “I inherited the third-largest deficit.” But that would be closer to the truth. By the time she took office, we had weathered the worst of the storm, and the budget gaps were growing smaller each successive year.
She has not had to face tough decisions about cutting programs or raising taxes that others had to make—decisions that make politicians lose popularity quickly. She has been spared those character-building choices precisely because the Legislature raised taxes, cut budgets and laid off employees before she took office.
A lot of the politicians who made those choices lost their subsequent elections. Gov. Bill Richardson’s popularity, once higher even than Martinez' is today, evaporated like a drop of water on a warm pan. He was in the hot seat when those tough calls had to be signed into law. (Ethical concerns about his dealings certainly didn’t help.)
So it rankles now to listen to history being retold. It rankles to hear Martinez take credit for deliberations she hasn’t had to sweat over, to hear her opine that she didn’t have to raise taxes in order to balance a budget. Remember, those unpopular tax hikes passed so painfully during the special session of 2010 (right before she sashayed into office on the strength of their backlash) have generated revenues that help her avoid tough choices, while propping up her popularity.
There was another big factor that kept our dreadful fiscal picture during the recession from becoming even worse: the Obama stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Martinez, Ryan, Mitt Romney and other Republicans like to malign as “failed." That program saved our butts. It poured $2 billion dollars into the New Mexico state budget from mid-2009 until mid-2011.
Funding for public education, highway construction and Medicaid in particular was bolstered by the hundreds of millions added into our state’s economy. The first year of Martinez’ administration benefitted enormously from those dollars. They were another reason taxes didn’t have to be raised or programs cut. But how quickly those helping hands were forgotten by our chief executive.
Listening today to Martinez speak about state budget history is a lot like listening to a meddlesome bystander who keeps turning off the hose while the firefighters are trying to save the building. At least she should have the good grace not to try to take credit when they finally put out the flames.