Elections have consequences. The resounding victory of Democrats in the 2018 election created an expanded majority in the state House, and with Democrats holding every statewide office, it’s time for passage of a real working families’ agenda in the upcoming legislative session.
A new Democratic governor and the eight seats Democrats picked up in the state House should translate into more support for increasing the minimum wage, committing to early childhood funding, passing automatic voter registration and other working families’ priorities.
While the conservative coalition in the Democratic state Senate majority might try to moderate these proposals, voters deserve and expect that several key wins for working families will make it to the new governor’s desk for her signature.
The top priority for policymakers this session must be to raise the minimum wage from the current poverty wage of $7.25 per hour to a living wage of $15 per hour. Raising New Mexico’s minimum wage gradually over the next few years to $15 would lift pay for 370,000 workers, strengthening families, communities and our state’s economy. An increase to $15 per hour — even gradually — would require real political courage but seems politically difficult even with the Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature and a Democratic governor.
The current Democratic proposal to raise it to $12 over two years is a positive start, but still doesn’t begin to approach a living wage that New Mexico families need to support themselves and should be viewed as a step toward a $15 minimum wage.
Another key priority for state leaders should be automatic voter registration. Measures to pass automatic voter registration had previously failed in the Legislature due to opposition from conservative Democrats, but with the defeat of several opponents, the path to passage is now clearer.
According to the U.S. census, just under 60 percent of New Mexicans are registered to vote, placing our state in the bottom five of all states. Despite historic turnout in the 2018 midterm election, in the 2016 presidential election, just half of eligible voters cast a ballot, the fourth-lowest level of participation in the nation.
Nearly half a million state residents who are eligible to vote aren’t registered. With automatic voter registration, those numbers would rise exponentially, and more of us would participate in deciding our priorities and setting the agenda for our state.
Investing in our state’s children should also be at the top of the 2019 legislative agenda. With one of the largest permanent funds in the world, New Mexico shouldn’t be at the bottom of most childhood well-being indicators. For several years, a constitutional amendment to increase distribution of the fund by 1 percent to generate the funds necessary to increase access to quality early childhood programs has failed to pass.
To fully fund universal early childhood education would cost between $500 million and $1 billion (depending on utilization rates). A 1 percent increase in the permanent fund distribution would generate about $150 million to $200 million of the amount necessary to increase access to home visitation, child care assistance and pre-K programs currently available to only a fraction of the state’s children.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith has blocked the increase since it was first introduced, but one senator should not be allowed to determine the outcome of this important proposal for our state’s children.
Finally, with a budget surplus for the first time in several years, leaders in the state Legislature should set a better course for how the state will use funds by creating diversified and adequate funding for working families’ priorities.
It also offers an opportunity to pass progressive tax reform in the form of rolling back corporate tax cuts and asking the wealthiest New Mexicans to pay a little more in taxes so that our state can invest in its greatest resource — our people. Rather than perpetuating our dependence on oil and gas revenues, state leaders have a chance to diversify our revenue streams so that we can minimize the boom-and-bust budgeting that has characterized our state finances.
The voters spoke clearly at the ballot box in the 2018 general election. They rejected the tired conservative agenda, and elected officials in both parties were held accountable for failing to work in the best interest of the state’s most vulnerable residents. Now, with full control of state government, it is time for Democrats to deliver on their promises to improve the lives of New Mexico’s working families.
Eric Griego is state director of the New Mexico Working Families Party.