Legislative lobbyists get a bad rap in New Mexico, especially since the unpaid, part-time legislators are so reliant on those paid “experts.” Most lobbyists represent special interests and industries. Their positions on issues are well-known even before they open their mouths or hand over a check.
There is one lobbyist, however, who doesn’t write checks and only represents ideas. Really good ideas, in fact. That lobbyist is Fred Nathan, founder and executive director of Think New Mexico.
The nonprofit organization describes itself as “a results-oriented a think tank whose mission is to improve the lives of all New Mexicans, especially those who lack a strong voice in the political process.”
In the 22 years of Think New Mexico’s existence, its high-powered board of directors has focused on a variety of subjects and has learned to play the legislative long game to get things accomplished. Many ideas take years to get something in front of a governor for a signature, but they never give up.
Which is a big reason why we now have free full-day kindergarten for every child in New Mexico and why nobody pays tax on groceries, or why infrastructure spending directed by legislators in now transparent, to name just a few of the organization’s significant accomplishments.
The organization’s breaking news recently is its determination to make education reform a full-time, everyday focus of its work. To that end, it created a new staff position to be filled by Abenicio Baldonado, a 32-year-old product of Las Vegas Robertson High School and New Mexico Highlands University, and most recently the legislative liaison for the Public Education Department.
Baldonado began his work with the Legislature during the Martinez administration but was carried over by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s, which is telling and fitting since the board of Think New Mexico is decidedly bipartisan and its efforts nonpartisan.
What triggered the decision to work full time on education reform was a recognition that lobbying for education issues was sorely lacking a key constituency, namely students and their parents. The state’s school superintendents have their own lobbyist. The state’s school boards have their lobbyist. Teachers and their unions have a strong voice in the Roundhouse.
But few have been around to specifically represent the interests of students and their parents. Until now.
Education reform never stops being a front-burner issue in New Mexico, but it also never seems to get the desired results; we are always at or near the bottom of the barrel of national statistics no matter what is proposed or what we do or how much we spend. And the quality of schools, as we all know, has unquestioned effects on neighborhoods, home values and eventually, communities at large.
Some of New Mexico’s struggles may be on the brink of changing.
The Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit that mandates equitable school funding was a game-changing order for the Legislature, and the upcoming ballot question to amend the state constitution to take more money out of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for education funding is likely to pass in November.
As Think New Mexico points out, more money, while welcome, will be no solution without guardrails on how it is spent.
With Nathan, and a new lieutenant with experience in Roundhouse machinations, education reform may finally be something more than empty platitudes. They don’t ever give up and will be a strong voice for those who haven’t had one in the political process. Students and their parents in New Mexico have a new champion and reason for optimism.