Bloggers Note: A version of this post appeared in the Weekly Alibi
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; she looked caring; she looked very different from most of the other GOP poobahs on display that evening. Even her initial nervousness added a note of genuineness and sincerity that was attractive.
And the story she shared was compelling. It is the story of her humble beginnings; of her conversion from Democrat into Republican; from pistol-packing security guard to justice-dealing prosecutor specializing in locking up child abusers, and from small town DA to being the first Hispanic female Governor in the US. It was a story laced with just enough Spanish to convey the subliminal message she had been selected for: our tent is as big as your tent, Barack.
No doubt about it, as theater, Governor Martinez’ speech was a solid hit.
Unfortunately, as a narrative, it was marred by that tendency shared with so many of the other speakers at the convention, that cavalier attitude about the truth. History according to Paul Ryan, speaking later that same evening, was mangled into whatever fabrication he wished it might have been. And Susana, in the one instance in which she spoke of policy rather than autobiography, proved just as prone to ignore inconvenient truth as Ryan was.
Ryan’s “truthiness” has been dissected by many pundits since then. Martinez, though, hasn’t been brought to task for her errors. Yet it seems crucial that the record be corrected because repeated often enough, her false narrative morphs in the public mind into reality—and future policy in the state will be justified based on those foundationless tales.
Already her Tampa speech repeated a core theme of her State of the State address this past January: “I inherited the largest structural deficit in State history 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 and it got applause in Santa Fe, seven months ago. 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 needs to respond in the future to budget problems.
First, it’s based on a false premise: she did not inherit the “largest structural deficit in New Mexico history”. Governor Martinez was sworn in as Chief Executive on January 1, 2011. The budget gap she inherited at that point was nowhere near as bad as the ones that faced the previous administration and the Legislatures in the Januarys of 2008, 2009 or 2010.
Now I know it isn’t as dramatic to say “I inherited the fourth largest structural 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 the tough decisions about cutting programs or raising taxes that others had to make…the kind of decisions that makes politicians lose their popularity very quickly. And she has been spared those character-building choices precisely because the Legislature did raise taxes, did cut budgets and did lay-off employees—before she took office.
A lot of the legislators who made those tough choices lost their re-elections because of them. And Bill Richardson’s popularity, once higher even than Susana’s is now, evaporated like a drop of water on a warm pan, because he was in the hot seat when those tough decisions made by the legislators had to be signed into law.
So it rankles now, to listen to history being re-told. It rankles to hear Susana 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 raises passed so painfully during the special session of 2008 (two years before she sashayed into office on the strength of their backwash) have generated the increased 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 ARRA program that Martinez, Ryan, Romney and other Republicans like to malign as “failed”. ARRA saved our butts. It poured almost a billion dollars into the New Mexico state budget during the two years of its life, from halfway through 2009 until midway through 2011.
Funding for public education, highway construction and Medicaid in particular all felt the beneficial effects of 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 the 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.