News Room

The Battle of Santa Fe
October 12, 2009

On a beautiful fall day before the cold weather set in, Santa Fe high school student David Dean wasn’t goofing off with his buddies. Standing in front of the New Mexico State Capitol building with a picket sign, Dean had words for lawmakers who will gather for an emergency session dedicated to a state budget deficit next weekend: “Cut Dropout Rates, Not Budget,” Dean’s sign read.

Written by Staff , Frontera NorteSur


On a beautiful fall day before the cold weather set in, Santa Fe high school student David Dean wasn’t goofing off with his buddies. Standing in front of the New Mexico State Capitol building with a picket sign, Dean had words for lawmakers who will gather for an emergency session dedicated to a state budget deficit next weekend: “Cut Dropout Rates, Not Budget,”Dean’s sign read.

The 15-year-old Dean told Frontera NorteSur that a tight budget was already making study hard at the Monte Del Sol Charter School he attends. Class sizes have increased over last year, Dean said, forcing him to stand
up in English class. Talk among students of quitting has been on the rise, he added.

“You know, we’re probably going to have a lot more dropouts if the budget gets cut,” Dean predicted. “I know I’m not going to sit in a roomful of 40 people.”

On Friday, October 9, the Santa Fe teenager joined about 1,000 other people in the opening salvo of a battle over New Mexico’s budget crisis. Organized by the American Federation of Teachers, the Better Choices New Mexico coalition and others, the rally urged lawmakers to spare education and other vital public services from the budget axe.

A crowd that included many youths like Dean chanted “Save Our Schools,” and
ringed the Roundhouse with giant facsimiles of memos strung on a cord and
addressed to absent legislators. “We need a edumucation,” satirized one
message, while another simply stated, “You will be known as the
legislature that changed our state motto from Land of Enchantment to ‘49
in Everything’.’” 

But a ballooning budget deficit variously estimated to range from $444
million to more than $650 million has leading lawmakers, both Democrat and
Republican, imploring the state to swallow the bitter medicine of budget

Organizers of the Santa Fe protest favor raising new revenues for schools
and services like Medicaid.

Sara Attleson, political action committee chair for the Albuquerque
Teachers Federation and a librarian at Kennedy Middle School, said that
the union and its allies have come up with an alternative plan to repeal
2003 state income tax cuts on people making more than $200,000 annually
and begin collecting state corporate income taxes on Wal-Mart, Target and
other out-of-state companies which currently do not pay such levies. “The
profits do not stay in the state,” Attleson contended. “They make them off
the backs of the people and take them out.”

Education advocates like Attleson maintain that coming on top of a 9
percent education spending cut and a 1.5 percent cut in the pay of state
workers this year, slimmer budgets will further cut into the exposed bone
of public education and its workforce.

The proposals for education cuts come hot on the heels of news that barely
six of ten New Mexico high school students graduate in four years, a
percentage well below the national average of roughly seven in ten

A 30-year veteran educator and librarian who describes herself as a
“keeper of the first amendment,” Attleson said that Kennedy Middle School
is already witnessing the consequences of fiscal restraint.

This year, Attleson said, she teaches an elective course at the expense of
her librarian duties in order to relieve scheduling pressures from
teachers who have not been replaced. In the Digital Age, the school’s
computer teacher instructs 30 students with 20 computers; no new textbooks
were on hand for students, according to Attleson. “I’d like lawmakers to
see what shape our textbooks are in,” she added. “I would say it’s
comparable to the Third World.”

The Border Bears the Brunt

Interviewed at the Santa Fe rally, state Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino
(D-Albuquerque), said that additional, across-the-board education cuts
could disproportionately impact smaller districts in the southern counties
of Dona Ana, Luna and Hidalgo along the Mexican border. The region is
already characterized by high rates of poverty, unemployment and
underdevelopment. For instance, the 2009 Kids Count New Mexico report,
sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and New Mexico Voices for
Children, found that all three counties had child poverty rates exceeding
the state average of 24 percent last year, even before the economic crisis
struck New Mexico.

“(Border districts) are running very, very scared, because what was a
budget cut was exacerbated by the reduced number of students in those
schools.” Ortiz y Pino said. “A lot of the rural schools are losing
population, and since the funding formula is based on the number of
students a lot of those districts are taking major cuts.”

According to the Kids Count report, Latino students made up between 71 and
90 percent of all students in the major school districts of the three
border counties in 2008.

Ortiz y Pino said that residents from the south are searching for jobs in
the Albuquerque area precisely at a time when New Mexico is witnessing its
worst unemployment crisis since 1944. Statewide, an estimated 30,900 jobs
have been lost since last year, with 14,500 of them in Albuquerque.

Even the help wanted signs at fast food restaurants that attracted so many
immigrant and youthful workers a couple years ago are long gone.

Conversely, enrollment at the state’s colleges and universities is way up,
again at a moment when budget cuts for higher education are also on the

Ortiz y Pino argued that it did not make sense to create more joblessness
and slash services such as Medicaid, which attracts federal dollars, at a
time when tax revenues, based in part on consumer spending and sales
taxes, are plummeting.

“When times are tough like this, we don’t need to be laying people off and
reducing reimbursements,” Ortiz y Pino asserted. “We need to be increasing
these so people can get through the slow-down.”

Currently, New Mexico has the second highest rate of medically uninsured
in the nation, with 23.1 percent of the state’s residents lacking coverage
in 2008 (up nearly two points from 2005-2006), according to US Census
Bureau numbers which were compiled before the spike in unemployment. And
again, Dona Ana County and other southern counties traditionally have
proportionally greater numbers of uninsured residents than many other
parts of the state.

In 2004, when the economy was better, the New Mexico Primary Care/Rural
Health Bureau calculated that approximately 33 percent of Dona Ana
County’s residents were medically indigent.

Sharpening Battle Swords

New Mexico lawmakers will mull different budget fixes when they meet this
month. Overall spending cuts could range from 3.5 percent to as high as
16 percent, while salaries for state workers, which were already trimmed
back 1.5 percent this year to replenish a retirement fund drained of more
than $100 million lost in bad investments, could see another 2.5 hacked
off from the total.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson supports protecting public schools and
Medicaid but leaves the door open to slashing spending in the three
percent range for other state programs including colleges and

Richardson has reportedly worked out an agreement with some legislative
leaders to keep tax increases off the agenda of the special session.
According to the governor’s office, budget holes can be filled by using
cash reserves, reprogramming spending and selling bonds.

Leading Democrats and Republicans favor cutting the budget instead of
raising revenue from tax increases. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings
of Roswell and House Speaker Ben Lujan of Santa Fe, both Democrats, lean
toward this camp. Republican House Minority Whip Keith Gardner, also from
Roswell, likewise argues cuts are in order.

“The realists in the education community understand there is room (for
cuts) without affecting classrooms,” Gardner told the Albuquerque Journal.

Democratic state Senator John Arthur Smith, who chairs the State Senate
Finance Committee, recently met with New Mexico school superintendents to
warn schools to be prepared for ten percent cuts.

Representing two of New Mexico’s three border counties, Smith cautioned
that state finances could be in a worse position come January if
legislators don’t make painful decisions now. “We don’t want a 10 percent
cut, but the idea is to wake them up,” Smith was recently quoted. “We
can’t hold education harmless.”

K-12 and higher education spending together account for approximately 60
percent of the state’s budget expenses.

Representing the state’s major companies, the Association of Commerce and
Industry of New Mexico is against reversing tax cuts to bolster the state
budget. According to Association President Beverlee McClure, repealing tax
cut repeals would hurt businesses which have already grappled with
downsizing in the three to five percent range this year.

Reported in the Albuquerque Journal, a telephone poll of 402 registered
voters last month found that 58 percent of respondents preferred cutting
spending over raising taxes; the survey question did not specify which
taxes should be raised or which programs might be cut.

Is Another Budget Possible?

Lined up against budget cuts is a growing movement that encompasses public
sector unions, child advocacy organizations, students, economists, and
religious organizations. In a message against cuts, the New Mexico
Conference of Catholic Bishops cited a pastoral letter on Catholic social
teaching and the US economy. The bishops asserted that charity can only go
so far and it is up to government to adequately fund basic public services
and “ensure fair business and wage practices and much more.” Las Cruces
Bishop Ricardo Ramirez and other church leaders endorsed a rollback of the
2003 tax cuts.

The budget drama unfolding in New Mexico is, of course, a small part of
the larger crisis rippling across the country and in the Americas. In the
US, at least 25 states have cut K-12 spending while another 34 have dug
into higher education outlays, according to the Center on Budget and
Policy Priorities.

On the same day of the Santa Fe protest, Nobel Prize-winning economist
Paul Krugman published an editorial blasting education cuts. Noting that
143,000 jobs were lost in the US education sector during the last five
months, Krugman contended that decades of educational underfunding had
left the US lagging behind other developed nations. Criticizing the
“penny-wise, pound-foolish behavior” of “centrist” leaders of the US
Congress for leaving out sufficient aid to the states in last February’s
stimulus package, the Princeton professor called on Washington to step up
to the plate and take a swing for education.

“We don’t have to call it stimulus, but it would be a very effective way
to create or save thousands of jobs,” Krugman wrote. “And it would, at the
same time, be an investment in our future.”

In New Mexico, meanwhile, the state’s political actors are readying for a
historic meeting that will shape the future of the state.

Anti-budget cut activists plan to be on hand for the special legislative
session. John Ingram, political action director for the American
Federation of Teachers in New Mexico, vowed that his organization would
support primary challengers against any politician who votes for education
cuts. Santa Fe high school student David Dean said that he would also
remember lawmakers’ votes when he reaches his 18th birthday and is
eligible to cast a ballot.

Albuquerque Democrat Jerry Ortiz y Pino predicted that the atmosphere at
the budget crisis session will be “ugly.”

The action begins Saturday, October 17, at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. 

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