Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

12-1 Saving the Golden Eggs

WED, 12-01-10

SANTA FE - Don't mess too much with our golden eggs when trying to balance our state budget. Those eggs could be breakable.
New Mexico's biggest golden egg is the oil and gas industry. It produces the most money for our state budget. Oil has a very bad reputation these days because it is dirty. But a surprising number of items we also use daily contain oil. We aren't going to get rid of it no matter how hard we try.
So we might as well learn to live with oil no matter how much some people hate it. In addition we'd better learn to get along as best as we can by both being good neighbors and boosting our state's leading product.
New Mexico's second biggest golden egg is tourism. It creates more jobs than any other private employer and is second to oil and gas in the amount of money it produces for state coffers. Sometimes we don't like tourists very much either. They get in our way and drive dangerously because they're lost.
Legislators take tourism for granted, often cutting the Tourism Department's budget. For the past eight years, it has been a favorite place for Gov. Bill Richardson to send political appointees whose salaries eat up money meant to help communities attract more tourists.
The Tourism Department works with local communities, helping tourist enterprises grow. Not much time is spent working to attract the Ritz Carleton super hotels to the state.
But that's not the philosophy of the state's Economic Development Department. We lost Microsoft 40 years ago for want of a $35,000 loan and we don't want that to ever happen again. Actually the loan wouldn't have kept Bill Gates and Paul Allen here. In no way could we have produced the number of high tech graduates they needed for their rapid expansion.
But we're still looking for other big fish, promising them the world but mainly attracting big talkers who take our money and disappear - or never even materialize.
The Economic Development Department should take a lesson from the Tourism Department. Help businesses grow that already are here. They have proven their loyalty to our state. They came here because they wanted to and didn't need any incentives.
But we take them for granted. They are already in business so they don't need any help. Helping 500 businesses expand by one employee is not nearly as sexy as attracting one business promising 500 jobs.
Some communities already are trying this and are having success. In Santa Fe, a group called Santa Fe Economic Development, Inc. started a process called economic gardening, looking for business clusters within the community that could be helped by working together to identify problems and needs that could be solved by group action.
Clusters were developed for book publishers, artists, technology, private schools and others. The group hoped to gain the support of Santa Fe city and county governments but those public bodies never could get their minds off the glamour. Consequently New Mexico has one more movie sound stage in the process of being constructed with significant public assistance and SFEDI is now defunct.
The Economic Development Department must change its focus but helping its small businesses seems to be a difficult concept to master. It would be intelligent for the Martinez administration to go after former board and staff members from Santa Fe Economic Development, Inc. for top positions in the EDD.
The result will be fewer trade missions to exotic places and less entertaining of big wigs. It's not as much fun but it can be much more productive.
Outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson has been a major reason for the let's-snag-the-big-boys movement. Before he even took office, he was attending international trade meetings wooing the biggest of the big execs.
There isn't much evidence any of that ever did us much good.



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