Convention speech says a lot about state

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Historian Dorothy Cline said in 1987, during the 75th anniversary of statehood, that “New Mexico doesn’t know what it wants to be or can be.”

Cline’s words echo through today’s political campaigns and economic forecasts. Take the recent speech by New Mexico’s Phil Archuleta, who became a winner for a few minutes until he became a loser in the juvenile game of gotcha that passes for passing for the presidential campaign.

At their national convention, Republicans made much of Obama’s “you didn’t build it” statement. Archuleta, the proprietor of P&M Signs, complained that his business was at risk because the Obama administration wasn’t spending enough with his company. His Mountainair operation sells primarily to the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Park Service.

The irony of Archuleta’s complaint wasn’t lost on the left, which quickly learned that the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency provided an $850,000 Small Business Administration loan guarantee to Archuleta that he used to build his plant in 2008.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, unless, of course, you want everybody to think you did it all by yourself.

I interviewed Archuleta in 1990, when he was still in Ojo Caliente, a peaceful northern village with a lovely spa that isn’t exactly a hotbed of entrepreneurism. Archuleta made a lot of wild accusations about then-Congressman Bill Richardson, and it was my assignment to check them out one by one; they were all shots in the dark.

In 1992 Archuleta moved to Mountainair, in the geographic center of the state. Working with federal agencies, he patented a process that combined wood waste and recycled plastic milk containers into waterproof signs and building materials. Clever businessman, yes. Astute political observer, no.

What the national pundits don’t know about Archuleta’s now-famous complaint is that it’s so very New Mexican, and it’s at the heart of our stagnant economy.

New Mexico doesn’t know what it wants to be, as Cline observed, because of our dependence on federal dollars and our denial of change. The left can make fun of Archuleta, but hundreds of defense contractors could have stood at the podium with the same complaint.

Listen to our candidates for Congress and what you hear is, choose me because I’ll protect the labs and the bases — the federal spigot. I’d like to hear them admit that as junior members of the once great deliberative body, they will have no clout, and acknowledge that economic priorities have changed. Our two senators tried for years to warn us that we couldn’t continue to lean back and coast on federal spending.

The same theme resonated through a recent talk by University of New Mexico economist Lee Reynis. New Mexico has lost a lot of government jobs, she said. “We’re struggling to see any job growth.” Overall employment is declining, maybe because people are discouraged or maybe because they’re leaving. “Something is happening here that is very different than surrounding states,” she said.

Our big concern right now is what we colorfully describe as “the fiscal cliff” and the government calls sequestration – massive cuts matched by massive tax increases. The biggest cuts go to the Department of Defense, New Mexico’s fairy godmother. Reynis said the fiscal cliff could cost the state 20,000 jobs. “We are more vulnerable than other states,” she said.

No kidding.

After listening to the economist’s pronouncements, retired developer Bob Murphy said, “Short term, we have to grow jobs. We have got to restructure taxes to be more attractive to industry. It’s absolutely killing us. Our days of depending on the federal government are over. We’re going to have to shift gears. We must start doing something about it.”

Whether our lemmings in Washington run off that financial cliff, New Mexico faces its own cliff. Once we realize we’re standing on the edge, it will inspire the long-overdue conversation underlying Dorothy Cline’s observation of 25 years ago.