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The more things change, the more they stay the same

Sherry Robinson
El Chieftain
Jan 9, 2012

On the state’s 75th anniversary of statehood, historian Richard Melzer asked how New Mexico’s economy – in 1987 and the previous 75 years – could be described in the same terms: alternately sunny and gloomy. We’re still asking that question this year on the statehood centennial.

Melzer observed that the state’s successes resulted from a happy combination of resources and demand. Coal was discovered near Gallup and Raton just as railroads and smelters needed a source in the Southwest. World War II and the Cold War gave us the labs, which, in turn, launched or helped attract high-tech industry.

After World War II, when the nation needed oil and natural gas, New Mexico had both in abundance. Peaceful uses of uranium triggered the first uranium boom in Grants. We had smaller booms in potash, copper, and molybdenum.

Wartime and post-war road building eased transportation, and tourists sought us out. Before that, we saw waves of “lungers” hoping our dry air and sunshine would rid them of tuberculosis, and many came with skills and money to invest.

That’s the sunny side. Melzer described “four tragic characteristics of the bonanzas themselves.”

First, the booms were usually isolated, creating pockets of prosperity that didn’t spill over. Second, the booms were often a town’s only activity, and leaders failed to diversify the local economy. Third, we’ve always had vocal critics: early fears of TB patients, later concerns about environmental damage or cultural exploitation, and those who simply like things the way they are. Finally, the booms were vulnerable to national and international economic pressures.

Melzer wrapped it up pretty well in 1987.

That year, I wrote about New Mexico’s mixed grades from the Corporation for Enterprise Development – an A for entrepreneurial energy, a B for business vitality, and Fs for economic performance and job quality. The top three states – Massachusetts, California and Connecticut – made commitments to education and research programs. States that began diversifying early were also winners.

Ten years later, we had the third widest gulf between rich and poor, a pronouncement we’ve heard since, and every state in the West but New Mexico posted employment gains above the national average – and we were booming that year.

We still depend on natural resources, although Hobbs and Farmington get kudos for their efforts to diversify. We’re still leaning on the federal government, despite decades of warnings. The end of the Cold War was not good news here, nor were federal budget cuts then or now.

Now, let’s step farther back. New Mexico, wrote Gov. William Carr Lane in 1852, was “over-run with Red and White thieves and robbers,” agriculture was depressed, mines were nearly abandoned, the few roads were in bad shape, and tax revenues couldn’t provide basic services. “A schoolmaster is rarely seen amongst you.”

On the bright side, he said, “Your country is one of the very healthiest on the globe.” And with the use of irrigation, there were great opportunities. New Mexico’s leaders were stubbornly divided between those who wanted (and profited by) continued military occupation and those who wanted statehood.

The secretary of war argued that the annual cost of maintaining a large military force to protect New Mexico from Indian attack equaled half the total value of real estate. He suggested reimbursing residents and abandoning the territory, “which seems hardly fit for inhabitation of the civilized.”

When Congress finally admitted New Mexico as a state in 1912, the economy rested on mining and agriculture.

Looking at our half-full cup, optimists would say we’ve come a long way. Or, like Gov. Lane, you could observe that we’re still troubled by crime, depressed industries, inadequate roads, insufficient tax revenues and obstacles to education.

In the coming legislative session, policy makers would do well to understand the deep roots of our issues.

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