Andrés Cibils, project director and professor of rangeland science in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences at NMSU. Photo courtesy of Julie Davis Basile.

By Dee Gamble for Green Fire Times | November/December 2020 Issue

 

Suppose that in 2021, to promote economic diversity, New Mexico invested in agricultural production that incorporated methods to regenerate soil and save water, and that local food products replaced many of the state’s imports. All educational facilities would be supplied with at least half of their food by farmers and ranchers within a radius of 50 miles.

Imagine that, with support from the Health Security Act, telemedicine, local foods and a whole range of wellness and culturally relevant health programs would improve people’s health. People just need to be kept healthy, have a safe place to live, access to education at all levels, and opportunities for creative work.

Imagine rural community libraries with broadband access and community rooms that provide a range of activities for students of all ages to explore learning and prepare for new challenges. And finally, imagine that New Mexico’s communities had community solar and wind projects with energy storage systems so that savings in energy costs could be invested in local businesses.

How can we move toward such a self-reliant, prosperous vision, given the state’s current health and economic crises and rankings: 49th lowest in education, 47th in economy and fiscal stability, the highest rate of childhood hunger, and eighth-highest in overall food insecurity (U.S. News and World Report) in 2018? How do we climb out of this seemingly intractable situation in the face of ongoing damage being caused by the coronavirus?

A public bank for New Mexico: a bank with a “common good” purpose and resources to build community wealth in every village, town and city, can be the primary engine for such a far-reaching transformation.

This is neither a new nor a radical idea. North Dakota’s Public Bank (BND) just celebrated its 100th anniversary, and public banks throughout Europe have been operating successfully for many years. Utilizing locally produced revenue as close to home as possible is actually a conservative idea. It’s an alternative to depositing taxes and paying fees to large, global banks and receiving low interest rates in return. The global banks do very well on both ends—using our funds at low interest rates and lending us bond resources at higher rates. These big banks are not friendly to the idea of public banking, which is why it has yet to catch on in the U.S.

New Mexico is not a poor state! We have $5.4 billion in the severance tax fund. A small portion of those reserves can be borrowed for safe and important investments in families and communities. We have six state universities with distance-learning available; four tribal colleges and universities; and nine two-year public community colleges, plus a number of private institutions. We can build more equitable access by subsidizing the first two years of post-secondary education so that science, technology, engineering, math, arts, moviemaking, music, health, environmental regeneration and outdoor recreation can be studied and developed, preparing folks for a variety of entrepreneurial opportunities.

New Mexico has local credit unions and community-owned banks willing to direct resources locally. We have industries that provide alternatives to fossil fuels. We have cutting-edge technologies, supported by enormous federal funding. We have attracted national leadership and talent in the creative arts and have deeply rooted and globally valued cultural traditions.

 

Jobs and Industry

Where are the work opportunities? Bobbie Williams, executive secretary of the New Mexican Energy Manufacturing Consortium and Institute, has listed some examples: “…goods that enable the green building industry, equipment to support energy efficiency strategies, equipment for environmental monitoring and controlling, equipment for wind farm maintenance via aerial surveillance and aerial access, synthetic production of rare earth minerals, equipment for energy acquisition from myriad energy sources and software for advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity applications” (Albuquerque Journal, June 28, 2020).

 

Agriculture and Food Systems

New Mexico First (NMF) points out that the needs of children are particularly worrisome. NMF identifies adverse community and climate experiences that cause toxic stress. In the 20 communities the organization engaged with across the state, food insecurity was prominent. NMF’s recommendation: “Invest in strategies to develop local food systems and strengthen resilient local agriculture” (New Mexico First newsletter, Aug. 3, 2020).

The Sept.–Oct. 2020 issue of Green Fire Times showcased ways people and organizations are working to build fertile soils, support farmers and ranchers, create community gardens, farmers’ markets and local food processing. One example is the Taos Land Trust’s Working Lands Resiliency Initiatives project, which aims to protect Taos’ agricultural and large-landscape legacies. TLT takes “querencia,” the belief in the rootedness of culture to place and land seriously. The Land Trust convened dozens of community gatherings to plan Río Fernando Park, which has revived once-productive agricultural land in the heart of Taos.

In TLT’s work, historical and cultural inequities are kept in mind. Access is a critical concept: access to land use, to technology, information, financial investments, educational resources, and most importantly, access to policy planning, and a seat at the table when it comes to decision-making in regard to economic development.

New Mexico State University supports 13 Agricultural Extension research/learning centers across the state. Del Jimenez, Agricultural Extension agent at NMSU’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde, has worked with young farmers and ranchers who want to anchor their livelihoods on the land. “Rural communities have been the backbone of New Mexico society,” he said. “Young farmers need opportunities to improve their ability to grow in low-water areas. They need loans to be able to invest in soil improvements, hoop-houses and irrigation systems. They need technical assistance to help them get through the first three years of their investment, until they are stabilized. And they need opportunities to regenerate fallow land.”

A place to physically nurture and express dreams and opportunities is also important for young minds and bodies. Moving Arts Española offers children classes in art, dance, music, gymnastics, sewing, drama and cooking for $1 per class. Cofounder Roger Montoya said, “During this pandemic, it has become essential to work toward solutions for not only food insecurity in Río Arriba and surrounding counties, but also for housing. With jobs currently shut down, opportunities that allow people to continue paying for food and shelter have disappeared. We need investments in those areas.”

 

Affordable Housing

Kim Shanahan, a green building and sustainable development consul- tant, suggests creating an effective partnership among community banks, credit unions and a Public Bank. “A state-owned bank could work as a backstop for local banks and credit unions who have been reluctant to provide infrastructure loans to affordable housing developers,” he said. “An unintended consequence of the progressive Dodd-Frank Consumer Protection Act, passed in 2010 after the collapse of the housing finance industry, was the determination that infrastructure loans were very high-risk. Since then, virtually no local banks will underwrite such loans. A state-owned bank could work as a guarantor of last resort and help get local developers back in the game of building affordable housing subdivisions.”

A public bank is more efficient than the ways we currently invest. Collaborating with credit unions, community banks and municipalities, all its returns from investments come back to the public bank for further local investment. Additional resources circulating locally rather than accumulating for Wall Street CEOs could strengthen communities’ health and wealth.

 

A Nonpartisan Effort

Legislation to establish a Public Bank for New Mexico depends on all of us working together to convince state leaders to bring New Mexico’s money back home. It is truly a nonpartisan effort at every level.

A public bank will generate investments to increase the economic and social capacities of many New Mexicans, including those who struggle the most among us. It will keep our money safe because its financial operations, loan programs and audits will be transparent and accountable to the public, unlike global banks that are vulnerable to risks and losses associated with speculative investments. With directed investments through local credit unions and community banks, a New Mexico Public Bank can work to turn back the cataclysmic environmental indicators we face, and improve the quality of our air and water. It can support economic and social inclusiveness and work to eliminate structural practices that make us believe we don’t deserve more or we can’t possibly do better. We can do better. Let’s establish a public bank that cares about all the people.

If we incorporate some of these principles into legislation for a Public Bank of New Mexico, it would be a moral commitment to the people. Such legislation would be the yardstick for comparing investments to the outcomes for building health and wealth in every community. It would mean we could truly measure improved outcomes in family and community wellbeing. It would mean moving from hopeless to hopeful to successful.

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