By Bruce Krasnow
The New Mexican
Job losses in New Mexico accelerated during the past 12 months, making it just one of two states to lose jobs while the rest of the United States was growing, according to data released Friday.
For the 12 months ending in April 2014, the state reported a net loss of 4,400 jobs, according to the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
Nationally, nonfarm payrolls increased in 48 other states over the 12-month period, with only New Mexico and Virginia seeing percentage declines in employment, according to a measure from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jobs have been front and center in the campaign for governor, as the Democrats have pointed to the fact that the state is 50th in job growth since Gov. Susana Martinez took office. That statistic is not likely to change before the November election.
“Anytime job growth is flat, it presents an opportunity to opponents of elected public officials to hold [the incumbents] responsible,” said Albuquerque pollster Brian Sanderoff. “I think you will see Democratic gubernatorial candidates making this an issue. You’re already seeing it.”
State officials say some of the employment losses in the first half of 2014 are exaggerated due to the state’s new unemployment insurance system, which was implemented in late 2012 and early 2013, according to Joy Forehand of the Department of Workforce Solutions. “We’ll really be watching May, June and July very carefully,” she said.
“There might be some statistical anomalies that explain a different number from what you actually see in the market, but in this case, we’re clearly not in recovery yet,” said Mark Lautman, an Albuquerque economist hired by the Legislature to craft an economic development plan for the state.
Sanderoff said the strongest argument for the Democrats would be to point out that New Mexico’s job growth is weaker than surrounding states and other Western states. “In Texas, Colorado, Arizona, the job growth is picking up,” he said.
Although the job situation doesn’t appear to have hurt Martinez’s approval numbers so far, Sanderoff said it’s possible the losses will impact her going forward, as polls have shown the top concerns of voters are jobs and the economy.
During one debate involving the five Democratic candidates for governor, Alan Webber, a former business executive, said many Republican business leaders have called him, saying they would support him over Martinez if he wins the June 3 primary because he understands economic development. And Lawrence Rael, a government administrator, also is hitting the jobs issue in a recent TV ad.
Gov. Martinez is touting her record of tax cuts that, she says, have made the state more competitive and put New Mexico in contention for new manufacturing opportunities, such as a Tesla battery plant. She also claims investment in new infrastructure at the entry port of Santa Teresa will reap long-term benefits for the state — especially with transportation and manufacturing jobs.
The infrastructure investments are paying off. Southern New Mexico, also buoyed by oil and gas exploration, is seeing a relative boom compared with the Albuquerque metro area.
But the biggest drag on the state is still the contraction of spending and employment by the federal government. The sector declined by 1,100 jobs in the 12 months ending April 30, and Lautman said it’s really been “a slow bleeder” for New Mexico. Each federal job eliminated means less spending that goes into other areas, such as the service and leisure sectors.
“Everybody in politics, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, both executive and the Legislature feel bad that people in New Mexico who are out of work,” Lautman said. “The tough part is getting agreement on what moves the needle.”
If there is a bright spot for the state, it is that the overall labor force appears to be increasing for the first time since the recession, according to Suzan Reagan with The University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. That means there is some optimism about finding work as laid-off or discouraged workers restart their job searches.
“We saw more people come back into the labor force last month, and that’s a positive sign,” she said. “Little as it may be.”
Staff writer Steve Terrell contributed to this report.
Contact Bruce Krasnow at firstname.lastname@example.org.