N.M. tops latest unemployment list; Taos County sits at 8.5%

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While the labor market in most of the United States has heated up, a stagnant New Mexico economy has left the state with the nation’s worst unemployment rate.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said Monday that New Mexico’s jobless rate for January was 6.7 percent, up from 6.5 percent a year ago. New Mexico’s unemployment numbers have remained stubbornly high even as conditions continue to improve elsewhere. The national rate stands at 4.8 percent.

“That’s one more list we don’t want to be on top of,” said state Rep. James Smith, R-Sandia Park, who is backing efforts in the New Mexico Legislature to expand broadband internet access as a way to help foster economic development.

The only other states with an unemployment rate above 6 percent are Alaska and Alabama.

“While the rest of the country has mostly recovered from the Great Recession, New Mexico lags behind,” Debra Haaland, who chairs the Democratic Party of New Mexico, said while taking a swipe at the state’s Republican governor. “Investments are needed to create opportunity for New Mexicans, not cuts to services to finance tax breaks for the well-connected.”

A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez said she recognizes that continued volatility in the oil and gas sector, which has led to layoffs, and “a dysfunctional federal government,” makes it more important to diversify the state’s economy.

Michael Lonergan said the governor’s budget proposals prioritize spending to protect programs such as the Local Economic Development Act that have helped recruit companies like Facebook, SafeLite, Fidelity, Union Pacific, “and many others with tens of thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in investment.”

From the start of the 2017 legislative session in January, members of both major political parties have pushed legislation that would spread broadband internet to more areas of New Mexico “that hopefully will create jobs, keep more people in the state and bring back some who have left,” said Smith.

Democrats in the House of Representatives have also added money in the 2018 fiscal year budget to boost job-training programs and LEDA, a grant program to help businesses relocate or expand in the state.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said the governor’s veto of legislation that would have helped invigorate agriculture “has left us standing on the sidelines of the $600 million industrial hemp industry.”

Padilla added, “Our state cannot afford to continue to miss out on these economic opportunities and fall further behind.”

Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, said the state still needs to make itself more competitive with fewer regulations and a lower corporate tax structure. “We need the whole state thinking ‘economic development.’ If we don’t get that, we won’t get new businesses in,” he said.

While seven states posted job losses in the 12-month period ending in January, New Mexico added 900 jobs, though not enough to improve the unemployment picture. All the states reporting job losses — led by Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota — have a large fossil-fuel sector in crude oil, coal or natural gas where falling prices have led to decreased production and job losses.

In New Mexico, the declines have leveled off, and the sector actually gained 200 jobs from December to January.

While health care and hospitality have been the employment drivers in the state over the past four years, the monthly numbers show that employment in health care declined going into 2017, likely a reaction to the uncertainty over possible changes to the federal Affordable Care Act, which significantly expanded the number of New Mexicans with medical coverage.

In a statement released by his office, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the repeal of the health-insurance law proposed by Republicans might very well push New Mexico into another recession.

“New Mexico has seen the slowest recovery from the recession, but thanks to Obamacare, one of the few bright spots has been in health — seven of the 10 fastest-growing fields is health care,” Udall said. “But the Republicans’ repeal and replace scheme would cost our state up to 19,000 jobs and $2.2 billion in funding, a hit that could throw us back into recession.”

In Taos County, the January unemployment rate stood at 8.5 percent, down slightly from a year ago when it was 8.7 percent. It was 7.7 percent in Las Cruces, 6.2 percent in Albuquerque, and 9.5 percent in Farmington.

At 20.5 percent, Luna County had the highest jobless rate in the state, while the 4.2 percent rate in Los Alamos County was the lowest.

The Santa Fe New Mexican is a sister-paper of The Taos News. Staff writers Milan Simonich and Sami Edge contributed to this report. Contact Bruce Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.com

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