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Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson reveals reform strategy in CAIVN interview

by Wes Messamore, published

To better assess many of California's problems and some possible solutions, the following is from an interview I conducted this week with former New Mexico Governor, Gary Johnson.

When he ran for Governor of New Mexico as a Republican in the early 1990s, Gary Johnson was a long-shot, political outsider- a self-made, small business owner who wanted to apply business-like pragmatism to solve the state's problems.

In a 2-to-1 Democratic state, his program of reform was popular enough to win him a second term (the maximum allowed under New Mexico's term limits). Let's see what this reform-minded governor had to say about California policy:

CAIVN: Thanks so much for the interview, Mr. Johnson. Because many of your supporters believe you had a lot of success with reforms as New Mexico's Governor, I wanted to get your thoughts and policy solutions for some of the problems faced by Californians.

1. Public Safety and Prison Reform

CAIVN: California's prison costs are growing dramatically. What policies and reforms did you push for as Governor of New Mexico, and how would you advise California's government to contain costs while keeping its residents safe?

Gary Johnson: Well, in the case of prisons in New Mexico, I privatized half of the prison system, which was really an apples to apples comparison when it came to goods and services. But, private prisons were roughly two-thirds the cost of public prisons.

Additionally, I believe drug reform would have resulted in less pressure on the prison system as a whole. As I have often said – if drug reform was successful and there were significantly fewer individuals being imprisoned on drug crimes, it would be much easier to shut down unnecessary private prisons than public ones.

2. Unfunded Mandates

CAIVN: Unfunded Federal mandates put a lot of pressure on California's already strained state budget. What did you do about this problem in New Mexico and what can Californians do to solve it in their state?

Gary Johnson: One of the biggest issues I faced in New Mexico when it came to unfunded mandates was Medicaid. The State had to come up with 25 cents on every dollar being spent. Underfunding of Medicaid by the State Legislature was always a big problem. For six straight years, I vetoed the amount of money recommended by the Legislature, based on what I would have estimated for Medicaid to cost, so that we had the money to pay for it.

I don’t want to make it sound like I effectively dealt with the issue of unfunded mandates, because that is virtually impossible to do. But, I did everything I could to make sure we didn’t go into debt to pay for these mandates.

Take the example of education – the Federal Department of Education gave New Mexico 11 cents on the dollar, but it always came with 16 cents of strings. We had to take the money, but then we had to find ways to provide more money in order to accept that money. These kind of mandates really hamstring States in their ability to deliver better products and services at a lower price.

However, I don’t want to present myself as someone who believes that there is somehow a concrete solution. I simply didn’t have a lot of choice in dealing with this issue. But, again, I point to the privatization of prisons as one specific solution we came up with.

3. The Economy

CAIVN: How would you advise the Governor of California to grow the economy and create jobs? What worked in New Mexico, and why?

Gary Johnson: First of all, I wouldn’t presume to tell the Governor of California anything, in terms of how to fix your State’s economy. Fixing the economy is not his job alone. It is, obviously, also dependent on the State Legislature. As Governor of New Mexico, I dealt with these same issues. I could have cut one-third of all State government, if I was the dictator. But that’s not the way the system works – there are three branches of government.

Because I never got the cooperation I needed from the Legislature, I would veto legislative policies whenever they spent too much. I effectively eliminated billions of dollars worth of spending that would have otherwise occurred. Would I like to have done more? Sure. Was I effective in passing legislation that dealt with individuals and corporations equally? I would love to have done more. But I did veto legislation that included special interests and favoritism.

What I’ve always believed works is government policy that presents equality for all. Meaning policies should impact individuals and business equally. This allows for competition and the idea of a thriving, open market.

4. Legalizing Marijuana

CAIVN: California now has an initiative on November's ballot to legalize the cultivation, sale, and recreational use of marijuana statewide, by adults 21 and older. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Gary Johnson: Bravo, California! My hope is that it creates the same legalized situation in all fifty states. My opinion in regards to marijuana is: tax it, regulate it, and control it.

This country will be a better place to live if all the resources currently put towards criminalizing marijuana (courts, prison, law enforcement, etc) go away, allowing law enforcement to concern itself with real crime, as opposed to victimless crime.

Obviously, it will never be legal to smoke pot, become impaired, and get behind the wheel of car or do harm to others. It will never become legal for kids under 21 to smoke pot. And, I personally don’t advocate drug use of any kind.

5. Education

CAIVN: A quick glance at the state budget will tell you that education is a priority for Californians, but what can the state do to spend those dollars better and improve the quality of education?

Gary Johnson: Again, education reform is something I tried to do in New Mexico - I worked to implement a statewide voucher program for six straight years. It didn’t happen – all that happened was that we ended up spending more and more money in a system that by all measurements seemed to do a little worse from year to year.

My proposal was a statewide voucher system to bring competition to public education. I still firmly believe in that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something I was able to do – but I am still pushing for it while I’m out on the road discussing my ideas through the OUR America Initiative.

6. Government Growth

CAIVN: I understand that at the end of your eight year tenure, New Mexico had 1,000 fewer state employees, but with no firings. How did you accomplish this? Did the state still provide the same quality of services?

Gary Johnson: Yes, absolutely. I would argue that we actually produced a better product, better services, and better results, all with 1000 fewer employees. It was definitely a testament to the performance of State employees, and the fact that you can do more with less. It happened.

7. Taxes

CAIVN: New Mexico went eight years without a tax increase under your tenure, the longest such period in its history. How did you accomplish that? Was it good for the state? Would it be good for California?

Gary Johnson: I thought it was great for the state of New Mexico. I also wish I could have signed a significant tax reduction – but that was something the legislature didn’t give me. What I did do was veto any proposed new tax increase. New Mexico ended up doing extremely well without any tax increases. We had plenty of money – we actually had money left over. So much so that we should have reduced taxes more than we were able to.

When Governor Richardson succeeded me, he ran on the fact that we should reduce the state income tax. This was something I couldn’t deliver – but I did say for eight straight years that we really needed to. I think by that point in time, people were demanding it, which is why it passed the first year Richardson was in office. Their arguments were the same arguments I had given for eight straight years.

Kind of ironic.

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