MENU

Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

Gary Johnson's New Mexico Fiscal Record, Denounced, Defended, and Debated

The Libertarian presidential contender was better on taxing then spending, but the power of the veto can only go so far when you are governor and the legislature ultimately controls the purse.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson does like to sell himself as the only true fiscal conservative, compared to the major party candidates he expects to be up against in November, if the delegates to the Libertarian Party National Convention chose him this weekend in Orlando.

GJ for President facebookGJ for President facebook

National Review attacked his spending record as governor of New Mexico in an article by James Spiller on Monday, under a rough headline saying "Never Gary Johnson."

Some of the bill of indictment against Johnson, from Spiller:

When Johnson took the tiller in New Mexico in 1995, the budget stood at $4.397 billion. When he left in 2003, it had grown to $7.721 billion, an increase of 7.29 percent a year. Of the eleven governors who filed to run for president this year (two Democrats, Johnson, and  eight Republicans), only one had a worse record on spending growth...

....Johnson inherited a debt of $1.8 billion and left a debt of $4.6 billion, a rate of increase unmatched by the 22 governors in either party who have filed for presidential primaries in the past two decades, with the exception of Governor Tom Vilsack (D., Iowa) in 2007.....

Johnson is also slammed for instituting a "refundable tax credit" to encourage filmmaking in his state, and for not being very fine-grained and specific in how he intends to reach his goal of cutting federal spending by 43 percent if he's president.

Paul Gessing of the free market think tank the Rio Grande Foundation from New Mexico appears in National Review today with a more nuanced defense of Johnson. Highlights:

Spiller “credits” Johnson with spending money he had little control over. His spending numbers include federal dollars that flow into the state for everything from Medicaid to education. Including just the General Fund that the legislature and governor must agree to each year, Johnson’s first budget was $2.7 billion and his final budget, eight years later, was $3.9 billion (an increase of about 41 percent). Thus, under Johnson, New Mexico’s General Fund spending grew by 4.67 percent annually, not the outrageous 7.29 percent rate cited by Spiller....

....Johnson too pushed tax cuts while in office, but [his successor as New Mexico Governor Bill] Richardson was able to follow through, taking the state’s top income-tax rate from 8.2 to 4.9 percent. Richardson succeeded where Johnson failed in cutting taxes in large part because during Johnson’s tenure the New Mexico legislature was controlled entirely by Democrats. These were no razor-thin margins either: Democrats held approximately 60 percent of all legislative seats.....

Gessing explains how the legislature Johnson faced stymied him from doing as much good as he would have liked to, including that "Every year Johnson proposed school-choice vouchers and every year the Democrats in the legislature killed them." Gessing agrees the filmmaking tax credit is a terrible idea.

While Johnson had the veto and used it around over 700 times—he thinks that's more than all his fellow governors at the time combined—the legislature ultimately has the power of the purse. On his way out Johnson vetoed an entire budget for 2003 but got overridden. What New Mexico spent during his administration was somewhat, but by no means ultimately, up to him.

For more context, the Cato Institute in its grading of the fiscal records of the governors during Johnson's administration had these positive things to say in their 2002 report:

Johnson....favors school vouchers, term limits, privately run prisons, lean budgets, and deep tax cuts.... In his first term, he vetoed 200 bills—many of them spending bills, which he labeled as profligate. The state Democrats made defeating Johnson their top priority in 1998, but he won anyway. ....

Through determination and wearing down the opposition, he has had legislative successes. He has cut the state income tax, the gasoline tax, the state capital gains tax, and the unemployment tax. In 2001, he wanted a further 7 percent reduction in income tax rates. The legislature cut the tax less than he wanted, so he vetoed the bill. In 1999, he vetoed a 12 cent per pack cigarette tax hike because he opposes all tax hikes. (He recently did sign off on a tobacco tax with the condition that the revenues be used to offset other tax cuts.) In 2000, he signed a residential property tax cap that will limit increases in valuations to 3 percent per year. Johnson has successfully sponsored other government reform initiatives such as an electricity deregulation bill, a 10 percent reduction in state payrolls, and a Medicaid cost-cutting plan....

The Speaker of the House in New Mexico, Ben Lujan, recently noted after an override of a Johnson veto: “There is no executive fiat in this state. The governor must have the consent of the legislature for fiscal action.” That explains why Gary Johnson’s grade is not even higher in this report card. [He received a "B" that year.]

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • FreeSpeechMatters||

    This defense of Gary Johnson is just ridiculous. He compares very unfavorably to even Mitt Romney, for example.

    Mitt Romney was able to keep Massachusetts spending and debt rising at a much slower rate despite an even more liberal state legislature than included even fewer Republicans by far than were in the New Mexico state legislature. Massachusetts had a much more liberal state legislature with far fewer Republicans than New Mexico.

    Johnson completely failed to build good working relationships with conservative Democrats in the state legislature (who existed back then, unlike in Massachusetts for the most part) to keep spending and debt from exploding.

  • You Sound Like a Prog (MJG)||

    No one cares, Brian, we have Trump and Trannies to talk about.

  • pronomian||

    Trump and trannies? Trannies for trump? Trump and trannies making america great again......

  • Thomas O.||

    Make America FAAAABULOUS again!

  • FreeSpeechMatters||

    Johnson also failed to fix New Mexico's lackluster business climate. Which is partly attributable to its rotten state judiciary. That made it harder to attract jobs, and thus harder to bring in more tax revenue to fix budget gaps.

    He failed to fix New Mexico's awful, left-leaning judiciary, which spawns baseless lawsuits while keeping innocent people in jail (the state judiciary later unanimously, including Johnson appointees, ordered a wedding photographer to photograph a lesbian wedding. As law professor Eugene Volokh noted in the Washington Post, that violated free speech, since court rulings recognize photography as speech).

    Johnson falsely claims there is some century-old public accommodation law in this country that requires virtually every business to serve everyone -- like a Jewish baker forced to serve Nazis -- when there is no such thing. Blatantly false claim about the law, as any lawyer could attest.

    Johnson compares unfavorably to even Mitt Romney on this score. By contrast, Mitt Romney managed to make the Massachusetts judiciary somewhat less bad, despite having to get a 3-person panel with 2 Democrats on it to approve his judicial appointments (which they did, even though he appointed moderates and a few conservatives in a very liberal state).

  • Billy Bones||

    Damn, you are right. It isn't a century-old. Only half a century. Damn Gary to Hell for his lies.

    https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/2000a

  • FreeSpeechMatters||

    The statute you are citing proves my point. It only covers discrimination based on RACE. And it does not define wedding photographers as "public accommodations." It has a much narrower definition of "public accommodation." It does not cover discrimination against Nazis, or even gays and lesbians.

  • FreeSpeechMatters||

    I meant to write "race, color, religion, or national origin," not just race. It does not protect Nazis against discrimination, or even LGBT people. Nor does it define a wedding photographer as a public accommodation. It has a narrower conception of public accommodation that only applies to certain places.

  • Foo_dd||

    the photographer was completely wronged. public accommodation laws apply to locations. a photographer is not operating a public storefront.... they business they participate in does not occur in a place they own or rent, and there is no implication that the public is free to walk in. (unless you really think it would be appropriate for other customers to seek them at your wedding)

    while i agree with him, specifically on the bakers... it would be interesting to hear his opinion on the photographer. don't think i ever heard that question asked.... there were judges he appointed.

    personally, i agree with him about the bakers..... but the photographer would paint an entirely different picture for me, if he agreed with that too.

    but then, everyone is so goddamn obsessed with the fucking bakers (who at least fit the general definitions for public accommodations). no one can even get to those questions about places that don't have public storefronts. it is possible he is a complete failure on this, but people will never know... because they only ask about the cases that can be explained by a belief in public accommodations... we never even bother to ask about the cases where that argument makes no sense.

  • ||

    You know who else blamed others for their own executive failings...

  • Acton||

    Carly Fiorina?

  • pronomian||

    College students?

  • Robert||

    Around the time of the enactment of the movie prod'n tax credit, though, he did say he'd like to enact similar ones for all biz. So would I, even if it meant that in a minority of cases they wound up getting a net payment (the credit being "refundable"). Once you figure even just the income taxes the employees would be paying, a 25% refundable tax credit for the producer, even if the prod'n co. wound up paying 0 income tax, would still just work out as a reduction in tax on the entire enterprise, employees & all.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Blah blah Nazi cakes blah.

  • FreeSpeechMatters||

    In my comment above discussing Gary Johnson's politically-correct, anti-free speech judicial appointments, I inadvertently referred to a New Mexico Supreme Court decision as forcing a wedding photographer to photograph a "lesbian wedding." It was not a "wedding," but rather a lesbian "commitment ceremony," that the New Mexico Supreme Court (including Johnson appointees) punished the photographer for not photographing.

    The difference matters, because wedding photographers should not be forced, in the name of non-discrimination, to photograph NON-wedding events just because gay people could not get married at the time. Since photography is a form of speech, as federal appeals courts have noted, the New Mexico Supreme Court decision against the wedding photographer violated not just freedom of association, but also freedom of speech, as the Cato Institute and law professor Eugene Volokh noted at the time. It also violated any fair reading of the New Mexico Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

  • SparktheRevolt||

    I'm extremely critical of Gary Johnson but that National Review article is pure trash.

  • SparktheRevolt||

    James Spiller sounds as though he believes Gary Johnson was elected king without a legislative body to keep him in check. One that also happened to be democratic...

  • pronomian||

    "Gessing explains how the legislature Johnson faced stymied him from doing as much good as he would have liked to..."

    I think getting stuff done with an opposition party(ies) is a sign of leadership. If he can't lead in a state, how will he be able to do so as president? The reps were whining that they couldn't do anything without the senate, then when they got the senate whined that they couldn't do anything because they don't have the WH. Reagan seemed to have gotten things done without a "friendly" legislature.

  • Foo_dd||

    while i like Johnson, i do have to agree that it is a bogus defense. you can talk about what you did, what you stopped.... what was in your control, that you controlled well. then you should act like a grown up.... you should admit that you couldn't do everything you tried, and you should admit that there may have been more you could do, that you failed to try.... but, just shifting the blame, because the other party would not do what you wanted... well, that's kind of why politics is more pathetic than usual the last few years. (to be fair, it is someone outside his campaign making said argument. i really hope we don't see him pick it up and use it himself.)

    BTW, having lived in NM for a bit... i don't know if i can really hold anyone completely accountable for that armpit.

  • simplybe||

    Small step I suppose. Gary Johnson is not a Libertarian although he is a hell of lot better than Clinton or Trump. What we need is an Anarchist Party. Maybe a true Libertarian would run for that.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online