New Mexico First, a nonpartisan organization committed to engaging New Mexicans in public policy and civic life, has released a policy brief on Cliff Effects and Churning in Public Benefits. The staff and board of New Mexico First believe that sound public policy and a healthy democracy are strengthened by civic engagement, public deliberation, and principled non-partisan research. This report expands on concerns raised at the May 2016 New Mexico First Town Hall on Economic Security and Vitality for New Mexico. A bipartisan consensus recommendation was advanced and adopted related to cliff effects. Recommendation #9 from the final report is to “Advance Family-Friendly Policies.” A specific strategy identified related to this recommendation is to “eliminate disincentives to earning more income for people in poverty, such as cliff effects in work support programs.” In 2018, SJM18 was passed by both houses of the New Mexico State Legislature with unanimous support. New Mexico First developed SJM18: Family Support Services Info. The memorial addresses how families transition from poverty. The memorial was the first step in researching how New Mexico can smooth out the benefits “cliffs” that families face as their earned incomes increase.
The policy brief addresses key issues, including definitions of the cliff effect and churning in public benefits; an overview of some core public benefits available in New Mexico; policy options and department level quality improvement efforts that are working in other states to prevent the needless interruption of services; and policy tools and opportunities that hold promise in NM.
Secretary of the New Mexico Human Services Department, Dr. David Scrase, explains, “Both Federal and the NM State government provide significant help to people in difficult life circumstances by providing food, clothing, utility bill assistance, and health insurance. Unfortunately, as New Mexicans are able to find a job and begin to make their way back to independence, these benefits often are removed too soon, leaving our neighbors worse off than before they sought employment. Solving this “cliff effect” is of critical importance in our state, where we have the third-highest poverty rate and the highest food insecurity rate.”
Lilly Irvin-Vitela, report co-author and New Mexico First President, describes the issue. “Many working families in New Mexico and their children live in poverty. This impacts access to food, housing, quality early care and education, afterschool care, healthcare, and other basic needs. Slight fluctuations in earned income can impact eligibility for benefits, leaving a family in a worse financial situation than the one they were in before a raise or promotion was earned. Furthermore, challenges navigating benefits eligibility and re-verification can create a cascading downward spiral that intensifies the crisis a family is experiencing. Fortunately, there are a host of family-friendly policies and administrative changes that other states are using with some success and that NM has begun to implement.”
Allan Oliver, Executive Director of the Thornburg Foundation, which funded the study, spoke about the importance of strengthening understanding about the poverty trap presented by cliff effects. “Eliminating the “cliff effect” in our safety-net programs gives working families a clear path out of poverty. When working families can’t afford to take the better paying job or pay raise, because they will lose medical coverage or childcare reimbursement—our whole state loses. We lose from an underemployed workforce, lost revenue for the state and a failure to help our own neighbors. This report lays out how the cliff effects and churning of public benefits creates real barriers for families seeking to better their own condition and provides some clear options for policymakers to reduce or eliminate those barriers.”
The development of this report was made possible with a grant from the Thornburg Foundation, a funder of New Mexico First.
After more than a dozen years leading nonpartisan public-policy nonprofit New Mexico First, Heather Balas announced she is leaving her post.
Balas will begin work this month with the Santa Fe-based Thornburg Foundation to lead reform efforts in good government. As part of selecting Balas’ successor, board chair Valerie Romero-Leggott said the organization’s volunteer board members are already coordinating a national executive search. Former state Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish chairs the executive search committee.
“One of the many legacies that Heather leaves with the organization is a strong team that will continue the arc of progress that New Mexico First was founded to pursue,” Romero-Leggott said. “The board and I are confident there will be a smooth transition in leadership, in large part due to Heather’s fidelity to the organization from her first day to her last.”
Balas joined New Mexico First as its deputy in 2005, upon returning to the state after a dozen years working in the nation’s capital and California on public policy and voter education. By 2006, the Portales native was named New Mexico First’s president and executive director.
“It’s been one of my greatest honors to serve alongside dedicated New Mexicans who put the state’s well-being ahead of their own personal or partisan interests,” Balas said. “When we come together, and when we are reminded that we are not as different as we sometimes believe, New Mexico is the better for it every time.”
New Mexico First is known for its statewide town halls, where hundreds of New Mexicans from around the state gather to discuss challenges and opportunities facing the state, as well as develop policy proposals to address them. During Balas’ tenure, the organization influenced dozens of laws and appropriations in education, the economy, natural resources, good government and healthcare.
Balas said examples of those reforms of which she’s most proud include expansion of scholarships for nontraditional college students, statewide reductions in student testing time, expanded watershed restoration and state water planning, passage of the constitutional amendment to create a state ethics commission, loan repayment incentives to keep medical school students in New Mexico, as well as multiple conventional and renewable-energy reforms. All policies were advanced on behalf of the people of New Mexico, prioritized through nonpartisan public deliberations, she said.
“Engaging New Mexicans in the public policy process – giving their ideas and their voices access to the halls of the Roundhouse and beyond – is really our core competency,” Balas said. “Every day, New Mexico First sees proof that Democrats, Republicans and independents can and dowork together for the common good.”
New Mexico First’s senior policy director, Pamela Blackwell, will fill in as the interim executive director over the coming months while the executive search and selection processes are conducted. Romero-Leggott said the staff and board are grateful to Blackwell for her valuable experience and leadership during this time.
During the interim, New Mexico First will host its biennial First Forum Lecture Series, the theme of which this year is “Sustainable Journalism: Preserving the Fourth Estate.” The June 6 fundraiser will feature a panel of veteran New Mexico journalists discussing the need to sustain and grow New Mexico’s reliable news sources. New Mexico First will also present its Spirit Awards, which honor public officials, civic leaders and journalists who make positive impacts in New Mexico and put good policy or fair coverage above partisan politics.
Romero-Leggott said that the event will also recognize Balas’ tenure of service to the state.
“New Mexicans who have seen firsthand the impact that the organization has had under Heather’s leadership are encouraged to attend this year’s First Forum,” Romero-Leggott said, “which will be both important in its own right and an opportunity — a golden opportunity — to thank Heather for her tireless efforts, which we know will continue in her new role, as well.”.. Read More
Legislation that would establish a state ethics commission is under intense scrutiny by the media and public as two legislative proposals churn through the legislative process being considered by New Mexico legislators HB 4 (Ely/Steinborn) and SB 619 (Lopez) both entitled State Ethics Commission Act. ..Read More
NM SB81 - Increase Certain Scholarship Amounts (sponsored by Sen. Gay Kernan) passed the Senate Education Committee unanimously. This bill would begin to replenish New Mexico’s College Affordability Endowment Fund, helping to ensure that older, nontraditional and tribal students receive modest tuition relief when pursuing a degree or certificate program. ..Read More