Tax Hike for Behavioral Health: Look South!

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On Election Day, voters in Santa Fe County will be asked if they support “a countywide gross receipts tax for behavioral health services that would increase the aggregate gross receipts tax rate by up to one-eighth of one percent (0.125%).”

There’s no question that mental disorders and substance abuse, in the county, and throughout the state, are at epidemic proportions. (The Foundation will soon issue a paper on the subject.) But there’s ample reason for Santa Fe County voters to express skepticism, not support, for a new tax. An example to the south is instructive.

In February 2015, the Bernalillo County Commission approved a one-eighth percent GRT hike. A press release claimed the revenue generated would be dedicated to “proven ways to better manage the high cost of addiction, homelessness and mental health problems. These issues impact families throughout the community and drive up the cost of public services, especially at the Metropolitan Detention Center.”

At the time of the vote, a skeptical commissioner warned that it was “important that the county seek collaboration from the city, state, University of New Mexico Hospital, nonprofit and private sectors before throwing $20 million of your hard-earned tax dollars at a problem and effectively striking out alone.” A colleague agreed, lamenting that there was “no plan for how that money would be spent, managed and leveraged with other government and private resources. No plan for how we use the money set aside for mental health services to create positive and lasting results in our community.”

Over a year after the tax increase took effect, the Albuquerque Journal editorialized that the county was “still working on that plan for new services to spend it on,” but had shifted “a small part of that new revenue to backfill a county budget shortfall,” and devoted “$1.3 million from the new tax revenue to pick up the cost of an existing housing program that helps inmates coming out of jail, freeing up $1.3 million for basic county operational costs.” In addition, “new program proposals are not even in the pilot phase because staffers are still working with other agencies on how to carry them out.”

No one would argue that behavioral health in New Mexico isn’t in dismal shape. But it’s not at all clear that tax hikes are a desirable way to tackle the problem.

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