Oct. 15–Editor’s note: This is part of the Las Cruces Sun-News 2018 election preview. Look for more race profiles every day leading up to Nov. 6.
LAS CRUCES — As Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s tenure approaches an end in 2018, New Mexico voters are tasked in the Nov. 6 election with selecting her replacement.
Two candidates — both U.S. representatives from different ends of the political spectrum — are vying for the seat: Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce of the southern New Mexico-based 2nd Congressional District and Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of the Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District.
Both have deep political experience in New Mexico. Pearce, who’s from Hobbs and is a former oil industry business owner, has served as a state representative and won election to the U.S. congressional seat in 2002. He’s held the 2nd Congressional seat for all but two years since 2003.
Lujan Grisham, who was born in Los Alamos and grew up in Santa Fe, is a lawyer and former state health secretary under former Gov. Bill Richardson. She’s held the 1st Congressional District seat for nearly six years after winning the seat that became open when former Congressman Martin Heinrich successfully ran for U.S. Senate.
On a GovTrack.us scale assessing the U.S. House members’ political ideology based off legislation in 2017, Pearce was considered the eighth most conservative among 435 House members. Lujan Grisham was ranked the 66th most liberal.
On the economy, minimum wage
While both candidates agree New Mexico’s economy is a major priority, they have differing plans about how to address it. Lujan Grisham’s plan calls for increasing the minimum wage from the state-set-level of $7.50 an hour to $10. Within a couple of years, it would bump up to $12 and be indexed to inflation afterward. She contended that will reduce poor residents’ reliance upon other services paid for by state government. Lujan Grisham, in a recent gubernatorial debate televised on KRQE and KTSM, described a low minimum wage as the “single most important factor in keeping our families in poverty.”
Pearce said he’s opposed to raising the minimum wage. He said businesses must watch their bottom line, and they’ll cut jobs or cut hours if the wage level is increased.
“The businesses that get hurt worst with the minimum wage increase are the small businesses,” he said.
Lujan Grisham said improving the quality of public education and workforce training, as well as investing in early childhood education, will help build the state’s economy. Changes to the state’s procurement code that keep more state government dollars in New Mexico’s economy should be undertaken, she said. Boosting outdoor recreation as an economic contributor, the state’s involvement in cross-border trade and the renewable energy industry are other focuses. She said Spaceport America is an economic asset to the state.
In a recent tour of the state’s counties, Lujan Grisham said she encountered a lot people feeling desperate. And she’s very motivated to improve residents’ prospects.
“There’s a ton of work to be done,” she said. “Getting the economy moving and diversifying it is a top priority.”
To boost the state’s lagging economy, Pearce has said a focus on three areas is necessary: high-tech industry jobs, blue-collar skills training and rural economic development. He said he supports Spaceport America as part of the state’s efforts. Also, he’s said state regulations are too burdensome to business, and the state has a “hostile” attitude to business, something he wants to change. He agreed that improving the state’s education system goes hand in hand with economic gains. He’s also proposing a 50-year plan for the state’s infrastructure.
“If we’re going to grow and diversify the economy, infrastructure is the key,” he said. “You can’t grow without infrastructure.”
Continued Pearce: “If we’re going to solve the problems of our state, we have to solve the poverty. That’s something I come from, so I understand. I understand what it looks like and feels like and smells like. And if you’re going to solve education, you’ve got to solve that (poverty) simultaneously. It’s the operational background that I have that says: ‘OK, this is what we’ve got to do. This is how we’re going to get there.'”
Opposing stances on the Permanent Fund
An ongoing debate in recent years in the state Legislature has focused upon whether to fund expanded early childhood education from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, a fund that has been built up over decades from lease and royalty revenues stemming from non-renewable resources, like oil and gas production. Interest from the hefty fund provided $638 million in 2016-17 for public schools and universities, according to the New Mexico Investment Council’s website.
Lujan Grisham said in the recent debate she supports increased spending from the fund’s earned interest to expand early childhood education. She described it as a “frugal investment” in children’s development that will result in economic benefit to the state in the future, as more students are better prepared for public school, careers and college. She said her proposal would mirror legislative efforts proposed in recent years to increase spending from the fund.
Pearce said he disagrees. The Permanent Fund was established in recognition that non-renewable resources like oil and gas will be used up one day, he said. But in spite of that, the fund will continue producing interest and revenue for public education. He said the existing public education system is flawed, and the state shouldn’t expand early childhood education until it can fix problems with the current system.
In addition to making decisions about the Land Grand Permanent Fund, lawmakers starting in January 2019 will be tasked with addressing what to do with $1.2 billion in new year-over-year revenues, an expected increase attributed to booming oil and gas production.
Because of his background as a businessman, Pearce said he’s opposed to increasing state spending — and the size of state government — in a year with a budget surplus. He noted there have been similar instances in past years, only for a downturn to happen in the volatile oil and gas industry and state government to have to cut services. Rather, he would support one-time spending on needed infrastructure projects, like boosting broadband Internet across the state to at least 80 percent coverage.
“I’ve been through ups and downs in business,” he said. “The recognition of the advantage we have in front of us is also a recognition of the risk we have in front of us. The general tendency is to expand the size of government when you have this sudden windfall. I really want to resist that effort.”
Lujan Grisham cited a recent court ruling from a state judge in a high-profile case known as the Yazzie lawsuit, saying the state must spend more on public education, including by raising teacher and other education personnel’s salaries. The judge in the case issued a spring 2019 deadline for implementing educational reforms, though current state officials have said they will appeal the decision. She noted New Mexico ranks at the bottom of educational outcomes and has criticized Pearce for backing education spending cuts while in the state Legislature.
“You’ve got to get education right,” she said. “We have to do workforce training. I embrace the (court) decision of Yazzie. That’s going to be a really heavy lift, except they’re (lawmakers) already working on it.”
Lujan Grisham said many Democrats and some Republicans in the Legislature are “very clear we can’t do just the status quo” regarding education.
Asked about how to make state government spending sustainable long-term while also spending more on education, Lujan Grisham said efforts to diversify the state’s economy beyond its reliance upon oil and gas will result in more stable finances. And addressing other area’s of the state’s finances — collecting Internet sales tax and reforming gross receipts taxes, for instance — are part of the equation, she said.
“If we don’t start talking about other revenues, your question has no answer,” she said in a recent interview with the Sun-News.
Pearce said, because he sees the upcoming year’s budget surplus as one-time funds, he doesn’t believe the state has the money available to spend more on recurring education costs.
“We’re not allowed to run a deficit spending,” he said in the recent debate. “And, therefore, if you give more to education, you’re going to take away from other programs, and you will have people lobbying on that.”
The two weighed in on another controversial point under Martinez’s administration, use of the yearly PARCC exam — a type of standardized test — to gauge most students’ achievement. Many teachers and administrators have disapproved of the test and its use in assessing schools and districts’ success or failure. But the Public Education Department under Martinez has pointed to gradual gains in districts’ performance as a positive sign.
Lujan Grisham, who has the support of major teachers’ unions in the state, said she’d seek to get rid of and replace the PARCC exam, among other education reforms.
“I would suggest a fair amount of legislative work and negotiation is going to be on (school) funding, figuring out what we do about the administrative (education) requirements, coming to agreement on a transition for PARCC because I’m not supporting PARCC, making sure we have revenues not just to get more money in the classroom but money to pay teachers more and teachers’ aides and thinking about the entire investment in public education,” she said.
Pearce said he’s undecided about whether he’d want to retain PARCC and would “probably approach the education community to determine that.” He said he’s heard from some educators that the process of going through a change in the testing system with each new governor is a major disruption in itself because it can take several years to implement a new testing plan. Pearce, too, said he would suspend teacher evaluations and convene a group of stakeholders to “figure out how we’re going to evaluate our teachers.”
On recreational marijuana
State lawmakers also have debated changing state laws regarding marijuana use. Medical cannabis use is already authorized in state statute. But proposals to decriminalize marijuana possession or legalize recreational use have also been debated.
Lujan Grisham said shes supports legalizing recreational cannabis use under specific circumstances, including that any law passed protects existing medical cannabis programs; addresses workplace intoxication; public safety; restricts underage use; and regulates the production of edible cannabis products.
“I believe the Legislature has already been working on a package that deals with those issues,” she said. “I have signaled that, if they address those in legislation, I would sign a recreational cannabis bill.”
Pearce said his stance on medical marijuana has softened because he has some friends who’ve had success with it as a treatment, and he said he’d “enforce the law that’s on the books there,” referring to the state’s medical cannabis statute. But he remains opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana use.
“How do you rationalize what we’re trying to do, trying to get people out of poverty and off drugs, if you’re going to make them (drugs) more abundant?” he said.
Looking at health care
Pearce has repeatedly voted in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also dubbed Obamacare, the multifaceted health-care legislation that expanded access to Medicaid for people who’d previously not qualified because they’d been just above the federal poverty line. An estimated 267,000 adults in New Mexico gained coverage.
If elected governor, Pearce said he doesn’t foresee any “major change (to the state’s participation in ACA) just because you get sworn in.”
“Stability is often the most important piece of any operation,” he said. “Probably the most important thing that we would do in the Medicaid population is that, if you’re able-bodied without children and if you’re working age 19 to 59, we’d begin to re-implement work requirements to get your (Medicaid) benefits — to pay your benefits.”
Despite his past support for implementing a drug testing requirement to receive Medicaid benefits, Pearce said he “would not see putting that in.” Rather, he said, as people went back into the workforce, private companies would impose drug testing on their new hires.
Lujan Grisham has been a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act. She said experience and understanding of health care, government and insurance companies in New Mexico and where the problems exist is a “pretty incredible asset,” if elected governor. Plus, she said having been a single mom and serving as a caretaker for her own mother “make a difference in your perspective and your ability to do things.”
“I’ve been a champion and an advocate for New Mexicans,” she said. “I’m a very effective problem solver. I’ve managed to keep most of the relationships bipartisan for decades of work, whether it’s at the state or the county or the private sector or Congress.”
Whoever is elected will serve a four-year term.
Early voting is already underway in Doña Ana County and across the state.
Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443, email@example.com or @AlbaSoular on Twitter.
Michelle Lujan Grisham
Education: BA and JD, University of New Mexico
Occupation: United States Congresswoman
Immediate family: Two daughters, Taylor and Erin; one granddaughter, Avery.
Previous political experience or public service: Secretary of the Department of Health, Secretary of Aging and Longterm Services, Bernalillo County Commissioner
Campaign website: newmexicansformichelle.com
Education: Bachelor’s in economics from NMSU; MBA from Eastern New Mexico University.
Occupation: Current member of U.S. Congress. Former owner of an oilfield services company.
Immediate family: Wife, Cynthia;
Previous political experience or public service: Member of U.S. Congress, 2003-2009 and 2010 to present; member of the New Mexico Legislature, 1996-2000; served as a combat pilot during the Vietnam War
Campaign Website: www.pearcefornm.com
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