New Mexico candidates diverge on spending of massive surplus
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Candidates for governor of New Mexico voiced strikingly different priorities on how to spend the state’s staggering budget surplus, amid blistering accusations of incompetence and corruption, at the final public debate of the race on Wednesday evening.
Republican gubernatorial candidate and Congressman Steve Pearce said surging state government income should be channeled toward infrastructure projects that can boost private-sector employment, without increases in sustained spending on more school or state government workers.
State economists are forecasting a $1.2 billion general fund budget surplus for the coming fiscal year linked largely to an oil-sector boom, with unofficial estimates of up to $2 billion.
“I’m saying that we should not use any of that $2 billion for recurring expenses,” Pearce said. “Recurring expenses are when you hire people, when you grow the size of government.”
Democratic contender Michelle Lujan Grisham said some new money should be spent to hire social workers to ensure childhood safety. She also said a recent court order proves that classrooms need more financial resources.
“If you don’t put social workers back in to the Children, Youth and Families Department, then you are not serious about keeping our families and children safe,” Lujan Grisham said.
Pearce accuse Lujan Grisham of failing to address the state’s bulging unfunded pension obligations to public employees. Grisham shot back that she was committed to shoring up the defined-benefits retirement system and highlighted the risks that would come with a switch to individual retirement accounts.
The race for governor has turned increasingly combative, as the two member of Congress vie to succeed the state’s termed-limited Republican governor, Susana Martinez.
Pearce cast himself as “the ultimate outsider,” describing childhood brushes with poverty and emphasizing his support for more vocational training for blue-collar workers — estimating that 75 percent of the local population doesn’t go to college.
Lujan Grisham criticized Pearce for disclosing little about his multimillion-dollar personal fortune, highlighting his lingering financial ties to the oil industry and political affinity toward President Donald Trump.
In 2016, Trump lost the vote in New Mexico by 9 percentage points as Pearce campaigned for him. Pearce has barely mentioned Trump in public appearances while campaigning.
Meanwhile, Pearce painted his opponent as a close associate of former Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who left office eight years ago.
“We must stop the corruption, we cannot go back to the Richardson days,” Pearce said. “That’s where my opponent would take us.”
Lujan Grisham accused Pearce of waging false attacks and embracing a toxic style of politics.
Lujan Grisham led state health agencies under three prior governors including Richardson. She held investments until last year in a company that oversaw a statewide medical insurance program for the severely ill.
Registered Democrats accounted for about 55 percent of early voting statewide through Monday, while Republicans accounted for 33 percent. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to visit a Republican stronghold in southeastern New Mexico on Friday to campaign for Pearce and the Republican candidate for his congressional seat.
Martinez cannot run by law for a consecutive third term. Her popularity has slipped since a landslide re-election victory in 2014, and she has neither endorsed nor campaigned for Pearce.
Previous gubernatorial debates and forums this year have focused on New Mexico’s high poverty rates, troubled public education system and concerns about crime.
Wednesday’s debate explored the candidates’ divergent views about recreational marijuana, gun laws and school safety.
Lujan Grisham said she supports a host of gun-safety measures, including universal background checks on gun purchases and restrictions on firearms for people convicted of domestic abuse.
“We have a constitutional right to be safe in our communities,” Lujan Grisham said.
Pearce said the comments showed his opponent wants to take guns away from people in their home environment.
Asked whether he supports arming teachers, Pearce voiced support for protecting schools from shooters with metal detectors, better entry procedures and by bringing in law enforcement officers.
Lujan Grisham would approve state legalization of recreational marijuana if it included safety measures.
Pearce supports the state’s medical cannabis program but says recreation use would only aggravate poverty and add to parents’ problems.