House hopefuls: Regulation, education key to state future

Written by on September 14, 2016

Four weeks away from early voting, candidates for local districts of the New Mexico Legis- lature have had plenty of time on the campaign trail to listen to constituents’ needs. Candidates for Districts 38 and 39 of the N.M. House of Representatives laid out those needs and what they would do to solve them at a candidates forum Tuesday night.

As in most races this year, job opportunities in the local economy and education at all levels topped both the list of needs and the questions asked by moderator, Silver City Grant County Chamber of Commerce President Scott Terry, at the Western New Mexico University Global Resource Center.

“Jobs, jobs and more jobs,” said Republican District 39 state Rep. John Zimmerman, the only incumbent on the panel. “Opportunity. It doesn’t exist. We educate our children and they don’t stay home because there are no jobs for them. One only has to look at our declining population, which has declined in the last three years.”

This problem with retention of younger generations due to the economy was a subject of near- ly every candidate’s statements about the economy.

Politically, Zimmerman blamed Democrats.

“We have suffered from many ills, but our state has never had a true two-party system,” he said. “Our House just changed to Republican for the second time in 64 years. Our Senate has never had a Republican majority. Look at your state history. You’ll see what the problem is.”

Despite that opening salvo, Zimmerman was joined by Republican District 38 candidate Rebecca Dow — and the Democratic candidates on some points — in looking at regulations as a primary culprit.

“Government-imposed rules and regulations, whatever the intention, make things difficult for business owners,” Dow said. She pointed to recent New Mexico Public Regulation Commission dealings with energy provider PNM, which she claimed would cost the company hundreds of jobs. The regulations Dow targeted don’t affect just large energy companies though, but small businesses that need to renovate a building, for instance. “Out of all 50 states, we are the only one that does not have uniform procedures through which a business owner can work.”

Instead, she said, they have to work with multiple agencies, with often contradictory requirements. “Three different departments, all using the same background checks, but none working together. We will have more money to spend on what we need to spend them on if we stop the duplicative red tape.”

Dow said she would like to see involvement from the local level working to change regulations.

“I have yet to see a new rule or regulation that helps the small business,” she said, recalling a preacher who had to renovate his whole church because the windows were two inches too tall. “I would like to bring the workforce together and allow those people most affected by the rules and regulations to be part of shaping the changes they need.”

Zimmerman focused on reeling in the big fish with looser regulations on larger companies.

“Some regulations are necessary,” Zimmerman said, “but many aren’t.” He suggested that one way to take care of regulations and other “bad” legislation is with sunset clauses, while acknowledging that was an unpopular point of view in Santa Fe. In the end, he said, everything came down to making the state “business friendly”: “If we aren’t, we cannot attract what we need. We must focus on an atmosphere that will foster multinational companies to come in. That in turn will create other local jobs. For every multinational company that comes in, we’re looking at at least 10 more jobs here.”

The Democrats also agreed that some regulations go too far.

“We do have a problem with redundancy and red tape,” Democratic District 38 candidate Mary Hotvedt said. “And in some ways, we have to change those.”

“We need to go in and analyze, and it can’t be done in one session, to make sure they’re still valid and enforceable,” said Democratic candidate and former District 39 state Rep. Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez. “We have to make sure they do not have a negative effect on our residents.”

More than the regulations, though, the Democrats focused on tax breaks for large corporations and corruption at the top level of government.

“We need to make sure we have a strong, vibrant discussion in the Legislature to make sure we are going in the right direction,” Martinez said. “We need to look at our tax structure, make sure we are not giving away the benefits to large corporations.”

“We have to look at what tax breaks work, what breaks don’t,” Hotvedt said. “What affect the large majority of the middle class, not just the upper crust.”

Hotvedt also said corruption has taken its toll on various aspects of the economy and social life.

“If we cut down on corruption and increase transparency in all state budgets, we will likely see where money goes,” she said. She pointed specifically to the unproven allegations of fraud against community mental health providers by Gov. Susana Martinez’s Human Services Department, which ultimately crippled the providers and left hundreds of patients without services, but opened a space for La Frontera, a mental health giant from Arizona.

Economics are not an island, though, and several candidates tied them closely to the troubled education system in the state.

“We have recognized our students are leaving,” Rudy Martinez said. “But our educated teachers are also leaving the state in droves.”

One way to ensure the retention of competent teachers, candidates posited, would be for the state to get out of their way.

“To avoid teachers leaving the state, or even the education field, we have to — like in other countries — treat our teachers as professionals, not as babysitters,” Martinez said. That not only means pay, he said, but also allowing them to teach children and not to the test.

“We need to free up our teachers to really teach and be creative in the classroom, to be able to recognize the special needs of each student,” Hotvedt said.

Republican Dow also agreed that children need to spend “a lot less time testing.”

Dow, who is a longtime advocate for early childhood programs, said those changes in curriculum will help enrich children if coupled with action before they ever reach the schoolhouse.

“Before children can be active learners in the classroom, they have to feel safe and ready at home,” Dow said. “We have to create support for things outside the school day.”

Hotvedt championed the formation of a Department of Childhood Development to assume the work now being done by three agencies that she said touch on just a piece of the state’s youngest population.

Martinez spoke to problems at the executive level of the Public Education Department.

“First, we need a secretary of education that has educational experience and, if possible, has had children in school,” Martinez said.

In addition to education and the economy, a question from the moderator gathered candidate opinions on the increasingly popular notion of an open primary — one in which voters would not need to register as a member of a party to vote in a party primary election in the spring.

Dow, Hotvedt and Martinez all supported the idea, having heard overwhelming support from constituents during their campaigns. Each pointed to the growing numbers of voters registering as independent as evidence of the need.

Zimmerman was less convinced.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to a closed primary,” he said. “Of course, an advantage is like-minded people can vote for their candidate without outside influence. I think local elections would be best served by non-partisan elections. State and national are best served by closed primaries.”

That approach comes close to the system the state has now with non-partisan municipal elections. Zimmerman said he would support a statewide popular vote on the topic to give the choice to the constituents.

Tuesday’s forum was organized and sponsored by the Grant County Prospectors, Silver City Regional Association of Realtors, Silver City Grant County Chamber of Commerce, WNMU and Silver City Radio.