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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Standing before hundreds of business leaders, Republican Steve Pearce and Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham clashed Monday over whether “right-to-work” legislation banning compulsory union fees should be part of New Mexico’s economic development strategy.
The two gubernatorial candidates – both of whom are giving up safe seats in Congress – also sparred over whether the Republican tax cuts passed last year are promoting economic growth in the country.
But Pearce and Lujan Grisham also treated each other with respect and avoided personal jabs. They hugged after the one-hour forum, sponsored by a coalition of 21 real estate, construction and business groups.
Responding to a question, Pearce said right-to-work legislation passed in other states has helped them recruit new companies. And businesses considering a move to New Mexico, he said, are targeting counties that have adopted similar ordinances.
“Right-to-work simply means we give the workers choice,” Pearce said in a packed ballroom at the Albuquerque Marriott.
Lujan Grisham, in turn, said she “absolutely” disagrees, describing the legislation as one of “the most divisive partisan issues, not just in our state, but in the country.” She then switched gears and used much of her time for the right-to-work question to speak about the need for an overhaul of the state tax system.
The New Mexico Legislature, where Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, has repeatedly rejected proposals that would end the practice of allowing union fees to be required as a condition of employment in unionized workplaces. But some counties have taken up the issue themselves and passed local ordinances.
Lujan Grisham and Pearce are competing in the Nov. 6 election to succeed Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who cannot run this year because of term limits.
Monday’s forum focused on the economy and business issues. About 520 people attended, including business leaders and elected officials.
The sponsors of the event crafted the questions, and Journal Senior Editor Kent Walz served as moderator. Art Tatum, representing NAIOP, the commercial real estate development association, welcomed the audience and started the program with announcements.
It was the first forum for Lujan Grisham and Pearce since the primary election in June.
Lujan Grisham and Pearce each pitched themselves as leaders who would seek bipartisan solutions to improve the economy. The unemployment rate in New Mexico fell to 4.7 percent in July, but it’s still among the highest in the country. Only four states and Washington, D.C., had higher unemployment rates, according to figures released this month.
Pearce, who owned an oil field services company in Hobbs, said he grew up in poverty and understands firsthand the dignity that comes with working hard to succeed. The state, he said, needs to reduce unnecessary regulation, train high school graduates for jobs and make other changes to improve the economic environment.
“New Mexico has an extremely hostile attitude toward businesses,” Pearce said.
He also floated the idea of toll roads in the southeastern part of the state to help handle industrial traffic triggered by the oil boom. Non-toll roads would remain to handle local, non-industrial traffic.
Lujan Grisham, a former state Cabinet secretary and health care consultant, described herself as an engaged leader who has the experience to cut through bureaucracy. She said she would pursue changes to the state’s procurement code to help local companies win state contracts, and she vowed to support construction of a new University of New Mexico hospital to provide more beds for patients who need them.
“Today we need a leader who’s tough, tenacious and pragmatic,” Lujan Grisham said.
The candidates disagreed over the tax cuts backed by President Donald Trump and passed by Congress last year.
Lujan Grisham described the cuts as “irresponsible.” Pearce said the cuts had resulted in a “growing, dynamic economy.”
They also offered different philosophies on minimum wage ordinances and requirements for employers to provide paid sick leave.
Pearce suggested allowing young people to start working at less than the minimum wage, saying he’d started work at just 9 years old. Lujan Grisham, in turn, said the lack of paid time off can force young workers to seek jobs outside the state.
They concluded the forum on friendly terms.
Pearce praised Lujan Grisham’s willingness to run and her public service. She clapped after his closing remarks, and initiated the hug instead of shaking hands.