SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez laid out her vision for making New Mexico more economically and academically competitive Tuesday, but top-ranking state Democrats responded by claiming the governor’s plan would help big businesses more than state residents.
Delivering her third State of the State Address since taking office in 2011, Martinez told lawmakers and other elected officials that targeted tax breaks must be passed during the 60-day session for state job growth to keep up with the rates of neighboring states.
“Our goal this session should be to make New Mexico more competitive, to level the playing field so that our small businesses can grow and put more New Mexicans back to work,” the Republican governor said.
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However, while both Martinez and top Democrats called for bipartisan compromise, familiar disagreements on key issues appeared likely to flare up again during the session that began Tuesday and ends March 16.
Senate Democratic Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, who delivered the official Democratic response to the governor’s address, said Martinez’s call for compromise rang hollow.
“I love the attitude of the governor to want to work together … but actions speak louder than words,” Sanchez said. “Focusing on divisive wedge issues does nothing to address the serious challenges we face in job creation, pension solvency and school safety.”
Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature, say those “wedge issues” include Martinez’s push for legislation that would make third-graders who do not show adequate reading proficiency repeat the grade level. There is also lingering disagreement over her call to repeal the 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses.
Martinez said Tuesday that she will continue her efforts on both those issues, but focused much of her 39-minute speech on economic initiatives.
Specifically, she said she will push for the state’s corporate income tax rate to be lowered from 7.4 percent to 4.9 percent and for small businesses to receive a $1,000 tax credit for each job they fill and retain over the next two years.
“I have always said that government doesn’t create jobs – businesses do,” Martinez said. “But I do believe government has an important role in ensuring a level playing field so that New Mexicans can compete fairly.”
In response, Sanchez said Democrats will bring forward their own jobs package that would include an increase in the state’s minimum wage – currently set at $7.50 an hour – and a measure that would require big out-of-state corporations to change how they report their earnings.
“Building an attractive business climate for the state of New Mexico takes more than tax breaks,” Sanchez said, referring to the governor’s plan.
House Minority Whip Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said he believes the Republican and Democratic economic initiatives could ultimately be melded together.
“I think there’s some room to negotiate there,” Gentry said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s clear the status quo isn’t working.”
Meanwhile, Martinez used the example of Anthony Elementary School in southern New Mexico, which has been ranked as one of the state’s top schools despite having 100 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, in touting her education initiatives.
She said more than $11 million should be appropriated for merit-based pay raises that would benefit teachers in schools like Anthony Elementary.
However, Sanchez said the tax cuts proposed by the governor would come at the expense of education funding. He also criticized Martinez for holding repeated “photo ops” at schools.
Much of the governor’s agenda for the 2013 session had been unveiled in recent weeks, which meant most legislators were not surprised by her remarks.
Although Sanchez and other Democrats were skeptical of Martinez’s willingness to compromise, Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales said Martinez sent a bipartisan message during her State of the State address.
“She touched on a lot of the things we need to take a look at and work on,” Ingle said. “Enticing more business into the state of New Mexico means more revenue for everything we need it for, primarily education and business growth.”
Some of the other initiatives Martinez will back during the 60-day session include:
⋄ Tougher sanctions for repeat drunken drivers.
⋄ A requirement that public officials convicted of crimes be removed from office immediately.
⋄ A bill sought by Spaceport America that would limit the liability of spacecraft manufacturers and suppliers.
Despite the state’s sluggish economy and the threat of possible federal budget cuts, Martinez pointed out there are promising signs on the horizon, such as the state having $283 million in “new money” projected for the coming fiscal year.
“While we still have much work to do, the state of our state is getting stronger,” Martinez said.
Journal staff writer Deborah Baker contributed to this report.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal