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Governor hopefuls sing same tune in debate

From left, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gary King, Linda Lopez, Howie Morales, Lawrence Rael and Alan Webber at a debate on Saturday. (James Monteleone/Albuquerque Journal)

From left, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Gary King, Linda Lopez, Howie Morales, Lawrence Rael and Alan Webber at a debate on Saturday. (James Monteleone/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The five Democrats seeking their party’s June 3 nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Susana Martinez in the general election offered similar views on how to grow the state’s economy and improve social services during a forum held Saturday in Albuquerque.

The Democratic candidates for governor – Attorney General Gary King, state Sen. Linda Lopez, state Sen. Howie Morales, government administrator Lawrence Rael and entrepreneur Alan Webber – focused most of their criticism on Martinez’s handling of the state since her 2010 election. They avoided any kind of criticism of one another during the forum sponsored by the state Democratic Party.

Where they offered details about state issues, the five Democrats showed they largely agree.

All five, for example, said they would back a minimum wage of at least $10.10 per hour and would like to see that rate raised still higher to better provide for low-income workers in the state. Martinez in 2013 vetoed a minimum wage increase to $8.50 per hour, saying it would drive businesses to other states where labor is cheaper.

Morales, of Silver City, said the state should go further and raise the minimum wage to at least $11 per hour by 2017. “We can do that by working together and ensuring we protect our small businesses, by moving people out of the poverty level,” Morales said. “… A single income at minimum wage is not going to cut it in this day and age.”

Lopez, of Albuquerque, said the state can start boosting wages by increasing pay to its state employees, although Lopez did not specify a number. “We have to make sure we don’t have state employees who qualify for public assistance, and we do (currently ) have them. It’s on the books,” Lopez said.

Rael, of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, defended the minimum wage increase as good for business because putting more money in workers’ pockets would benefit the state’s economy. “When people have more money in their pockets, they’re spending dollars in the local community, and as a result, the economy continues to move forward,” Rael said.

In addition to the minimum wage increase, several candidates said New Mexico’s strategy for economic growth should include repealing tax incentives created to attract out-of-state corporations.

Webber, of Santa Fe, said the state’s economic development efforts should be more focused on local businesses rather than attempts to woo large corporations with special benefits.

“Our governor seems to think that the way to create jobs is to throw tax breaks at out-of-state corporations and bribe them to come to New Mexico,” Webber said. “I think it’s completely wrong. I believe in a grassroots strategy to build New Mexico’s economies from the grassroots up.”

King, of Moriarty, also said he would focus on growing local small businesses, saying that incentives to build the state economy by luring out-of-state companies have fallen flat.

“That tax cut (passed in 2013) has been on the books for two years now, and New Mexico is the worst, certainly in the West if not in the whole country, in job growth right now,” King said. “How can anybody stand up and say that that’s helping?”

Nearly all of the field of Democrats voiced support for turning back the clock on the Martinez administration’s audit of 15 major behavioral health care providers, some of which were then taken over by Arizona contractors hired by the state. Providers were accused of overbilling state Medicaid funds by an estimated $36 million and had their funding halted.

Other areas the candidates addressed on Saturday with similar views included the need to improve the way the state manages water usage amid ongoing drought conditions and the need to protect the driver’s licenses New Mexico provides to immigrants in the country without proper documentation.

The Martinez campaign, before the debate started, issued a statement accusing Democrats of backing a return to Bill Richardson-era politics.

“While these politicians will descend into negative attacks filled with finger-pointing and absent of constructive ideas, Gov. Susana Martinez will remain focused on moving the state forward with meaningful and substantive reforms ensuring workers, students and parents have greater opportunities today than yesterday,” Martinez campaign spokesman Chris Sanchez said in the statement.

Absentee voting for New Mexico’s June 3 primary election starts Tuesday.