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First face-off focuses on schools, tax cuts, economy

Gov. Susana Martinez and Democratic challenger Gary King sparred Monday over schools, tax cuts and New Mexico’s economic direction in the first of three planned face-offs between the two gubernatorial candidates.

At an Albuquerque forum sponsored by NAIOP, and other real estate and construction organizations, the two candidates each cited job creation and public education as top priorities but laid out different approaches to addressing them.

King, the state’s two-term attorney general, said Martinez’s attempts to stimulate the state’s economy with corporate tax breaks have not worked, also contending the state’s high rate of poverty is stifling economic growth.

“We’ve been going the wrong direction for the last four years on economic development,” said King, who advocated a significant increase in the state’s $7.50-per-hour minimum wage and more spending on early childhood education as among his top priorities.

Martinez, a Republican who is seeking re-election to a second four-year term, said her administration has worked to diversify the state’s economy, while also restoring public trust in government.

“We have rolled out the welcome mat, and companies are coming,” said Martinez, who later Monday announced that a manufacturing company had relocated to Rio Rancho from California. The company is expected to employ about 50 people at jobs averaging $50,000 a year.

Martinez also renewed her criticism of King for voting in 1987, as a member of the state Legislature, in favor of a hefty tax increase.

“He has raised taxes before, and he has no regrets. And he’ll do it again when government gets into a pinch,” Martinez charged. “We cannot afford to go backward.”

King challenged Martinez’s claim that she has given more control to local school boards, saying the Martinez administration has sought to implement a “corporate” model for K-12 schools.

“I believe the best thing we can do to improve education is to put it back in the hands of professional educators,” King said.

Martinez said New Mexico had the biggest improvement in high school graduation rates in the nation in a recent five-year period – the rate is still among the nation’s lowest – and urged members of the business community to support controversial legislation that would mandate that third-graders who cannot read proficiently should repeat the grade level.

The governor also took aim at King on energy issues, saying King has been “extremely hostile” to the state’s oil and gas industry as attorney general.

King did not directly respond to the attack, although he later acknowledged the importance of the oil and natural gas sector to the state’s economy.

As attorney general, King appealed the Martinez administration’s 2013 rules governing copper mining and groundwater.

He said Monday that the copper rules could lead to pollution of New Mexico’s aquifers, an assertion contested by Martinez.

The questions were written by NAIOP members and reviewed in advance by Martinez and King. They then took turns answering each question.

Martinez, the nation’s first Hispanic female governor, has been leading King by a comfortable margin in recent polls on the governor’s race. A Journal Poll earlier this month found 54 percent of likely voters supporting Martinez, with 36 percent backing King.

Martinez also holds a significant financial advantage over her opponent, with less than two months before the Nov. 4 general election. Martinez reported Sept. 8 having $3.8 million in her campaign war chest, compared with $157,730 for King.

King began Monday’s forum by objecting to a recent Martinez campaign ad asserting that the Attorney General’s Office made a deal to get a politically connected con man out of prison 27 years early.

He said the Martinez campaign ad on the case of Michael Soutar, dubbed the Casanova Con Man, has distracted from more pressing issues, including the state economy.

The Martinez campaign ad claimed King’s office agreed to Soutar’s early release after being lobbied to do so. Soutar had been convicted of felony charges related to an investment scam that targeted Santa Fe artists.

But Attorney General’s Office general counsel David Pederson told a news conference last week that there was no agreement to reduce Soutar’s sentence and that the decision to release him early was made unilaterally by a state judge.

Journal Editor Kent Walz served as moderator for the forum, which was attended by about 500 people and broadcast live by KOB-TV.

Two more face-offs between the two candidates are scheduled. They are an Oct. 6 Spanish-language debate to be televised on Univision and an Oct. 19 debate that is sponsored by KOAT-TV and the Albuquerque Journal .

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