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District 3 Fight Over Pell Grants

By Phil Parker
Journal Northern Bureau
          A viewer's question on federal aid for college tuition helped showcase the differences between Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Republican challenger Tom Mullins in their third television debate Sunday afternoon.
        In a KOAT-TV/Journal debate, the 3rd Congressional District candidates were presented with a question from a working 20-year-old student whose parents can't help with tuition about whether the candidates support federal funding for assistance like Pell grants.
        Mullins responded that there is no constitutional mandate requiring the United States government to help with college costs.
        "I think the representative must look like Santa Claus to everybody out there," Mullins said, "because there's not a magic money tree in Washington, D.C., that you go to and you shake it and all the money falls out and then you hand that around."
        Though he believes education is very important, Mullins said, "I don't see in our Constitution of the United States of America, which will be my guide in Washington, where the role and responsibility is to help the 20-year-old go to school." He said his advice to the viewer was to work hard.
        Luján, a first-term representative, said 54,000 New Mexicans use Pell grants to help pay for higher education and called cutting them a "dangerous idea."
        "People need to work hard," Luján said. "But sometimes they need a little bit of help, Tom." He said Mullins would "cut their legs right out from under them."
        Mullins, a Farmington oil and gas engineer and businessman, repeatedly criticized excess government spending and cast the election as a choice between "a legacy of debt or a legacy of prosperity."
        "If we do not step forward now, at this critical juncture in the United States of America, we will be on the road to socialism," Mullins said.
        He repeatedly called Luján — son of Ben Lujan, speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives — a "ruling-class politician."
        Mullins said his own candidacy represents "the real course of freedom."
        Luján reiterated his support for the Obama administration's federal stimulus program, which included, he said, "the largest tax cut for middle-class families in the history of the U.S., for 95 percent of working-class families in New Mexico."
        Mullins said the stimulus was "the wrong thing to do. The only thing we've stimulated is more federal government, more control of our lives." The federal government cannot create jobs, Mullins said, only the private sector can.
        Luján also accused Mullins of having "a secret tax plan," though exactly what that meant wasn't articulated during the debate. Mullins said he favors a 10 percent tax rate.
        "That's the amount we give to our churches, that ought to be the amount we give to our government," Mullins said.
        On the question of growing the economy of Mora County, one of the state's poorest and often near the bottom in national rankings, Mullins said he wants to see Mora's timber industry grow. He said regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency were hindering the county's growth, harming the oil and gas sector and called the timber business a "green" industry.
        "What we need to do is roll back some of the regulations that have harmed that timber industry," he said, "the spotted owl, in particular, (being placed) on the Endangered Species Act. We need to allow for common-sense management of our public lands, not the straight-out protection that doesn't allow for development."
        Luján said New Mexico's colleges should help develop a stronger agricultural business base for areas such as Mora, then accused Mullins of telling voters in Rio Arriba County who said they couldn't find jobs that "if you can't find a job in Rio Arriba then you should move."
        Said Mullins: "The congressman doesn't understand this — you might actually have to move to find a job within the congressional district. I sure don't want you to move out of state, but if you can move 20 miles down the road or 30 miles down the road to get off the dependency culture that we have right now, then that's what you need to do. That's a solution."
        The 3rd Congressional District covers all of northern New Mexico, Quay, Curry, and Roosevelt counties, most of Sandoval County, including Rio Rancho, and a small area of northwest Bernalillo County.
        Luján also brought up a statement that has dogged Mullins, his comment in a May radio interview about placing land mines on the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent illegal crossings. Mullins has said repeatedly since then that he doesn't support the idea and that was an idea that someone brought up on the campaign trail.
        "You said we should put land mines on the border and put signs up in 23 different languages so people knew that they were there," Luján said.
        "You called Social Security socialism," Luján continued. "You said we should get rid of the Department of Education and slash funding for programs like Pell grants. Common sense tells me that those are bad ideas."
        Responded Mullins: "Let me be real clear, and I might have to speak slowly so that the congressman understands it. I have never advocated putting land mines on the border. I have common sense solutions, my opponent does not. He (has) stepped forward at every single opportunity and taken away your freedom."

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