Governor Susana Martinez gave her 2014 State of the State address Tuesday at the state capitol in Santa Fe. She spoke before a joint session of the house and senate and touted the success of a tax package that was passed controversially at the very end of last year’s legislative session.
“Less than one year ago, in a display of tremendous bi-partisanship, we passed the most significant tax reform in a generation and sent the loudest message yet- that New Mexico is striving to be a business friendly state,” Martinez said.
The measure did things like cut corporate tax rates, while also requiring out-of-state corporations to pay income tax. Martinez challenged lawmakers to diversify New Mexico’s economy.
“Our charge this session is to build an economy as diverse as the state we are proud to call our home,” she said.
The economy here has been slow to rebound from the recession and critics of the Governor say she’s done little to help the state recover.
Democratic State Senator Bill Soules from Doña Ana County said the Governor skirted around the most pressing issues facing New Mexicans today, including poverty and a lack of jobs.
“The tax cuts that have been pushed under her administration have not resulted in any real job growth,” Soules explained, “and she didn’t have any new plans or ideas for any of those.”
Soules said he had wanted to hear a call for New Mexico to become a leader in solar energy and low-water use agricultural industries.
Third Grade Retention
Martinez also called for lawmakers to pass her third grade retention measure that would prevent students from moving on to the fourth grade if they can’t read proficiently. She cited statistics that show if a child can’t read proficiently he or she is four times more likely to drop out before finishing high school.
“Let's not play games!” the Governor exclaimed. “Let’s finally make sure children are promoted when they are prepared and that every New Mexico child can read by the end of the third grade.”
She pointed out that students shouldn’t be set up for failure and that some just need another year to catch up.
But Senator Soules, in the Democratic response to the State of the State address, said the statistics the Governor referred to in her address, mainly a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, also show that poverty is a much better predictor of reading level proficiency and drop-out rates.
“And I always am wondering why the Governor chooses to focus on retaining third graders,” he said, “rather than retaining children who are in poverty. I mean that in kind of a snide way.”
Soules said Democrats would like to see the Governor do more to create jobs and ensure workers are earning living wages in order to lift children and families out of poverty.
The Governor outlined several other education reforms including funding for teacher evaluations and merit pay.
“It is an honorable profession. Next to their parents, the adults children see most in life are their teachers.” Martinez continued, “We should support our teachers with additional pay. Reward and recognize effective teachers. And it is time that we raise the minimum salary for starting teachers by 10 percent.”
That means starting salaries for teachers would go from $30,000 to $33,000 a year.
Martinez’s agenda also calls for targeted raises for state police, correctional officers, and healthcare workers.
But Democrats want to see pay raises across the board for all state employees. Senator Soules said giving raises to only some state workers isn't the way to go.
“The state employees, which include all the teachers, were the ones who bore the brunt of the economic downturn,” Soules said. “Once we have met the need, and got people back up to where they were prior to the recession, then we might start looking at targeted areas that have low wages and need to be brought up as a group.”
Martinez also asked lawmakers to dedicate over half of this year’s capitol improvement dollars to fix the state’s aging water infrastructure. which the Governor said was in a state of crisis.
“As governor, I have seen first hand the effects of our devastating drought,” Martinez explained, “the one-two punch of wildfires and floods destroying watersheds and threatening communities. We cannot control the duration or intensity of the drought we face but we can control our response to it.”
Martinez called for 60 percent of this year’s capitol outlay funding to be distributed to communities that need the help most.
But Democrats complain they have been left largely out of the discussion on how the funds would be distributed and which communities are determined to be most in need.
Senator Soules said he thinks the Governor will get more support if she agrees to work more collaboratively across the aisle.
“I think all legislators recognize the importance of water to the state of New Mexico. And I think she would get much better response from the Democrats, and all legislators, if she would include us in that process.”
Soules said many Democrats are leery that the water infrastructure initiative is a purely political move.