Rep. Christine Chandler/Courtesy photo
David E. Hampton
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
In their first candidate’s forum of the campaign state District 43 Rep. Christine Chandler, Democrat, and her Republican challenger David Hampton faced off by Zoom Tuesday in an event moderated by Patrick Sullivan, executive director of Los Alamos Commerce and Development and Ryn Herrmann, executive director of the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce.
The two candidates were asked their plans to diversify the state economy so that it could better withstand oil prices fluctuations with less impact to state revenue. Hampton said his plans are to make it easier businesses to do business in New Mexico.
“I think reforming the state tax code is number one in that regard. Number two is probably improving education. Number three is reducing the violent crime rate. All three of those things make it easier and more profitable to do business in New Mexico,” he said. “I’d also like to review regulations to see if there are any that could be removed to make it easier to do business.”
He also suggested reducing taxes and establishing economic opportunity zones in certain areas of the state that could benefit from them.
“In general, my plan to diversify the economy is just to make it easier to do business here so that we get more businesses to move in and make it easier for some of our start-ups to succeed,” Hampton said.
Chandler in response said companies rarely identify taxes or regulations as impediments to locating in a state.
“What companies look for (and this is documented) is an educated and trained workforce and sufficient infrastructure to support their operations. We have neither of those in the state and have not for a long time,” she said.
Chandler said the state needs to ensure that kids are well-educated and that the state has a trained workforce.
“That’s what draws employers to states. We can debate the tax code. You can’t compare tax codes between states because they’re all different and they all emphasize different things. We need an educated and trained workforce. We’re moving in that direction,” she said. “In addition, we need infrastructure. That means we need to invest in our roads, which we have done, have been doing and will continue to do. Broadband is a huge problem and that is something that we need a concerted effort to ensure that we have access to high-speed efficient interne across the state. There will be push I’m certain in the next few years to do that.”
Chandler said there are already plans in the works to consolidate responsibility for broadband and telecommunication services.
“We’re looking for opportunities to infuse public monies and develop public-private partnerships with ICPs to develop broadband in underserved areas. We’re attempting to find ways to leverage federal funds,” she said. She added that rights of way problems are also an issue because the state is riddled with federal, state and sovereign lands and that an approach is needed that will address the inability of internet service to get through some of those lands.
“That’s a big, tall order but we really need to address the broadband issue and other infrastructure issues before businesses are going to be interested in coming to the state,” she said.
Chandler agrees with Hampton that the tax code needs to be simplified. In her opening statement she noted that she is a member of two important standing committees – Taxation & Revenue and the House Judiciary.
“The tax code needs to be simplified and warrants a lot of reconsideration and I am working very hard to get a handle on how that should proceed,” she said. She noted that the legislature had a very productive two years,
“We took on numerous issues that have been lying dormant for the previous 8-10 years that are business friendly and education friendly. There’s still lots more that needs to be done and that’s why I’m running for reelection to try and continue the momentum we’ve been creating and interacting with the business community across the state,” Chandler said.
Hampton said he would like to grow and strengthen the community through involvement in building relationships, also through respect.
“The reason I decided to run is because I’m concerned by our state government’s inability to solve persistent problems. We seem to be last in many good things and first in many bad things. For instance we’re last in educational outcomes, second worst in violent crime, first in suicide and alcohol-related death rate. We’re at the bottom end of economic opportunity and we recently climbed to the fifth highest unemployment rate in the nation which is about double that of most of our neighbors,” he said.
He said the tax code unfairly burdens small local business owners and favors large out-of-state corporations.
“We release many violent and repeat offenders from prison shortly after their arrests. We have a costly, top-heavy educational system which does not meet the needs of our culturally diverse state. We tax social security still. Twenty five percent of New Mexicans do not have access to broadband. I feel these are all things that can and should be fixed,” Hampton said.
He noted that in addition, to solving the persistent problems, he wants to preserve traditional values including outlook on life, self-sufficiency, personal responsibility, self-determination, religious expression and “our right to protect our families, ourselves and our communities”.
“I support local law enforcement and do not support defunding of police. At the same time, we need to ensure that all our citizens are treated equally and have the same opportunity to succeed and the same access to prosperity and equal protection under the law,” Hampton said. “I’m also concerned about how divisive and uncivil our political dialog has become. If we disagree on issues and how to solve them, we’re not enemies. I believe we can respect one another and move forward to solve our problems together.”
The two candidates were asked in your discussions with constituents over the last six months regarding assistance for business during the pandemic or any other emergency situation, what policy revisions they would pursue to make it easier for local municipalities to directly assist their businesses. Hampton again noted he would like to reform the tax code.
“Right now we have a tax code that unfairly burdens small businesses and supports large businesses with gross receipts tax. All receipts are taxed so a small business typically doesn’t have a lot if in-house labor. Whenever they use an accountant or a janitor, or anybody else, they have to pay gross receipts tax on that. Larger corporations that have a lot of those services in-house do not have to pay GRT on those services so they have an advantage,” he said.
He added that he would also like to start looking at government regulations and where they’re unfair and unnecessary he’d like to remove them to make it easier to actually do business in New Mexico.
“In regards to the pandemic, I’m hearing a lot of talk about governments picking winners and losers. When government issues guidance on social distancing and hygiene, I’d like to give businesses the opportunity to decide how they’re going to meet them for businesses organizations and events to see if they can come up with a way to still stay in business and meet those guidelines,” he said.
Chandler referred to the Economic Recovery Package the legislature passed during the interim session. “I’m hearing now it needs to be fine-tuned and I’m expecting that we will fine-tune it in the next session based on how it’s working now. We also passed a bill that provided tax relief to small businesses during the pandemic so that businesses and individuals would be allowed to pay their taxes late without penalty if there was some issue in terms of what they owed and whether or not they were able to meet those payments in a timely way,” she said. “Another thing I’ve been hearing from the business community both locally and statewide is how can we create a grant system, perhaps to municipalities, that they can implement.”
Chandler said loans are helpful and that the state has tried to develop a loan program that is user friendly and easy to access.
“The question of course, is whether it’s working and I am concerned that perhaps it is not, based on what I have been reading recently. A grant program is something I know the business community would like to see and the question is how can we develop a creative solution that is within the bounds of the Anti-Donation Clause,” she said.
The candidates were asked what their plan is to improve the quality of New Mexico education given that it is directly linked to successful economic development.
Chandler said this needed to be put into perspective.
“The prior administration I felt starved education and did not put an appropriate focus on ensuring that all students received a high-quality public education. In the last two years we have passed a number of bills that were intended to focus on programs that we know work for example early childhood and pre-K programs. We created the department whose main function and focus will be ensuring that we set a great foundation for young people before and during the time that they enter elementary school. We know that child visitation works. We have developed very strong child visitation programs and we should continue to do that. We’ve invested in pre-K. We’ve developed funding formulas that target at-risk schools which is very important,” Chandler said.
She noted that unfortunately, too many students in the state do not start out prepared to enter a public school system.
“We need to help support families so that we’re creating the foundation for children to enter school and be competitive with those children that have received the strong foundation. We have passed bills in the past two years and the governor has proposed programs that will do that. I expect that we will continue to be working on innovative approaches to support kids as they rise through the system,” Chandler said. “In addition I think we need to create and continue to create vocational programs for kids so that young people have choices, not just college education, but also vocational learning opportunities.”
Hampton said during his time in New Mexico, the state has always been at the bottom or near the bottom in educational outcomes.
“Until this year, it looks like we were spending more per student than any of the states around us. I think a couple of states have passed us a little bit. I don’t think money is the solution and I don’t believe public schools can work out all the problems that exist. So what I support is school of choice. I’d like to give parents the opportunity to choose how and where to educate their kids and I’d like the money to follow those choices,” he said.
He said in Los Alamos he thinks most people would want their kids to go to the public schools because they’re excellent.
“But for instance in the Navajo Nation we don’t seem to be able to get any movement there. I know we have a hard time getting teachers to even go out there and teach because there’s less for them to do. So I think choice will work especially well out there and they can choose more culturally appropriate delivery systems for education,” Hampton said. “Can you imagine what a teacher going out there with a small classroom would collect from all the students that chose to receive education from her? That teacher would be rather highly paid and hopefully successful and hopefully we could get people who are actually part of the culture to join in.”
He said other areas where it would probably be useful is for low income single moms who have to work minimum wage jobs.
“What if we paid them to stay home and educate their kids? That would probably improve education in the areas where they live and would create economic opportunity for that mom,” Hampton said.
He said he is also interested in is going back to making elected school board a management board instead of an advisory board.
“That way we could eliminate those two educational cabinet positions we currently pay for. I would assume one of the things the state board would do would be push down control of education to the municipalities which I think would be really good, especially in those places where they could actually move on to vocational education,” Hampton said.
The final question for the candidates was whether or not they would support a review of the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) and the metrics attached to it so it is more flexible and can be utilized by more businesses to start, and grow. Chandler said she would and went on to discuss how LEDA was crafted to implement the exception to the Anti-Donation Clause and that its indent is laudable in that it sets performance measures and requirements such as job creation for the entities that receive funding.
“We want to ensure that state monies are not just given away without any expectation of performance measures. It may be that those measures are no longer viable or appropriate given our changing economy and I think it would be very useful if we took a very close look as to how do we measure the performance of those entities that receive state monies,” she said. “We have done some things to improve LEDA. For example last year we passed a law that allows state investment in local business parks as part of LEDA. Many small communities don’t have the funds to develop the infrastructure in their business parks so this allows the state to do that in advance of even having any business interested”
She noted that it’s a “chicken and egg” and that if the state supports the development of that park there may be a bigger likelihood that a business will want to locate there when they know there’s already the appropriate infrastructure for them to use.
Hampton said he agreed with everything Chandler said about LEDA.
“I like how LEDA will help our local communities build infrastructure but I don’t want to rely too much on LEDA. I’d still rather make it easier for small businesses to succeed on their own in New Mexico. In order for our small businesses to succeed and have a better chance at success, we need to reform the tax code. I can’t stress enough how vital that is at this point,” Hampton said.
Given the opportunity to speak to any issues they wished, Hampton said the state should be reopening the economic as rapidly and as safely as possible.
“We don’t know when the vaccine will be available if that’s what we’re waiting for. We don’t know how effective it will be. If it’s only going to be as effective as a flu vaccine, I don’t have a lot of hope for that. I’m not saying open everything entirely, but I would like to move in that direction,” he said. “I also think that when the legislature meets, it needs to review the governor’s authority regarding emergency health orders and that after a certain point, extensions of the health order, since they have such a large impact on the state, it’s a lot for one person to decide and I think the person that makes that decision should have other input so at some point, extending the public health order should probably be approved by the state legislature.”
Chandler chose to speak on healthcare which she said is being chipped away at the federal level to such a degree that she feels states are going to be given greater and greater responsibility in terms of supporting citizens to ensure they get adequate healthcare. She addressed a bill limiting the amount a person has to pay for insulin in the state to $25 and another bill that allows the state negotiate with Canada on bulk rate prescription drugs.
“Healthcare is something that’s going to be on our agenda again and continue to be something that’s very important in the state and I’m committed, and I think the legislature working with the governor is committed to try to bring costs down and ensure that a minimum level of healthcare is offered to all residents of the state,” she said.