With the majority of candidates in the hunt for county and state offices in attendance at a forum last month, mediators only had enough time to ask each group a couple of questions submitted in writing by audience members.
The forum, hosted by the Medical Care Advocates of Valencia County, drew several hundred residents out to the University of New Mexico-Valencia campus auditorium to hear from candidates running for county commission as well as the state legislature.
The first question was directed at the Valencia County commission candidates, asking how the county could duplicate the success the village of Los Lunas has had in its economic development efforts.
County Commissioner Jhonathan Aragon, the Republican incumbent for District 5, said the county needed to reach out to the village.
“What are they doing to attract businesses? I’m sure there are things we can take away from their plan and help us both,” Aragon said.
His opponent, Democrat Christian Garcia said Los Lunas is booming because of its infrastructure.
“We need to put it in place in the rest of the county and Belen to bring businesses and jobs,” Garcia said.
Commissioner Alicia Aguilar, Democrat, District 2, said they need to have the county as an umbrella and partner with the five municipalities to identify strengths and weaknesses.
“We shouldn’t pit one against the other. We talk about agriculture. That is huge economic development. I would like to see an update to the county’s comprehensive plan and help other municipalities,” Aguilar said.
Billy Ray Martinez, the Republican challenger for District 2, said there is a beautiful high school on the county’s east side — Valencia High School.
“But there are no lights and you get lost going there if you’re not a local. We need something for the kids on the east side,” Martinez said.
He also touched on agriculture, noting that row cropping of vegetables used to be much more common in the county.
“That is a basic place to start. We need to work with other communities, with activities based around kids,” he said.
County Commission Chairman Charles Eaton, Democrat, District 4, said economic development has been a constant topic of discussion for the last year, especially in that it was usually a comparison of Los Lunas and the city of Belen.
“I’ve been talking to individuals, developers, realtors and the response I’ve gotten is Belen and Los Lunas have a plan; (the) county has somewhat of a plan, but it’s not a unified front,” Eaton said. “We’re all carrying a little bit. We need to be Valencia County united. When Valencia County prospers, we all prosper. We need to bring all the players to the table and find a solution together.”
Republican Paulette Kaminski, the write-in candidate running against Eaton, was not at the forum.
Directed to the candidates running for state Senate and House of Representative seats, an audience member wanted to know what the legislature can do about the condition of state roads in Valencia County.
Greg Baca, who is a Republican running for the District 29 Senate seat, said that comes down to economics.
“We need to start passing pro-business legislation. We can’t rely year after year on capital outlay. We need a tax base and have to look at deregulation to increase the number of jobs,” Baca said. “If we have people working and spending in the community, those wages translates into taxes and we won’t have to tax more.”
He said the two key components are to get people working again and improve education.
Sen. Michael Sanchez, the Democratic incumbent for District 29, said in his 24 years in the Senate, he has brought $30 million for infrastructure projects to Valencia County.
“As for the state roads, the problem started under Johnson who had an idea. We were supposed to have an interchange but he made a deal with the Los Lunas council that reallocated the funds and finally would have had us indebted until 2022,” Sanchez said. “There is very little money in the road fund, and the county commissioners got some but it was a disaster. You remember GRIP, a failed experiment by Richardson, and this administration has done nothing. We need to get the money into the counties.”
Democrat Jim Danner, who is running for the District 8 House of Representatives seat against Republican incumbent Alonzo Baldonado, said there are many problems but they can only be solved with money.
“You can cut ... but we need a way to get money. We all want everything but we don’t want to pay anything. Whoever is elected is going to have those problems,” Danner said. “Small businesses employ most of the people. Where is the money going to come from? These are tough choices. What’s that word? Oh yeah — taxes.”
Baldonado said his opponent was “kind of talking out both sides of his mouth,” advocating for lower taxes on small businesses but then saying the money for problems like roads will have to come from higher taxes.
“We have to look at economic development that everyone will drive. We need good jobs, economic base jobs, and growth,” Baldonado said. “We need to educate our kids and provide great jobs so they stay here instead of leave, which is what they do now.”
District 7 House of Representatives Democratic candidate Arturo Fierro said there are places where they still don’t have roads in that community.
“We need to think outside the box. Maybe talk to small businesses, see if we can partner for state and federal money,” Fierro said.
District 7 incumbent Republican Kelly Fajardo wasn’t at the forum.
Swinging back to the commission candidates, the next question noted that most rural hospitals are supported by a city, county or the state, and asked if the candidates would support a long-term mill levy for a county hospital.
There needs to be an actual plan, Aragon said, and the issue needs to get out of litigation.
“We have to come together as an entire county and come up with a plan that is feasible and will last, then I will consider something long term,” he said. “People really want health care and I think we’re on the verge, but before we consider a mill levy we need an actual option and plan.”
Garcia pointed out the shortage of providers and nurses in New Mexico and nationwide, saying he had more questions he wanted answered.
“We need to see how long it will last. Who is going to staff it? Do we need to have a hospital? Any vote should result in everybody getting services,” he said.
Aguilar said the county hasn’t had medical care for the last three decades, that there’s $25 million in the bank and years of litigation that has determined the hospital mill levy can only be used for operation and maintenance.
“The money is there and we don’t have a hospital. Sure now we have the funding but do we have the public trust? This facility can’t be politically altered,” Aguilar said. “It will bring jobs and safety, and make us a better county.”
Since there hasn’t been a successful hospital in Belen, Martinez said there needed to be a structure in place to show how a new hospital proposed in Belen would be managed and how it would be different this time.
“People are still going to Albuquerque,” he said.
Since the current mill levy issue hasn’t been resolved, Eaton said he would not support something long term until both he and the residents could see the benefit.
“There has been a lot of frustration they have shown me,” he said. “The voters have to show support and right now I think they will overwhelmingly oppose it.”
The final question of the evening to the legislative candidates pointed out that the state is pretty much at the bottom of every important ranking — from education to child poverty and hunger. The question asked what commitment the candidates would make to better serve the children and families in Valencia County.
Fierro said early education and after school programs are vital, as well as making sure children have enough to eat.
“Kids get home around 2:30 or 3:30 in the afternoon and there is nothing to eat so we start with food,” he said. “We need to do more to help schools identify students with learning disabilities earlier. The higher students go the harder problems are to detect. They get better at hiding them from their teachers.”
When New Mexico struggles, so does Valencia County, Baldonado said, and if anything, it is going to be worse.
“We have the highest number of kids in foster care. We need to do better taking care of our own,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase in the budget for programs in early childhood education and things like breakfast before the bell.”
A bill was introduced last year that would have helped retain teachers in early childhood education programs, Danner said. It was a bipartisan bill that Baldonado voted against he said.
“There’s $17 billion in the permanent fund but (the House) won’t touch it for early childhood education,” Danner said. “I’ve been a high school principal. By the time (students) get to ninth grade, it’s too late.”
An additional $6 million was allocated by the Legislature to CYFD a few years ago, Sanchez said, to hire more caseworkers.
“The governor gave the money back. The Senate introduced a bill to reach into the permanent fund. The House wouldn’t even consider it,” he said. “I know we can do better. The House has denied any time we have asked for money for education under this administration.”
Seeing as the state is 49th in education, Baca said he only had one thing to say.
“Thank God for Louisiana. We need solutions, to come together and reach down deep,” he said. “We can’t have a blood feud in the Legislature led by (Sanchez) and the governor. We have to look specifically at the child individually. We need good families, good communities, and work together and use common sense.”
The VCNB candidate profiles and other election information can be found in our Elections 2016 section.