ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — Republican incumbent Susana Martinez and Democratic challenger Gary King disagreed Monday over the economy and education in their first appearance together at a candidate forum in New Mexico's race for governor.
King went on the offensive quickly and complained in his opening remarks about a Martinez campaign ad that focused on his role as attorney general in the case of a felon who defrauded investors.
"The real reason that we have ads like that in campaigns now is because we don't want to talk about the real hard truth in New Mexico," said King. "And the real hard truth in New Mexico is that we have the worst economy in the country."
He pointed out that New Mexico has lagged behind other states in job growth and has the second-highest poverty rate in the nation.
Martinez jabbed at King for supporting tax increases to help solve a budget shortfall two decades ago when he served in the Legislature.
"He's has raised taxes before, and he has no regrets. And he'll do it again when government gets into a pinch," Martinez said. "We cannot afford to go backward."
King said the tax increases in 1987 were necessary because public schools would have been harmed if the state hadn't solved its budget problems after oil and gas revenues dropped sharply.
Martinez said tax cuts enacted during her administration have made New Mexico more attractive to businesses. Later in the day, she said, her administration planned to announce a manufacturer was moving to New Mexico from California.
"We have rolled out the welcome mat and companies are coming," said Martinez.
King took issue with the governor's approach to economic development. He said the state "shouldn't sort of go out there and willy-nilly give tax cuts." He suggested focusing on developing the alternative energy industry, such as solar and wind power companies, and promoting new uses for natural gas.
Martinez and King faced off Monday during a forum in Albuquerque hosted by more than a dozen business, real estate and construction groups. About 500 people attended and the forum was broadcast live by a local TV station.
On education, Martinez reiterated her support for legislation to hold back third graders, rather than promoting them to the next class, if they can't read proficiently. Children who struggle to learn in the early grades, she said, are at a greater risk of problems later in school.
The governor also touted a program implemented during her administration for grading schools A-to-F.
King said the state needed to make early childhood education programs available to all children rather than a small portion of the population.
"If we want New Mexico to grow and be better, we have to give every single child in New Mexico the equal opportunity to learn," he said.
The state should increase the yearly distribution from one of New Mexico's permanent funds to help finance an expansion of early childhood education services, King said.
Opponents of the proposal, including Martinez, contend it would erode the fund's growth and lessen distributions for future generations.
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