New Mexico Guv Martinez says ‘dysfunctional’ federal government ends up hurting the states

The Colorado Statesman

One of the rising stars in the Republican Party swung through Denver this week, touting her recent successes reining in taxes and promoting business interests in her state.

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez spoke Wednesday to an audience of about 400 at the annual luncheon meeting of the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, held at the Hyatt Regency at the Colorado Convention Center.

Martinez rose to national prominence at the Republican National Convention last year with a compelling speech that included her life story and how she became a Republican. She is up for re-election in New Mexico next year. But her name also is being bandied about as either a presidential or vice-presidential candidate in 2016, possibly paired with either Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The National Journal earlier this year called her “one of the Republican Party’s most prized ambassadors. She is female and Hispanic at a
time when recruiting candidates like her is at the top of the Republican agenda.”

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez was in Denver this week to address the Colorado Association of Commerce & Industry.

Martinez is on an eight-day swing through Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Wisconsin. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican she is raising money for her own re-election bid plus fundraising in Wisconsin for Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is also up for re-election next year.

While introducing her to the CACI audience Wednesday, Lou Hutchinson, newly-elected chair of the CACI board of directors, praised Martinez as an “elected official who gets things right.” He noted that Martinez gets a lot of attention for being the first Latina governor in the United States, but more important, he said, is that she is making huge strides in providing a better life in her state.

Martinez, who spoke for about 30 minutes, told the audience that a “dysfunctional” federal government has made it difficult for states to recover from the recession. The federal government has “thrown up countless hurdles for our state,” she said. “The shutdown could have been and should have been avoided,” she continued, drawing only polite applause. Martinez said relationships must be built across both sides of the aisle, something that hasn’t happened in Washington. When a crisis comes, it’s too late to begin an open dialogue, she added, and that’s led to a stagnant national economy, one that forces neighboring states to compete more against each other.

Martinez cited her record in New Mexico, where she has been governor since January 2011. That term began with fixing a $450 million structural deficit, which she called a “parting gift” from her predecessor (Democrat Bill Richardson). New Mexico had become reliant on stimulus dollars that shielded the state’s politicians from making difficult fiscal decision. Her own party supported tax increases to balance the budget, but Martinez said that wasn’t an option. “We made the tough decisions,” she said. That meant protecting priorities, such as basic healthcare, classroom spending and childcare for working mothers.

That also meant leading by example, and Martinez trotted out a laundry list of steps she took to rein in spending in state government, such as reducing the number of politically-appointed positions, cutting state salaries, getting rid of unnecessary state-issued cellphones and vehicles, and selling off all but one of the state’s airplanes.

Under Martinez’ leadership, New Mexico also achieved pension reform for public employees and teachers by requiring them to pay more for their retirement. As a result, Martinez said, those two pension funds are healthy solvent in 30 years (the standard for public pensions). Martinez also vetoed a $128 million tax increase and said that in the last almost three years she has reduced taxes and fees 25 times.

“That’s the difference between a politician who says whatever it takes to get elected, and a leader who remembers what [she] said and delivers on those promises. I don’t care to be a politician,” Martinez said to strong applause.

Even small changes can have significant results, she indicated. In her first year in office, the state removed a tax on locomotive fuel, which “didn’t seem like a lot.” But that led Union Pacific to move one of its hubs from El Paso, Tex., to the New Mexico port of entry, a move that is creating 3,000 jobs.

Drawing upon partnerships on both sides of the aisle in the Democratic-controlled legislature, Martinez worked with lawmakers this year on legislation that led to a $20 million tax cut for business. She pointed out that the CEO of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce called the 2013 session the “best for business, ever.”

But not all is sunny between Martinez and the state’s legislature; she vetoed three dozen bills in the 2013 session and reportedly threatened to veto the state budget over disagreements with the legislature on several issues, including merit pay for teachers. And while Martinez holds the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country, above 60 percent, she has reportedly been criticized by some of the state’s Democratic lawmakers for ignoring children’s issues.

Martinez also pointed to her efforts to partner with Mexico, which shares 180 miles of border with New Mexico. It’s critical to partner with neighbors, she said; such a partnership makes New Mexico the “new gateway” for North American trade. Major infrastructure is being developed on both sides of the border, part of a first-ever bi-national master plan for New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mex. “Two communities are on the brink of becoming a world-class hub” under that master plan, she said. That relationship will pay off for New Mexico’s other neighbor, Colorado, since Denver is a natural fit for that activity.

“With a stagnant economy and dysfunctional federal government, it is at the state level where we see progress,” Martinez concluded. “In the west, we must all work together to make our region stronger, so individually we can all prosper.”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com