Hopefuls debate donations

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By Don Pace

One candidate for District 70 state representative said last week that two of his rivals have been “bought and paid for.”

In response to a question about incumbents having the ability to attract big money, candidate Chris Lopez said he and another candidate, Eric Cummings, had not served as legislators, while incumbent Richard Vigil and Barbara Perea Casey had.

“Two of us haven’t served as legislators, and there are two who have, for at least 12 years each. They talk as if they have never been there before,” Lopez said during a candidates forum.

He said that their campaign contributions showed that they were “bought and paid for” during those years.

“Ethics means doing the right thing without being told to do the right thing. We don’t need a new law to turn down money from all these big companies — insurance companies and bus companies, and say, ‘no thank you.’ It doesn’t mean when someone writes you a check you have to put it in your back pocket,” Lopez said.

A visibly angry Perea-Casey replied, “I take great personal exception to what Chris Lopez has said because he is trying to paint everybody with the same brush,” Perea-Casey said.

Looking directly at Lopez, Perea-Casey said, “I want you to know that I chaired the rules committee that censured Rep. Ron Holguin for taking a bribe, and I have never, ever taken money, put it in my pocket or have had any personal gain in any way from any donation that I’ve got from anybody. I want you to understand that very clearly, and if you’re going to say something that is slanderous, you need to have documentation to back it up.”

Lopez said he wasn’t talking about bribes.

“When you get a campaign contribution, you’re expected to do something in return. And hopefully I’m not being slanderous because I don’t really feel like getting sued today,” Lopez said.

Casey, a Las Vegas native, served as a state representative in southern New Mexico, while Vigil has represented most of Las Vegas and the Valley as a representative since 1998. Cummings is a Luna Community College employee, and Lopez used to publish the Las Vegas Times.

The four Democratic candidates took part in a forum sponsored by the Committee for the People and the Las Vegas Optic.

The Democratic and Republican primaries are June 1. The winner of the state representative race will face retired school administrator Mel Root, a Republican, in the November general election.

Some of the questions and answers at the forum:

QUESTION: The recently passed health care bill will not provide universal coverage. Forty percent of New Mexicans lack access to health care. Will you support the Health Security Act for New Mexicans?

Cummings: As a legislator, you are given time to read and understand a bill. Being new to politics, I haven’t seen or read the bill. I do understand the problems we are having with health care in the state, and I do support universal health care.

Casey: There’s a large number of people who have been studying the contents of the Health Security Act for about three years. Several versions have been circulated around the state with public hearings, and meetings to get input from the general public, as well as informing them what is in the act itself. I would definitely support the Health Security Act if I had an opportunity to vote on it. I would do it because we have many people in our state, not just in out community, who do not have access to health care that is absolutely necessary.

Vigil: The Health Security Act has gone through a number of committees, and anyone can add or subtract amendments to it. So right now I can’t say that I will commit my support because I would have to see the finished product.

Lopez: I think New Mexico will have to take extra steps to cover senior citizens that Obama-care doesn’t. That’s the part of the bill I would have to see amended, as Richard said, as it goes through committees.

QUESTION: Some state employees retire and after a time go back to work, but they get both their pension and a full time salary. What is your position on the practice of double dipping?

Casey: The initial intent was to try to keep people who were involved in highly specialized occupations. Those people could come back to those jobs because they were not easy to fill. However, it’s got to the point where it has become a problem for retirement programs and is causing deficits in both educational retirement funds and public education retirement funds. If people are already double-dipping, I don’t think we can stop them from working, but there should be a cap on the amount they can make. At first it was $15,000 a year, and then all of a sudden people were saying they are experts in their field and should receive regular pay. So the pay has increased and increased over the years, and that’s why we have the problem we have now. 

Cummings: When you have senior employees who have been in the workforce for many years, people who are coming up aren’t getting the cross training they should. Younger workers should have the chance to be taught how older workers approach the job, so when they retire, younger workers move up. When you have the same person in the same job for so many years, they don’t share their knowledge.

Lopez: Double dippers have created a huge drain on our economy, and I don’t think that it’s fair that the government can set up a system of retirement where it allows an employee to come back and abuse the system. In the private sector, you’re not allowed to to come back and earn a full salary plus your retirement. The same fairness needs to be applied to government workers. That’s why we are, in part, down millions of dollars in this year’s budget.

Vigil: We passed legislation this year, effective in July of this year, no retiree can go back to work for the state government. People who are there now can continue working — you can’t remove them from their jobs.

QUESTION: Is there any truth to the allegation that Gov. Bill Richardson lets political donations influence his decisions?

Cummings: When the media brings this kind of thing out in their investigative reports, there is often some truth attached to it. I haven’t been there in person to see this going on, but if you look at the budget deficit, the money has got to be going somewhere.

Lopez: The governor has allowed that, and that is pretty much the nature of politics. Most people give to campaigns in exchange for something else. That’s the wrong way to do things, but it has been going on for a long time. At the last forum, Rick (Vigil) told me if I wanted to research, go ahead, and I found that a good majority of his campaign contributors were bus contractors.

Vigil: As far as I know, there are no bus contractors giving me money. Regarding Gov. Richardson giving special treatment to contributors, not that I know of.

Casey: I do think the governor is influenced by donations. I can’t prove anything, as Eric (Cummings) said. We weren’t there to see what he was doing, but from all the publicity and investigations that have already taken place, his not accepting the appointment to the Commerce secretary post, a man doesn’t do that if he’s clean. So I think there is probably something to that.

Lopez (in rebuttal): Richard just said he doesn’t have any bus contractors or companies giving him contributions. Right?

Vigil: That’s what I said.

Lopez: It’s on the Secretary of States web site.

QUESTION: Arizona has just passed laws banning ethnic studies in schools and requiring police officers to ask for identification of people they believe are in the the U.S. illegally. How would you vote on such issues?

Lopez: It’s totally unfair to profile someone because of their race. I don’t think what Arizona is doing is fair to people and is most likely politically motivated. New Mexico should not follow suit, and states like California are even boycotting Arizona until they repeal this law. I think New Mexico should voice its concerns about Arizona’s actions.

Cummings: The law that Arizona has created doesn’t allow for racial profiling. They have to have good cause to pull someone over... That’s when they get to ask for ID. They can’t ask for ID just because of a person’s ethnic background; they have to have probable cause.

Casey: I’m appalled. I’m especially appalled by the bans on the ethnic studies programs; it’s a horrible step backward. I hope we never have anything like that come before the Legislature in New Mexico because I would definitely vote against it.

Vigil: I totally disagree with the laws passed in Arizona; racial profiling is wrong. Our culture is very important to us. We have a lot of people in New Mexico who would be affected. If they would see me, they would probably stop me to see if I was a legal citizen. That is not right.

QUESTION: What is your position on the consolidation of the East and West school districts? 

Vigil: It is up to the people and the school boards of each district. Personally, I don’t believe in consolidation of the East and West school districts. There are benefits to having two school districts. If a child is suspended from one school district, they can just cross the river and hopefully go to school. I believe every child should have an opportunity: If they can’t make it at one district, they can go to another. There has been talk at the Legislature to consolidate, and basically, I told them (Senate Finance Committee) that I would not introduce any legislation to consolidate. 

Casey: I believe current state law doesn’t exactly address consolidation, but it does state that if two school districts want to consolidate, the local school boards have to make that request of the local legislators. It the board of education for each school district that would have to work together to ask legislators to introduce legislation to consolidate the districts. As a state legislator, I would have to wait to see if the school board would take any action on that particular issue, and then take it from there.  

Cummings: We’ve also got to look at it financially. Can we sustain two school districts? If we come together and agree, we can afford it, then we should work for it. But Albuquerque has 11 high schools, and only have one administration and one school board. So it depends on what voters want and if we can afford to have two school districts.

Lopez: I am not inclined to support consolidation, I would be more for a study that would look at the fiscal and economic impact should consolidation occur. Las Vegas City Schools just got hit with a $1.2 million shortfall and has to lay off about 15 employees. West was hit with about a $500,000 shortfall, so it’s just a matter of time before the state makes the decision on consolidation.