The question of who will be governor is perhaps the single most important political decision facing New Mexicans in next month’s election. This is a critical time for the state on many fronts, but nowhere more so than when it comes to the fate of our children.
The education system is, by court order, facing near-total reconstruction. There are widespread calls for the dissolution of the troubled Children, Youth and Families Department. And, as of this year, New Mexico was named last among the states for child well-being.
If any one person has the power to determine the fate of New Mexico’s next generation, it is the next governor. With that in mind, Searchlight New Mexico asked the candidates — Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) and Steve Pearce (R) — to weigh in on six issues that we have identified through our reporting as critical to New Mexico’s future. How do their thoughts diverge on such intractable — and interconnected — problems as child poverty, New Mexico’s brain drain and the state’s troubled foster care system?
Below you will find links to Searchlight New Mexico's original reporting, and a response to the issue from each candidate. Responses alternate between the two candidates, starting with Lujan Grisham.
Low rankings for child outcomes
New Mexico ranks last in survey of child well-being
Michelle Lujan Grisham
It doesn’t take a report or ranking to see that New Mexico must do better when it comes to our kids and their future. Our state’s underinvestment in education, poverty, and health are visible in communities across the state. We need a governor who sees not just these challenges, but the vast potential and multitude of opportunities that we can achieve together. I am committed to tackling all the issues identified as affecting child well-being in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report, and building a stronger New Mexico where every child can grow up healthy, safe, and economically secure, with an education that will allow them to achieve their full potential.
Much of this comes back to health and economic security. Too many children across New Mexico grow up in households impacted by poverty, addiction, or behavioral health problems. These insecurities and adverse experiences at home translate directly into challenges for kids at school and later in life.
We need to tackle poverty both with direct, targeted measures and by improving New Mexico’s economy and creating new jobs. My 7 point plan to fight poverty and strengthen economic security for our families will help kids grow up without the day-to-day worries of having food on the table, a roof over their heads, or other basic necessities. I will support an increase in the minimum wage that will immediately impact more than 100,000 New Mexicans, a stronger working families tax credit, protections from predatory lenders, and create a clear ladder out of poverty. And I’ll fight every day to create a stronger economy in our state with good jobs in key sectors with a well-trained workforce to back it up.
Second, we must fight to reduce the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) children face in New Mexico. One of the most common of these is having a household member with a substance abuse disorder. My plan to fight the opioid epidemic in our state will make treatment more accessible in New Mexico, increase training resources, and reduce unnecessary over-prescription of addictive drugs. And I will fight attempts to cut Medicaid, working to strengthen the program and rebuild New Mexico’s behavioral health infrastructure.
Finally, New Mexico deserves a public education infrastructure that provides real opportunities for all kids and is focused on helping those most at-risk students succeed. I’ll begin by making universal access to quality full-day pre-K a reality for every three- and four-year-old so that they arrive at kindergarten prepared to achieve. And my New Direction for New Mexico Public Schools will increase classroom funding, give educators a raise, and adapt evaluations that help students and educators succeed instead of discouraging and punishing them.
New Mexico’s children are our future. We cannot accept any longer the status quo of failure. We must create an environment in our state where children grow up healthy, safe, and with opportunity for their future made possible by a quality education and a growing economy.
We must address each of the challenges facing our children simultaneously. They are all connected, and acting as if they exist in isolation will do nothing to solve the larger problem of comprehensive well-being. We must be clear, many problems in education will not be fixed until we cure many problems in the home.
Education: I am running to fix what’s wrong with education. We will begin by letting teachers teach again. This seems overly simple, but it is not. For too long, our state’s teachers have been forced to be everything from parent to therapist to law enforcement while in the classroom. It is not only driving the good ones away, but it is making it harder for them to succeed in their mission and their goal – educating the next generation.
We also need to put apprenticeship programs into our high schools. Too many of our kids don’t see a point to finishing high school because if they aren’t going to college, they aren’t graduating with any marketable skills. Each community should coordinate with the leading industries in their area to design programs that prepare graduates to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation if they choose not to go to college. I will lead that effort to make sure it actually happens – too often we talk about ideas like this but never follow through. Follow-through as a manager is my specialty.
Poverty: There’s not one of us who has not needed help coping at some time. We are going to help those who need it. This state will not give up on those who have stumbled. Our kids deserve a path out of the deep poverty that plagues New Mexico.
New Mexicans are good and hardworking people. Sadly, many have given up hope of finding a job. New Mexico has some of the highest unemployment in the nation. At the same time, thousands of high-paying jobs are going unfilled in the state. The job of pairing people needing jobs with the jobs available is a high priority. Thousands of New Mexico workers could have a job, supporting their families and children, and paying taxes to support critical services if we focus on providing the training or support they need to fill those jobs.
A literacy program that provides in-person reading to every child in K-3 in New Mexico will be key to addressing poverty. Kids who can read rarely end up in poverty. Apprenticeship programs in high schools will be very important.
Health: New Mexico’s children deserve access to quality and affordable health care. This includes mental and behavioral health. Part of the solution is to grow our economy as discussed above so families have good jobs. Part of it is improving access to public health care no matter where a child lives. As governor, I will ensure our communities are better served in this regard, while reforming the health care system to attract and empower more qualified providers to fill the need for services for our children. Physical health begins with mental health. I will re-establish the mental and behavior health resources in rural communities and improve what we experience in the cities.
Safety: CYFD will be reformed. No longer will we accept New Mexico being known as the state where our children are abused, neglected, and even killed. This will end. The horrific stories are too many to list. It is now time to act. The future of our state depends on how we manage this crisis. A society that does not protect its children has no future. Under my administration, New Mexico will no longer be known as the place where our kids suffer at the hands of despicable predators. If laws need to be changed, we will change them. If the constitution needs to be changed we will change that, but our kids will be protected.
Ultimately, to improve conditions for our children we will have to deal with the breakdown of the family. According to experts, the violence against children in the home is often spawned by drug abuse. We must deal with those problems if we are to improve the future for our kids.
The state's brain drain
Graduates are leaving New Mexico behind
This, again, is a multi-prong approach. First, to attract new businesses and jobs, we must change the hostility New Mexico has towards business. As a former small business owner in New Mexico for over 20 years, I know first-hand the challenge of doing business in New Mexico. This must change for our state to prosper, for businesses to gravitate to New Mexico, and ultimately for the next generations of New Mexicans to stay.
We must start by recognizing the balance between short-term and long-term investment. Too often, New Mexico has lost out on dramatically impactful business ventures due to a short-term cost or complication. This will not happen under my administration. New Mexico will be competitive with our neighbors and comparable states. We will work to promote access to land, work force, low living costs [and] quality transportation access. We will go after the big companies like Amazon, Apple, and Boeing. However, my administration will also work to make New Mexico more inviting and accommodating to small businesses. Our state is home to world-leading research facilities – these sites are filled with brilliant people with the next Microsoft. Need I remind everyone that Bill Gates opened his first office in Albuquerque? The talent in our state can do it again, and I believe state government should be supportive and welcoming to innovation that leads to a diverse, advanced economy.
In addition to changing the attitude toward business in our state, we must change the other dire problems we are facing. As a state, we are never going to be able to compete with our neighbors for young talent as long as our crime and education are among the nation’s worst. The state has to tackle these issues head on, whether making the reforms needed in [the Public Education Department] to allow school districts and teachers to once again do what they do best, teach, or working to create programs to reduce criminal recidivism. The state can do more to create a community that the next generation will want to live in and raise a family in.
Michelle Lujan Grisham
New Mexico is suffering a declining population of working-age adults, with many simply unable to find the sort of quality opportunities they can elsewhere. I’ve experienced it first-hand, as my daughter, an engineer, lived out of state for years while trying to find a good job back in New Mexico. And even when she did move back, she had to take a significant pay cut over what she could earn elsewhere.
But I know that there are families across the state and across the country with the same kind of love for New Mexico and desire to live here if given the opportunity. We must make sure that right here in New Mexico they can get the training and opportunities we need in the 21st Century. My “Build New Mexico” plan includes a detailed sector strategy that will help our state invest in key growth sectors with good-paying jobs, leveraging New Mexico’s strengths as a state. We should be a leader in industries like clean energy, biotechnology, outdoor recreation, agriculture and cybersecurity.
We should also work to attract young, skilled people to our state, showing them all that New Mexico has to offer: history, culture, beautiful state and national parks, as well as high-paying jobs, a low cost of living, and an economy that is looking to the future. I will bring young people to the table and start a statewide “Cool Cities Initiative” to help local communities grow and market themselves to be more appealing to young professionals. Working with New Mexico Mainstreet Programs we will create a cool cities designation and start a grant program to help cities and towns reimagine themselves.
I’ll also look to implement effective loan forgiveness programs that encourage talented professionals to move to or remain in New Mexico, and ensure we’re competitive with the best in the country when it comes to education, public services, transportation and health care – meaningful factors that both companies and individuals look to when relocating.
The troubled foster care system
A pattern of failures
Michelle Lujan Grisham
New Mexico is currently failing in our duty to protect the most vulnerable children, including those in the foster care system who have been victimized while the state provides totally inadequate oversight of foster care providers. Searchlight has helped to expose a clear pattern of faulty or lacking oversight of foster placements, which is absolutely unacceptable.
When I was the director of the State Agency on Aging, I saw that we were not holding providers accountable to an appropriate standard of safe, effective service, and were letting abuse and neglect occur unchallenged. I took personal responsibility for changing this, going undercover to expose abuse and building an agency that could support New Mexico’s vulnerable seniors.
I will ensure that CYFD holds foster care providers accountable. I will invest in hiring, training, and retaining social workers and leaders equipped with the tools needed to repair a broken system, and reduce CYFD job turnover by supporting loan forgiveness programs and higher salaries that will keep talented social workers on the job. This will help us take the necessary steps to hold providers accountable, put an end to abuse and neglect in the foster system, and cancel contracts with anyone who can’t provide quality services.
Further, we can and must work to reduce the burden on a struggling foster care system by investing in home visiting, prevention and treatment, and providing necessary supports and services to families so that kids are able to stay in healthy and safe homes when possible. With the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act in Congress, New Mexico has a unique opportunity in the coming years to address our challenges by targeting services to households where children face adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as poverty and substance abuse before being removed to foster care. By investing in these types of prevention strategies, we’ll be able to more effectively use Title IV-E funds to keep families together and help our children grow up in healthy environments.
As I highlighted in the answer on child safety, under my administration New Mexico will be known as the state where our children are protected. We will not tolerate abuse, neglect, and letting our kids be killed. This includes abuses that take place at home or in the foster care system.
I will reform CYFD by installing leadership with real-world, hands-on management experience in the areas of child protection, abuse investigations, behavioral/mental health and law enforcement. The culture of allowing problems to remain unaddressed until tragedy strikes must change immediately. That starts with proper experience and tough management at the department. Those who by neglect of their duty, or failure to properly investigate leads, allow preventable harm to children will be disciplined, removed, and/or prosecuted as appropriate. There will be no more excuses. This also applies to law enforcement and the judicial system. And I will work with the legislature to change the laws that need updating to allow for better protection of our children.
We also must relentlessly prosecute predators. New Mexico will not tolerate child abusers. Evil cannot be rehabilitated, and we will seek the stiffest punishments possible. If you abuse a child, you are going to jail. If you kill a child you will be hit with the maximum penalty. Reforming our pre-trial release system through a new constitutional amendment preventing the release of dangerous individuals, especially those accused of crimes against children, back into the community is a must.
I will lead from the governor’s office to change the culture of indifference toward child safety in New Mexico. The entire state must come together as one to demand better from our government at all levels. Law enforcement, the judicial system, the legislature and the executive branch will all be held to the highest standard when it comes to protecting our children, including those in the foster care system.
When parents are deported
The great divide
Hope is an extremely powerful emotion. As I mentioned earlier, too many in our state have lost it, and that is heartbreaking. We must treat all people with the respect and dignity they deserve. I will continue to work with Congress to get a common-sense guest worker program established and to see that the law is followed when problems arise. When deportations are being considered, I will insist that the law be closely followed; if deportation is required, my administration will ensure the negative impact to families is minimized.
Michelle Lujan Grisham
Poorly targeted and hardline immigration enforcement by this administration is damaging to New Mexico families and communities. As chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, I’ve continually worked to advocate for interior enforcement that focuses on public safety and national security and condemned policies that cause children and families to live in fear. While arrests of individuals with no criminal history have surged, this lack of focus can victimize children while making communities less safe. We must focus our federal resources on combating the worst criminals at the border like cartels, gun runners, and human and drug traffickers.
The impact family separations can have on these children is clear, and the burden of these separations can fall on other family members, schools, and the surrounding community. I will continue to advocate for our kids and communities with our congressional delegation and the federal government.
I will also focus on ensuring that our schools and communities are well-equipped with the counseling and behavioral health resources they need to help anyone affected by separation or fear of a family member’s deportation. And I will ensure that our law enforcement keeps its focus on safety, working with communities to build trustful relationships and solve crimes.
The unmet need for adult ed
Success by degrees
Michelle Lujan Grisham
New Mexicans deserve access to quality educational opportunities at every age. Quality adult educational opportunities are an especially important piece of this puzzle as we work to support New Mexicans who were let down by our public education system, or who fell through the cracks at an earlier age.
We must provide New Mexicans with the opportunity to earn a GED and/or a two-year degree. There are hundreds of thousands of adults without a diploma or GED, putting New Mexico 45th nationally in terms of population with a diploma or GED. A diploma or equivalent increases incomes by about $10k a year.
My workforce development plan includes a specific focus on improving our adult education system and aligning it better with employer needs. There are a number of important steps we can take to make quality adult education accessible for New Mexicans across the state. These include increasing the flexibility of adult ed programs so that hours and availability don’t prevent access, standardizing requirements statewide, and adding wraparound services like child care and transportation that help low-income New Mexicans access an education. I will also make sure that programs partner with employers to connect students with job opportunities, provide access to apprenticeships, and work to enable dual-credit enrollment with community colleges.
Finally, the best solution to the challenges faced by those without a diploma is to limit the need for adult education in the first place. That’s why my public education plan focuses on providing more students with the tools, quality education, and supports they need to complete school and earn a diploma. I’ll expand and improve dropout coach programs, build a stronger and better-integrated early warning system to detect and respond to dropout risk, and fund programs like pre-K and K-3 plus that have been proven to help students stay on track through all years of school.
Our state must be committed to providing opportunity to every New Mexican. This will impact everything from crime rates to child well-being and economic success of our state. Literacy has a direct effect on poverty. We will begin to address adult literacy by ensuring every student can read: 100 percent literacy among New Mexico students. That will stop the increase of adult illiteracy. At that point, I am committed to using state funds, as well as partnering with private enterprise to provide adult education ranging from GED work to financial literacy and advanced employment retraining. New Mexico is strongest when the New Mexican people succeed. Our economy will grow, our communities will be stronger and our state will be able to further reinvest in the next generation. All New Mexicans must be given the opportunity to climb the economic ladder.
New Mexico's spending
For contracts, the state looks elsewhere
This again goes back to New Mexico being hostile toward\ business. The state has not done enough to create an environment where companies want to move to, or where individuals want to start a business. To change the outflow of state dollars to other states, we must change our attitude towards business. With policies that support and nurture the creation and growth of business, we can begin to re-invest state contracts in our state. This outflow is a symptom of a negative business environment, not an affirmation that our state does not have the talent or potential to win and maintain these contracts. My administration will be dedicated to correcting this and ensuring that New Mexico awards as many contracts as possible to New Mexico vendors.
After changing the state’s attitude to business, we will incentivize high-tech companies that will keep our kids with advanced degrees [who] want to be in research and development. The apprenticeship programs will give companies people qualified in the skilled trades. We will keep those contracts and vendor dollars in New Mexico.
Michelle Lujan Grisham
I’ve been saying since the start of the campaign that one of the best tools we have to immediately improve our economy and support job growth is to reform procurement and buy from New Mexico businesses. Data published by Searchlight showed that since 2013 New Mexico has spent $3.2 billion with out-of-state vendors. Just improving in-state procurement by a small percentage would lead to hundreds of millions more dollars staying in New Mexico’s economy, helping sustain thousands of jobs and build strong industries. For instance, the [state] auditor’s office found that over 80 percent of IT contract dollars went out of state. Changing this will sustain demand as we invest in building a stronger IT industry and preparing our future workforce.
I know we can do this because I’ve worked on procurement at the federal level. In Congress, I secured a Sandia Labs pricing preference for New Mexico small business on its $1.1 billion of contracted goods and services [which makes in-state companies more competitive when they bid on a Sandia contract].
While the state legislature and auditor have worked to highlight opportunities to improve in-state procurement and increase transparency, the state has in large part failed to comply. I promise to be a governor who will partner with the legislature and public, taking responsibility for the changes that need to occur and remaining accountable to the public.