New Mexico education, economy, top list of concerns for District 4 Senate candidates

Democrat George Muñoz is facing challenger Republican Angela Olive for the Senate District 4 position in the November election.

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • George Muñoz is a three-term incumbent
  • Angela Olive is making her first run for political office
  • Senate District 4 has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic

FARMINGTON — Not surprisingly, the two candidates who are seeking election to the state Senate District 4 seat take different perspectives on the importance of having legislative experience as they woo voters ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Democratic incumbent George Muñoz, who was first elected in 2008, says serving as a state lawmaker is an enormous responsibility that requires the ability to process and retain huge amounts of information on subjects ranging from early childhood education and senior aid to Medicaid expansion and economic development.

He said grasping the intricacies of the Energy Transition Act — a 2019 measure that requires the state to obtain 50% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 while providing tens of millions of dollars in economic relief for communities impacted by coal plant closures — is a prime example of how demanding the job can be and how important it is to have a deep understanding of the accompanying issues.

"It's mind boggling," he said, explaining that everyone wants government to work more quickly and efficiently than it does, but the complex challenges the state faces keep that approach from being realistic.

His Republican challenger, Angela Olive, doesn't see it that way. This may be her first run for public office, but Olive says she has no doubt she could get up to speed quickly on the issues. And she believes her ability to bring a new perspective to the operation of state government is much more of an advantage than it is a hindrance.

"I may not have the legislative experience behind me, but I'm able to learn and able to represent (the voters)," she said.

Olive believes some legislators need a not-so-gentle reminder about why voters have sent them to the Capitol in the first place.

"I believe in term limits, and I believe that our legislators get into these positions and get comfortable and complacent and forget the people they represent," she said.

The district the two candidates are hoping to represent covers the southwest corner of San Juan County, along with significant portions of McKinley and Cibola counties, taking in the south side of Gallup and the west side of Grants. It features a large Navajo population, and portions of the district have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The district also faces major economic challenges, especially after Marathon Petroleum announced in August it would close its Gallup oil refinery at the end of the year, leading to the loss of more than 200 jobs. And the coal-fired Escalante Power Plant between Gallup and Grants, which employs another 100 workers, will close at the end of this year.

Olive looking for a new line of work

As an employee of that refinery who will be out of work at the end of the year, Olive understands very well the severity of that refinery closure to the Gallup economy. She believes Muñoz hasn't done enough to protect jobs in the district, and she said she can do a better job of that than he can.

"I am heavily impacted by the Green New Deal being pushed in our state," she said.

She differs with him in other areas, as well.

"I've been sorely disappointed in our representation at the state Senate level," she said. "Basically, the way he has voted on items that are particularly important to the district."

Angela Olive

Olive cites Muñoz's support of the state's red flag law, a measure signed into law last year by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that allows courts to temporarily seize firearms from people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

"It's hit our area hard because we're full of hunters and gun owners," she said. "And we had voted to become a Second Amendment sanctuary county."

Olive said District 4 has major infrastructure needs that aren't being met, including such areas as roads, water and Internet. She joined the chorus of legislative candidates from northwest New Mexico who are pointing to the number of Navajo students who have no Internet access at home and have to complete their remote-learning assignments at a fast food restaurant or in the parking lot of a chapter house.

"That doesn't work for me," she said. "Our children need to be more of a priority."

To address that problem, she said lawmakers need to assure that funding that has been set aside to bring Internet service to the reservation is actually spent on that purpose.

"The senator needs to be the liaison between the tribe and the state, ensuring these programs get completed," she said. "There is funding that’s been provided to the tribes by the state, and the money is sitting there and not being moved along. It needs to be used instead of sitting on the back burners. I would be able to do that."

Olive is also concerned about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted small businesses in her district, as well as the state's budget. She said she doesn't know enough at this point to suggest where any cutbacks in state spending need to occur, but she is confident they can be found.

"I know there are some programs that will be able to take some percentage of a hit," she said.

Muñoz: Public's help needed in COVID-19 recovery

Helping the state return to some semblance of normal is the biggest challenge lawmakers will face in the upcoming session, Muñoz said, and he knows that task will be an uphill climb. The public needs to do its part to make that happen, he said.

"There are people who think wearing a mask is taking away their rights," he said, but that inconvenience is nothing compared to people who have lost a family member or a job because of the spread of the virus.

Muñoz said the pandemic has had a major negative impact on almost every small business, but he said the restaurant industry has been devastated. He believes the governor's response to the virus has been hit and miss, and he takes exception to the way some parks and recreational attractions have been able to reopen while others have remained closed.

After the initial rush of cases in northwest New Mexico, the state has managed to avoid the second surge that surrounding states like Texas and Arizona have experienced. Muñoz said with New Mexico reaching the benchmarks laid out by the governor, now is the time to consider relaxing many of the restraints that are hamstringing businesses.

"I think we did a good job as a state," he said. "Now let's start reopening things."

Many of the restrictions the governor has left in place don't seem to have much logic behind them, Muñoz said, pointing to the fact that brewpubs have been permitted to reopen at limited occupancy but bars remain closed.

George Muñoz

"Be fair to everybody — that's the most important thing," he said. "Open it up a little bit more."

Muñoz said it is imperative that the state reach the point where it can safely reopen schools, although he acknowledged that threshold has not been met.

"I don't think you get the experience in life and knowledge by doing it online," he said. "Those kids need to be in front of teachers, and I don't know how we do that."

Muñoz long has been a vocal advocate of changing the state's funding formula for its public schools, citing the inequities between urban or suburban areas with sizable property tax bases and rural districts like his own, where much of the territory is owned by tribes or government entities. That means many students in McKinley County and in the Central Consolidated School District in San Juan County get shorted, he said.

"Every kid is supposed to be treated equally, but they're not," he said.

Many attempts have been made to deal with those inequities over the years, Muñoz said, but not enough momentum has been generated to assure a change — partly because the issue is so complex.

"Everybody sees the unfairness, but nobody really wants to deal with it," he said.

On the economic development front, Muñoz is especially concerned about how his district will compensate for the loss of the power plant and the refinery, explaining that any time a major employer shuts down, it is virtually impossible to make up for that loss.

"You don't get those jobs in rural New Mexico every day," he said.

Muñoz believes the long-term answer is to make the state the renewable energy capital of the world. He believes New Mexico can generate far more energy than it uses, and he points to the major investment Xcel Energy is making in wind power in eastern New Mexico and west Texas as an example of what the future holds. He said there soon will be dozens of energy of transmission lines crisscrossing the state, and he suggested that some sort of tax on the energy they carry might help sustain the state through its transition away from fossil fuels.

"The question is, how do we base our tax base off that?" he said. "Oil and gas is not going to last forever."

Oil and gas revenue makes up more than half the state's budget, and Muñoz knows that change won't happen overnight. But he said turning a blind eye to the issue won't make it go away.

"How do you replace 52% of your budget?" he asked. "The answer is, you have to get on board with something new."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.