Disagreement in the governor’s race? That’s a good thing

September 24, 2018

New Mexico voters cannot complain that they don’t have a choice in the race for governor. As both Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce demonstrated last week during a televised debate, the two candidates are not cut from the same cloth. They disagree. A lot.

And that’s admirable in these days of poll-tested phrasing and candidates who try to avoid, above all, offending anyone.

Both Lujan Grisham and Pearce seemed to enjoy showing their differences on a host of issues — she wants greater investment in early childhood education, while he thinks tapping into the Land Grant Permanent Fund might be risky; she supports an increase in the minimum wage while he doesn’t; she wants stricter control on oil and gas fracking, and he says that will send companies to Texas; and so on.

The difference on issues becomes important not just during the campaign to help voters decide. It matters most after the election, when the real work of governing begins. Again, this is exactly how it’s supposed to work. Candidates make promises, and constituents hold them to their words.

That is why the issue of legalization of marijuana is especially fascinating in this campaign. While not the most pressing concern of voters — we would say bigger issues are worry about jobs and the economy, improving education and taking better care of children — the legalization of recreational marijuana definitely divides the two candidates for governor.

Lujan Grisham believes revenue from taxes on legal cannabis could be good for the economy, although she wants New Mexico to avoid mistakes made where pot is already legal. She also wants to protect the medical cannabis industry and include safeguards to keep pot away from young people. She is willing to consider legalization, but hers is a cautious approach.

Pearce, on the other hand, is opposed to legalizing cannabis. He accepts medical marijuana as a fact of life in New Mexico, and even appears persuaded that it helps people through pain and other conditions. But on legalizing pot, Pearce is old-school. He thinks it would be bad for the state. On this, he is out of step with voters.

An Albuquerque Journal poll published last week shows that 60 percent of New Mexico voters would support legalizing and taxing marijuana — it’s a 2-to-1 margin, approved at varying degrees of support in all regions of the state. Young people, especially, favored legalization. The poll showed that among voters ages 18 to 34, support for legalization was at 79 percent, compared to 51 percent of voters 65 and older. Could this be the kind of issue to draw more young people to vote? It will be interesting to see if turnout patterns change.

Potential legalization of marijuana, too, can be explored not just as a campaign issue but as a governing challenge.

Even with voters overwhelmingly in support, the reality is that a marijuana legalization bill has to make it through the Legislature. Conservative Democrats, in the past, have sided with Republican lawmakers to block such measures. With voter sentiment now firmly on the side of legalization, will any conservative lawmakers shift positions? How would a Gov. Lujan Grisham get conservatives on board; conversely, how could Gov. Pearce block something he believes bad for the state?

What’s more, any conversation on pot has to focus on what to do with taxes from the legalization of marijuana. Would the money simply go into the general fund? Should it be set aside to help pay for behavioral health treatment, especially to fund substance abuse and drug prevention programs? It could be earmarked for education, too. New Mexico, even with the billion-dollar windfalls projected next year, seldom has a shortage of needs.

State Rep. Bill McCamley is a pro-legalization lawmaker who has estimated that the state could bring in some $60 million to $70 million in revenues if cannabis is regulated and taxed. (His previous legislation set a 15 percent tax, with cities and counties allowed to tack on 5 percent if they wanted.) He won’t be back in the Legislature, since he gave up his seat to run for state auditor, but his earlier bill divided revenues among public schools, substance abuse prevention and mental health care, economic development, district attorneys and public defenders, and a subsidy for medical cannabis. That legislation makes a good starting point, both for a future law and for campaign conversation.

The campaign is rolling now, and we look forward to both candidates for governor laying out not just their positions, but their plans for keeping promises and governing. That’s necessary, because without the ability to execute a promise, candidates are little more than hot air. And hot air — except during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta — is something New Mexico doesn’t need.

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