New Mexico State Senator Roberto “Bobby” J. Gonzales, D-Ranchos de Taos, held a virtual town hall on Tuesday (Jan. 5). Gonzales, who represents Senate District 6 in the New Mexico State Legislature, discussed his policy positions in advance of the upcoming two-month-long session that begins Jan. 19.
The online event was attended by nearly 70 residents, and was hosted by Taos United, the Taos County Democratic Party, local residents and others. Questions were compiled in advance, and were put to the senator by moderators Jay Levine and Cristy Holden.
Gonzales took aim at corporate subsidies in the form of tax breaks during the town hall. “Will you support the repeal of tax breaks to corporations that have no benefit to the state and the public, and have those corporations pay their fair share?” asked Levine.
“Yes, most definitely,” said Gonzales, discussing the possibility of sunsets for existing corporate tax breaks. “I feel that the timing is right.”
A recent proposal to raise revenue includes eliminating tax exemptions for food and prescription drugs, coupled with a refund of those taxes to low-income residents. Gonzales suggested this approach would bring in revenue from tourists — something he supports.
In discussing the state’s gross receipts tax level, which ranks around the 15th highest in the nation, Gonzales said he’d like to lower it, and also address the percentages that go to local municipalities. “Taos Ski Valley is one of the highest that we have within the state,” he said.
The gross receipts tax rate for Taos Ski Valley is 9.4375 percent, the highest rate in the state. The lowest GRT rate in New Mexico is 5.5 percent.
Restructuring personal income tax was also discussed during the town hall.
“The personal income tax — we call that PIT — structure isn’t progressive,” said Levine. “That is, income tax rates for higher-income people are the same as for low-income. As a result, the low-income earners pay about 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes, but the highest earners pay as little as six percent. Will you support leveling the field by increasing income tax rates for higher earners?”
“Definitely. We need to change that,” said Gonzales. “We have had about five different legislative meetings on that. And I can assure you, that’s probably one of the pieces of legislation that we will be seeing this year — to level that playing field.”
“The working families tax credit provides a break for hard-working low-income families. Increasing this tax credit would help families and our local economy get back on track,” said Holden. “Would you consider voting for an increase in the working families tax credit?”
“Most definitely,” replied Gonzalez.
Asked whether he supported legalizing recreational cannabis, after having expressed reservations and the need for more information in the past, Gonzales said no.
“You have to have water rights. And the question is, do we do this over our chili growers, our pecan growers, our farmers? I don’t feel that is right,” he said.
“We supported medical cannabis — I did vote for that,” Gonzales continued. “The other part is my experience in education, as superintendent, it’s very sad when you see substance abuse and young people. And, I have had a lot of discussions with the Attorney General from the state of Colorado, and they have a lot of concerns with their law enforcement — impaired driving, you know.”
Asked if he would join State Sen. Jeff Steinborn and Lt. Gov. Howie Morales in backing the creation of a state bank, Gonzales said he would.
“My understanding is that the governor does not support this,” he said. “North Dakota does not have a mortgage finance authority, which our state has. And right now, the Administration’s feeling is that we’re already providing this through the New Mexico Finance Authority. I find it intriguing, but it’s just the beginning.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has created an economic crisis across the state, and many have lost their health insurance along with their jobs. “Are you in support of the New Mexico Health Security Act, to guarantee health insurance to all New Mexicans?” asked Holden.
“That was my bill,” said Gonzales, who was instrumental in securing funding to study the issue. “This would be a big plus to our state.”
Another questioner asked, “In this time of climate change, pandemic and economic fragility, it’s evident our community has food insecurity. Do you favor a statewide effort to increase food production and soil and water sustainability?”
“Most definitely,” said Gonzales. “Not this year, but the prior two years, the number one priority has been to support ranching and farming. This has to do with the world population, where we are from 7 billion building up to about 13 billion in the next 20 years. The question is, how are we going to feed all these people?”
Gonzales also was asked about the so-called Green Amendment. “The Green Amendment begins the process to amend the New Mexico constitution to enshrine and make enforceable our rights to a clean, healthy environment, including pure water, clean air, a healthy ecosystem and a stable climate,” said Holden. “Do you support this amendment?”
“Yes,” said Gonzales. “I mean, who doesn’t want this for everyone? Yes.”
Gonzales also pledged to reform existing water laws, methane venting regulations and rules governing irresponsible extractors in the fracking industry.
As a follow-up question, the senator was asked, “Will you support a fracking moratorium, which is going to be imposed by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez?”
“I don't think that you can just say, you know, a moratorium,” said Gonzales. “I think it has to be a transitioning, because what that means is, then we’re at zero for capital outlay. Where will the state right now, today, come up with $3 billion? We’re not prepared for that. It has to be a gradual transition.”
Informal polls on policy questions were conducted during the town hall event. The results, shown as a percentage of support, are as follows.
Repeal tax breaks for the wealthy and large corporations: 88 percent
No tax on food and drugs: 82 percent
Public Bank for New Mexico: 73 percent
Legalization of recreational cannabis: 59 percent
Increase Working Family Tax Credit: 84 percent
Health Security Plan: 88 percent
Development of a statewide plan to ensure food security: 67 percent
Use one percent of the Permanent Fund distribution for Early Childhood programs: 63 percent
Not all audience members cast a vote — the average poll included 50 participants.
A safe session
The state Legislature met on Dec. 14 to discuss COVID-19 safety protocols for the 60-day session, and made allowances for staff to work from home.
“For the 25 years that I have been in the legislature, this is one of the most unique settings that I have seen,” said Gonzales. “This is where we are now. We don’t close the doors — we open the doors. I just applaud the way it has been handled.”