New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson talks to people Wednesday in the North Annex of Clovis-Carver Public Library during a town meeting.
By Jack King
On a swing through Curry and Roosevelt counties Wednesday, Gov Bill Richardson expressed support for a Ute Lake surface water distribution system and an overpass over State Road 467, but was peppered with questions about his education reform plan by educators in Roosevelt County.
Richardson’s visits were part of a three-day, 11-city tour of eastern and southern New Mexico that will end in Carrizozo on Friday. He said the purpose of the trip is to thank voters for support in his election and to seek their support for upcoming initiatives. Those initiatives include proposals that will go before voters in a special election in September to create a cabinet-level Secretary of Education and to increase the amount taken from the state’s Permanent Fund to pay for education reforms.
In Clovis, Richardson said he has sent a letter to New Mexico’s Congressional delegation in support of the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority’s attempt to build a surface water distribution system from Ute Lake. He said, at his request, the Legislature has approved reserving 10 percent for the state’s oil and gas severance tax revenue for water projects.
Richardson’s Director of Policy and Planning Bill Hume said the Ute Lake project is the kind of project the administration envisioned when it asked for the severance tax funds.
When asked by audience member John Hays, Richardson said he was unfamiliar with the controversy over the closing of Clovis/Curry County’s Wheaton Street railroad crossing to allow Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad to extend its yard in Clovis. Hays urged him to support the State Road 467 overpass so Clovis could get the railroad extension.
“Would an overpass fix your problem?” he asked county resident Victor Chavez, who told him about 1,000 residents will be affected by BNSF’s extension. After talking with residents and Curry County Commissioners Tim Ashley and Kathrynn Tate, he added, “We want to get behind an overpass.”
He also urged Curry County residents to support his education reforms, saying the state spends too much on school bureaucracy and that he wants to put more money into teachers’ salaries and classroom instruction.
But in Portales, Sandy Cowell told Richardson she was fired from Clovis Municipal Schools and told by the district’s assistant superintendent it was because of Richardson’s reform bill.
Melody Ortega, who said she teaches at Portales Junior High School, said she will get only a 4.5 percent raise as a result of Richardson’s reform package. She said because her district is not hiring new teachers this year, there will be a much higher student-to-teacher ratio in its classes.
Jane Thompson, coordinator of teacher instruction at Eastern New Mexico University, told Richardson many districts do not have the money this year to fund mandated teacher raises that will take effect in December. As a result, many teachers are losing their jobs or can’t find jobs, she said.
Richardson said it was the first he had heard of teachers losing their jobs because of the reforms he pushed through the Legislature.
“The justification, the math, you were given doesn’t make sense,” he told Cowell. “We’ve shifted funds from the reserves to cover the increases.”
“What’s essential is that we pass the increased funding from the Permanent Fund, but I do think there’s sufficient funding for the salary increase, although there may be a one-year shortfall. We’ve got to find a way to ensure those districts that don’t have the reserves are covered,” he added.
About 80 people heard Richardson speak at the Clovis-Carver Public Library. More than 100 attended the session at the Portales Municipal Library.
In other remarks Wednesday:
— Richardson said he carried both Curry and Roosevelt counties in the election.
— He applauded legislators for bringing $1.7 million in capital projects to Curry County and $1.4 million in capital projects and funding for ENMU to Roosevelt County.
— He noted his appointment of 14 Curry County residents to state boards and commissions, including Hoyt Pattison to a blue ribbon water task force, Doc Stewart and Blake Curtis to the Governor’s Business Advisory Council and Beverlee McClure to the State Board of Education.