Muñoz offers rural perspective

By Andrew Oxford
The New Mexican
Posted 5/23/18

Ask Muñoz why he is running for state land commissioner and the three-term state senator will tell you he wants to stop what he describes as the ups and downs of education funding.

 

 

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Muñoz offers rural perspective

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He has to answer to his wife, too.

A member of the Legislature since 2009, Muñoz has seen some unpopular budgets that included cuts for education, and the consequences stare him in the face when he returns home: His wife Sharmyn is principal at Red Rock Elementary School in Gallup.

So, ask Muñoz why he is running for state land commissioner and the three-term state senator will tell you he wants to stop what he describes as the ups and downs of education funding and bring more stability to the vital stream of revenue the often low-key office provides to New Mexico's schools.

"We've been on a roller-coaster ride," he says. "Always depending on one source of funding for education: oil and gas."

The commissioner of public lands, as the post is formally known, oversees 9 million surface acres and 13 million subsurface acres the state leases for oil production and other uses. Those leases generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Muñoz argues the state can better capitalize on renewable energy and power transmission to provide more reliable revenue.

And he's arguing he's the right person to guide the land office as Democrats head to the polls June 5 in a three-way primary that provides stark contrasts on policy, politics and background.

Muñoz, 51, is perhaps the most conservative candidate in a race that includes state Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard and Garrett VeneKlasen, who is on leave as executive director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

Muñoz's perfect score from the National Rifle Association would generally be seen as a liability during an election season in which gun rights and gun violence are high-profile topics, regardless of the office. But Muñoz, though not particularly flashy, says his myriad interests are belied by a single rating from a single organization. He's a rancher, farmer and businessman and says those backgrounds best suit him for this job.

"If we're going to fix the education problem in New Mexico, it's all about stability," he says.

'I represent my district'

Muñoz's father, Edward, was mayor of Gallup from 1958-69 and again from 1987-91. The elder Muñoz may be best remembered for leading a 215-mile pilgrimage to Santa Fe in 1989 to lobby lawmakers for reform of the state's alcohol laws. George Muñoz joined his father on the march that helped bring new attention to the scourge of alcohol in New Mexico.

A graduate of Gallup High School who studied at the University of Arizona, Muñoz won a four-way primary and a competitive general election for a seat in the state Senate in 2008. His district stretches from the Arizona state line to Gallup, where he lives, north to Newcomb, south to Pinehill and east beyond Grants.

This year, he may be best known for sponsoring a bill earmarking millions of dollars for security improvements at public schools and going on to call for a special session on campus safety. But over the years, he has backed bills to sell Spaceport America and reinstate the gross receipts tax on junk foods. He had a lifetime score of 45 percent from Conservation Voters New Mexico.

But Muñoz bristles at the word conservative. His far-flung district, he says, includes a coal mine, a power plant and a refinery -- all of which employ significant numbers of his constituents.

"I didn't build them," he says of those energy-related facilities.

But his constituents work in those industries, he adds.

Energy

With oil, gas and coal still providing so many jobs and so much of the state government's revenue, Muñoz argues there is all the more reason for the land commissioner to make a priority of pushing the development of other forms of energy.

"The biggest problem in New Mexico is that we don't have an energy policy," he said in a recent interview.

Coal will not last forever, he reasons, and oil prices go up and down. With that in mind, Muñoz says the state should do more to capitalize on renewable energy and power transmission. If the state better taxed power transmitted across New Mexico, it could provide a steady stream of cash, he contends. Muñoz proposes getting transmission lines up while also getting more renewable projects online.

The commissioner of public lands has remarkable power, with the ability to cut deals on state property to drive renewable energy projects and just about anything else.

Muñoz argues, however, that one person should not have so much power. He has proposed a broader decision-making process that includes more expertise, new boards and possibly changing the state constitution to redefine the commissioner's powers.

While VeneKlasen has sought to set himself apart with plans for expanding recreation on state lands and drawing more ecotourism to New Mexico, Muñoz has said he would also support creating a new permitting system for hunters to access trust lands.

Hunters' access to state trust land can be a touchy subject. Ranchers who lease state trust land are ultimately responsible for the property and can be wary of the damage that hunters and fishing enthusiasts could inflict.

Muñoz says he would create a permit system that strikes a balance between the desire for access and the liability that leaseholders face. That, he says, will also include better communication by the land office.

"You gotta show a little respect to each side," he says.

While Garcia Richard has sought to set herself apart as the advocate for animals, Muñoz is blunt that he would not support a ban on coyote-killing contests.

"She doesn't live in rural New Mexico," he says of Garcia Richard. "She's never had her chicken eaten by a coyote."

Muñoz says funding priorities are key.

"My No. 1 goal is to make sure the beneficiaries get the most amount of money," he says.

Or to put it another way: "I'm tired of going home to my wife and having to explain why I voted a certain way because there's not enough money."

And in a campaign where cash helps with name recognition through advertising, Muñoz is lagging; VeneKlasen has been lapping the state senator in campaign spending. While VeneKlasen had spent about $212,000 as of May 7, Muñoz had spent only about $105,000.

Muñoz has loaned his campaign nearly $230,000. He has raised a few thousand dollars here and there from colleagues in the Legislature such as Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith and Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen. Senator and lieutenant governor candidate Howie Morales endorsed him, citing his opposition to outgoing Gov. Susana Martinez's education policies. And he has raised a few thousand dollars, too, from lobbyists as well as oil, telecommunications and health care companies.

Still, Muñoz could set himself apart as a rancher and as a candidate who is not from Northern New Mexico. He may not have the appeal to voters on Alameda Street in Santa Fe as he does to those on Route 66 in Gallup.

But if VeneKlasen and Garcia Richard split the same voters, Muñoz could have a path to the party's nomination.

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