The Alibi sits down with the Guv
by Christie Chisholm, Weekly Alibi, February 16, 2006
Gov. Bill Richardson has never been a man for small undertakings. Rather, as his nickname, Big Bill, implies, he tends to aim for ... well, bigger accomplishments. It started with a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1983, and continued into the position of U.S. Ambassador to the UN in 1997, which landed him three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. From there, his ambitions snagged him a job as the U.S. Secretary of Energy, and eventually landed him back here in New Mexico in the governorship. Now, with recent speculation about his interest in the White House, it seems as though Big Bill's tendencies aren't going to downsize anytime soon.
As could be expected, the last thing the guv has done is shy away from big state projects. From the commuter rail and renewable energy to the film industry and the minimum wage, Richardson has taken a stand on a number of controversial issues. Recently, the big guy took a few minutes to sit down with Alibi staffers Steven Robert Allen, Devin D. O'Leary, Jessica Cassyle Carr, Amy Dalness and myself, to chat about some of the touchier topics facing the state today. Read on for enlightenment.
CC: Let's start off by talking about the RailRunner—it's an issue that's really been on the map lately, and has stirred some controversy. Can you talk to us about why you think it's a good thing for the state?
If you look at where New Mexico is going to be in 10, 20 years, our highways are going to get clogged, we are going to grow enormously, gas prices are going to stay high. [The commuter rail] is energy efficient, and I believe that it's important to have a strong rail transportation system.
Eventually, the idea is to have a commuter rail that goes all the way down to Las Cruces; but you have to start in the more populated areas. I'd like to ultimately get the track through Trinidad, Colo., which would give us a commuter rail through Northern New Mexico. Now, it doesn't look viable today, and it isn't. But I think this country has never had a viable commuter rail transportation system, and I want our state to be the first in the West that deals with it. I think it's never going to be a moneymaker, but the role of government is to serve its citizens. And when you have an opportunity to be energy efficient, to save consumers gas money, to insure mobility for jobs, I think you are doing the right thing.
Besides the community rail, I am going to be announcing some support for Mayor Chavez' light rail, but we are going to focus our support on the routes that plug into the commuter rail. Like the airport, like the university, to make sure the link comes into the commuter rail. We are going to be doing that soon, announcing our commitment and some bucks to the mayor's rail project, which I think is a very good idea, and then eventually I think we've gotta look at ways to develop transportation in rural New Mexico. There's that proposal for state transit which I am not backing yet because I want to do commuter rail in Bernalillo first.
JCC: Why has the medical marijuana bill been such a priority for you?
[Before the session started], I had office hours where anybody could walk in. And I had a bunch of patients come in, medical marijuana advocates. Several had cancer, and I said to them, “Look, let's do it in the 60-day session, when we'll have plenty of time; this is only a 30-day session.” But there was a young woman who had cancer, she was 18, who said to me, “You know, I have to wait a year, it's not fair, and it's just because of politics.”
I have always supported [medical marijuana]. So we put it on the call, and it's being debated. I believe it'll pass, and I'll sign it. But there are good safeguards on it; it's for medicinal purposes. We'll be, I think, the 12th state to do it. I think it's done for healthcare reasons, for helping people that want another chance to ease their pain.
JCC: Are you worried about getting harassed by the federal government, because they're definitely not into the whole thing?
Well, all the sheriffs and all the police chiefs are mad at me. But I do a lot of other things with them, on crime. You can't win all the time, sometimes you gotta do the right thing. And I think this is the right thing to do. The federal government, they haven't cut off those states [that have passed medical marijuana legislation], they've just threatened them. So they have to keep up public posture. I think they're pleased with the other initiatives I've taken on substance abuse, penalties and treatment, so hopefully we'll be fine. And the states are where the action is in changing policy.
CC: Are there any initiatives, specifically, that you are proud of; maybe not the biggest, but some of the best initiatives that have come under your administration?
The education initiatives, the pre-k, creating that. And now it looks like we are going to get that permanently. Initiatives that have dealt with making our schools better, paying teachers better, tax cuts. You know, I am proud of that, because it's generated economic activity. Healthcare, a bunch of ways to help the uninsured. The National Guard initiative. We are the first state to give life insurance to National Guardsmen. I am also very proud of the spaceport, you know it's controversial, but in the future I think it's going to be looked at as [a good investment]. And we just announced a new science and math initiative to bring New Mexico students into technology.
DO'L: As far as film in New Mexico, you have done a lot to lure Hollywood here and get those tax breaks, which I think has been a good program. But I wonder what the state is doing as far as encouraging local filmmakers? It has always been my contention that New Mexico isn't going to be a film state until we get local filmmakers. Right now, programs are set up only to encourage grunt labor, we don't have those directors, writers, those kinds of people.
Well, what we need to do is exactly what you said, and train our people, because we'd like that infrastructure of writers, directors, producers, makeup, lighting, film and producers. We have the films coming, but after three films we run out of people. So what we are trying to do, and I have done this the last two years, is give enormous grants to universities to train people. We have one at the University of New Mexico, we have one at New Mexico State, New Mexico Tech, almost at every one of our schools to train this cadre of filmmakers, but we need to do more. And I found that encouraging the College of Santa Fe and a couple of other institutions is not enough, you know, giving them money, because I don't see the results. So I asked the Legislature for $10 million more for film training, and that is going be dedicated to developing indigenous local talent, especially in filmmaking. And I figured I'd let the experts do it. But I am not seeing the results that I want to see.
DO'L: Well, it seems to me that most of those trainees that are going to TVI or wherever are really going for below-the-line training.
So what you're saying is there's a caste system, and we should concentrate on the upper level of the caste?
DO'L: That is exactly what I'm saying, just writers, producers, directors.
And not the makeup people?
DO'L: I mean, those people have great jobs, and that money is going back into the state.
How would you do it, if you had 10 million bucks?
DO'L: Well, I would set up a system without training, because the bottom line is you can't train a writer, an artist or a director. You set up some sort of office that is sort of a liaison for local filmmakers; it isn't dealing with Hollywood, because the state is looking at big numbers. Films that have $10 million budgets, well, we can match that, or we can get this and that. But small budget stuff, stuff that locals can work with, isn't being helped by the film office. The film office really won't pay attention to a film that has lower than a $3 million budget.
So, you should have a system set in place that would possibly get grants to local filmmakers, help them get into film festivals, figure out ways to help get what the Hollywood production gets.
So you would centralize it at the film offices, rather than disperse it to universities?
DO'L: Absolutely. But I would have someone separate at the film offices that would know how to deal with locals, and not just Hollywood.
OK, good for you, I might do that.
JCC: I'd like to know what's going on with the minimum wage right now. Is that going to pass? And how come it's not going to be just a straight $7.50 implementation instead of a tiered system?
Well, first, I believe we need a minimum wage increase. But I wanted one to pass in the 30-day session. And so I proposed one that I believe could get support from business and from some Republicans. And so I decided that a three-tier implementation would do that. But it would also make New Mexico among the top four states in the union, in terms of how the minimum wage is. So it's nothing to sneeze about.
What I thought the best step I could take is, first, to endorse the idea of $7.50, that we should do it. [What my bill says is that] in January of 2007 you get $6.50, and then [eventually get to] $7.50. A lot of these moves were tactical. But I believe it was important for me to come out with something that would move thing forward in the business community.
SRA: It seems like our restaurant community is one part of the business community that has a good argument against raising the wage in their sector. That's one reason why the one in Albuquerque failed, I think—raising the wages for waitstaff basically from $2.50 to $4.50 when those people are coming home with 15 bucks an hour in tips. What do you think about that aspect of it?
Well, what I propose continues the restaurant breaks that exist now. What is the wage for restaurants? $2.50? And then you have tips. I don't think we change that very much. But, my view is that the reason the minimum wage failed in Albuquerque is because of that access provision. That was put in where anybody could go in find out, they could ask you for all your data about your employees. It scared people; people were thinking that they were going to find out about your medical records, identity theft. So they scared enough voters.
So I sat down [with the business community] and said, “Look, this minimum wage is going happen. Either you guys can come in positive and constructive, or if you stay out, you will get rolled. You know, go with it. I will support $7.50 an hour.” They decided to play ball and I think what we have is something that the state can handle. And if you are going to have a high-wage economy, then you've gotta pay higher wages.
CC: You've said you want New Mexico to be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy. And there have been a number of initiatives in the last couple of years, in the last session, and with the solar tax credit for this session that are working toward that goal. Do you have anything else on the horizon planned for renewable energy, and do you feel like those initiatives are innovative and progressive enough?
Well, the solar tax credit is huge. You get that for all kinds of businesses. And I believe that looks good. That will make us a solar centerpiece. Another major one is the transmission authority, which allows the state to export and buy wind energy. That is on the table, too. And that will allow us to sell a lot of wind energy to California, and it also promotes more wind energy here. So, that's a second big one. We've got a bunch of others, like a production tax credit. If you are a renewable energy company and you bring equipment here, you get a tax credit. I mean, that's a plus, but that's not going to change the world. I mean, those two that I mentioned before are the big ones. And with the others that we have done—clean energy, revenue bonds, clean energy grants, green buildings, a tax credit for hybrid vehicles.
CC: To end, we'll ask you the same question everyone else does: Are you going to run for president?
The answer to that is, and I am going to give you a political answer, that I first have to finish the agenda as governor. I've got to get re-elected, and then I am not precluding any options. I am not ruling it out or in. I want to take a look at the future.