ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Five Democrats running for governor directed a barrage of criticism at Republican incumbent Susana Martinez at a candidate forum Saturday rather than sniping at each other.
With the June 3 primary election a month away, Democrats assailed Martinez for weak job growth in the state and New Mexico being rated in a recent national study as the worst in the country for the well-being of children.
They also faulted the Martinez administration for suspending Medicaid payments to mental health providers last year without first giving them a chance to respond to allegations of fraud, billing problems and mismanagement. The state has contracted with Arizona companies to take over the operations of the New Mexico nonprofit organizations, causing many of them to go out of business.
Attorney General Gary King, whose office is investigating the Medicaid fraud allegations, called the Martinez administration's handling of the mental health situation a "good example of bad management."
"Standard operating procedure for this administration is to shoot first and ask questions later," King said.
Several of the candidates said they would try to quickly cancel the state contracts with the Arizona mental health companies if they were elected governor.
Lawrence Rael, a former administrator of local, state and federal government agencies, said New Mexico needs more services for the mentally ill and to treat substance abuse. "It is more expensive to put them in jails than it is to provide the services they so desperately need and rightfully deserve," Rael said.
Martinez has no opponent in the GOP primary.
The other Democratic candidates are state Sens. Linda Lopez of Albuquerque and Howie Morales of Silver City, as well as Santa Fe businessman Alan Webber.
Webber said it was disgrace that New Mexican ranked at the bottom in child welfare. "There should not be a child in New Mexico that goes to bed hungry," he said.
All of the Democrats pledged support for raising the state's minimum wage to at least $10.10 an hour. The wage rate has been $7.50 an hour since 2009.
The governor vetoed a measure last year that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour. But Martinez has expressed support for an increase to at least $7.80 and potentially $8 an hour.
Morales said he supports an increase in state spending on promoting tourism to help boost the economy. He pointed out that he had voted against Martinez-backed tax cuts that benefited corporations.
"This race has got to be more than just a blame game. This has got to be about serious solutions for serious problems," said Morales, who is backed by labor unions representing public employees and some education workers.
The Democrats also agreed that more should be done to narrow the pay gap between men and women, and they said the state should encourage water conservation to help cope with a prolonged drought.
Lopez delivered some of the sharpest criticisms of Martinez.
"Gov. Martinez does not have a heart or a soul for our state," said Lopez, drawing applause from many in the audience.
Martinez campaign spokesman Chris Sanchez said in a statement that the Democrats wanted to return to a time "when government spending was out of control and public confidence was at an all-time low."
"But New Mexicans will not be fooled by their attempts to take us back down a path of failed policies that made things harder and more expensive for families," Sanchez said.
Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP