Benavidez and Montoya vie for state treasurer under contentious cloud

·10 min read

May 20—The Democratic primary race for state treasurer has turned into a brutal battle, especially for this traditionally staid office.

The most vitriolic volleys aren't coming from the candidates but from outgoing state Treasurer Tim Eichenberg, who was miffed that onetime ally Laura Montoya defied his request not to run against Heather Benavidez, whom he wants as his successor.

The winner of the June 7 primary will face Republican candidate Harry Montoya, who is running unopposed. In New Mexico, there's little dispute the Democrat will have the edge in the general election, thus raising the stakes for Benavidez and Montoya.

Beneath the contentious cloud lie questions about both candidates, including their qualifications, vision for state treasurer and priorities if elected.

As can be expected with two candidates of the same party, there are similarities but also some differences.

Both women are 44, pride themselves on being longtime New Mexicans and say they want to ensure the state's $8.5 billion budget is handled responsibly and in ways that benefit taxpayers.

"Most people don't like finances, but for me, that's the nucleus for everything else you care about," Laura Montoya said. "If you know where the money is at, you can provide for the needs of your community or what you're really interested or passionate about."

Benavidez said she wants to carry on what she describes as the good work of Eichenberg and his predecessor, James B. Lewis, both Democrats.

"I want to protect the office, protect New Mexicans and make sure they continue to receive the service they deserve, which is top notch," Benavidez said.

Benavidez likened her credentials to a diverse portfolio, which is stronger because of its various assets.

"I feel the same principle applies to myself and my opponent in this race," Benavidez said. "I feel my employment, my education and my life experience is very diverse."

Being the treasurer's chief of staff has taught her the culture of the office and how it functions with in state government, she said.

Her time as a municipal judge has given her a "deep understanding of the legal system," which is important in this job, Benavidez said. Her education has provided her with knowledge but also instilled the drive to research what she doesn't know, she added.

In contrast, Laura Montoya touted the two terms she served as Sandoval County treasurer and 23 years working mostly in finance for local, state, federal and tribal governments.

Montoya called into question Benavidez's qualifications, arguing her résumé indicates little experience working in the financial sector. A treasurer can only rely on advisers and delegate so much, she said.

"You have to know how to do your job, and you have to have built the relationships along the way to get it done," Montoya said.

Eichenberg has made clear who he thinks should be running and who should not.

He bought radio ads bashing Montoya and wrote a letter asking the state attorney general, secretary of state and the State Ethics Commission to investigate her alleged misconduct.

Montoya has dismissed Eichenberg's attacks as a desperate ploy to help Benavidez in the primary race.

She said her insistence on running, despite the retaliation, is part of the independence a state treasurer must have to do the job right.

"It was the perfect timing for me to do something for New Mexico; I have the right skillset and experience," Montoya said. "This idea of these old white men thinking they can tell us what to do is not OK."

Both candidates support creating a public bank, which they say would offer community lending that commercial banks won't. For instance, it could approve loans to ranchers who lost grazing land in a wildfire or offer money as collateral for lower-income borrowers seeking business loans from regular banks.

Only North Dakota has a pure public bank, and legislative efforts to establish one in New Mexico so far have failed.

The two rivals also back development of a financial literacy program to teach kids about the monetary system so they can better handle their personal finances — instruction they and other advocates say could help prevent people from falling into poverty.

Benavidez noted she oversees the ABLE program — which provides tax-free savings accounts to qualifying people with disabilities — and would work to strengthen it.

Montoya said one of her priorities will be managing the "local government investment pool," into which rural and tribal communities as well as schools and local governments funnel money.

This pooled fund allows a small county like Mora to get the same rate of return as a larger county such as Bernalillo, she said.

If elected, Montoya said she would conduct a full internal audit of the office to ensure she is inheriting a system that is clean and in order. That would include looking at political appointees, some of whom are being paid significantly more than the treasurer, she said.

Her aim as treasurer would be to put the public's interest first, Montoya said.

"I will not waste taxpayers' dollars on my own self-interest," she said.

Democratic state treasurer candidates questionnaire

Laura Montoya

Age: 44

City or area of primary residence: Rio Rancho

Educational background: Bachelor's degree in political science, psychology; master's degree in public affairs.

Occupation: Independent contractor

Political experience: Worked at state Legislature and a U.S. Senate office.

Relevant life experience: Eight years as Sandoval County treasurer; 23 years working in local, state, federal and tribal governments, mostly in finance. Administrative assistant for state treasurer in 2006.

Have you ever been charged or convicted of a crime, including drunken driving? No

I have never been arrested or convicted of a crime? In 2014, I was charged with a domestic violence misdemeanor based on a false allegation and the case was dismissed.

Have you ever filed for bankruptcy or been involved in a bankruptcy proceeding, either personally or in business? No

Have you ever been the subject of liens for unpaid taxes? No

What makes you a better choice for state treasurer than your opponent? My experience and love for New Mexico. I served two terms (eight years) as a county treasurer in the state's fastest-growing county. My experience and relationships guide my decision-making on behalf of New Mexico. I have managed billions of dollars, with several clean audits. I have invested when rates were low after the market crash, when they were high and when they dropped to minus-20 during the pandemic. I will work with others on financial literacy, a state bank, fighting predatory lending and other policies that hurt working families. My 23 years of government experience will work for all New Mexico.

Why are you running for state treasurer?

I am running to:

* Provide outreach, resources, and assistance to tribal, county, and municipal government entities, especially with the local government investment pool.

* Support financial literacy.

* Bridge the gap of inequity between the rich and poor, rural and urban, north and south.

* Provide transparency and accountability with independent thinking and leadership.

* To protect taxpayer dollars and make sure they are being invested wisely with safety, then liquidity and yield.

* To ensure that state Public Employees Retirement Association and Educational Retirement Board members keep their retirements solvent.

If elected, what will be your priorities in the first year and long term?

* Meet with the internal team to discuss concerns and ideas that would assist with efficiency, transparency and accountability.

* Engage with partnering agencies and determine how the office can provide better customer service.

* Meet with the investment team, both internally and externally, and provide support.

* Meet with the members of the legislative branch to work on legislation that may needs to be drafted to assist with efficiency, transparency and accountability.

* Create an outreach program to build the bridge between schools, tribal, city and county governments to strengthen the local government investment pool and the relationship.

What do you plan to do differently to benefit New Mexico than previous treasurers have done? The current treasurer does not support the option of a state bank. I will involve stakeholders to discuss the idea and see how we can make it work for New Mexicans. I will provide outreach throughout our state and tribal communities, to provide education so that communities can diversify their investments, resulting in the ability to provide services that are needed in their community. I am an advocate for financial literacy in our schools and businesses. I will provide effective assistance to our fellow state agencies because government should work for the people.

Heather Benavidez

Age: 44

City or area of primary residence: Albuquerque

Educational background: Bachelors degree in political science/Spanish; master's degree in public administration.

Occupation: Chief of staff, state Treasurer's Office.

Political experience: First municipal judge of Rio Communities 2013-2020 (re-elected twice). Appointed by governor to fill a vacancy on the Valencia County Magistrate Bench in 2020.

Relevant life experience: About 20 years of state and local government experience, including with program management, budgeting, accounting and investing.

Have you ever been charged or convicted of a crime, including drunken driving? No

I have never been arrested or convicted of a crime? No

Have you ever filed for bankruptcy or been involved in a bankruptcy proceeding, either personally or in business? No

Have you ever been the subject of liens for unpaid taxes? No

What makes you a better choice for state treasurer than your opponent? I have the education and experience necessary to be a prudent fiduciary of the state's money. I am the only candidate employed by state Treasurer's Office to manage an amazing team in five divisions (investments, cash management, budget and finance, IT, special projects). Continuity of good service and management is vital to the financial health of our state and can only be accomplished by a leader with a proven track record of honesty, integrity, and adherence to the highest ethical standards in matters both personal and professional. I am that leader.

Why are you running for state treasurer? I'm running for state treasurer because investing in New Mexico's future begins by investing in our people. This is exactly what we're doing in the state Treasurer's Office. We invest and protect $11 billion of your taxpayer dollars and provide financial literacy programs to our youth. We offer an investment program to cities, counties, and tribal governments with the local government investment pool and will implement a retirement program for employees of small businesses and the self-employed in 2024. In 2018 we created ABLE New Mexico, which provides savings accounts to individuals living with disabilities.

If elected, what will be your priorities in the first year and long term? My first and ongoing priority will be to continue to adhere to the investment principles of safety, liquidity, and yield to protect the state's money. I'll work with legislators to incentivize contributions to ABLE New Mexico accounts by making a portion tax deductible, as well as explore the creation of child development savings accounts to accompany financial literacy and consumer protection education. I'll continue to work with the state Children, Youth, and Families Department to provide savings accounts to youth transitioning out of foster care, and strengthen local government investment pool and state Treasurer's Office outreach by opening offices in Bernalillo and Doña Ana counties.

What do you plan to do differently to benefit New Mexico than previous treasurers have done? Treasurers James B. Lewis and Tim Eichenberg have served honorably, and I'm proud to be the only candidate in this race endorsed by Eichenberg. However, as the first woman state treasurer I will bring a fresh perspective to the office that reflects our changing world. I will research and consider environmental, social and governance investing; applying ESG non-financial factors to our analyses to identify material risks and growth opportunities. I also look forward to working with lawmakers to create legislation for the public bank that addresses the concerns of stakeholders and benefits all New Mexicans.