Governor pays visit to cheese plant

Gov. Susana Martinez got a slice of local economics Friday during a brief visit to the Southwest Cheese plant in southern Curry County.

The first-term governor did not arrive in time for a tour of the plant, but said she hoped to have the time to make the tour on her next visit. She was given a front-row seat in the crowd of business leaders and elected officials, and offered a small bowl of cheese curds created at the facility while SWC Director of Operations George Chappell gave a slide presentation on the company.

CMI staff photo: Kevin Wilson

Gov. Susana Martinez speaks during a visit to the Southwest Cheese plant Friday afternoon. Martinez spoke on the recent legislative session, goals moving forward, and her experience at the inauguration of Pope Francis.

Chappell noted that the plant produces 10 percent of all American cheese the United States consumes, and that its products are used at restaurants, grocery stores and whey protein powder sold at nutrition stores and used to increase protein content in Greek yogurt.

Chappell said a feasibility study began in April to see if the plant could expand into the baby formula market, and hopes are the study will be finished before the year ends.

Following the presentation, Martinez spoke briefly about the most recent legislative session and that it was the first "true tax reform" in a generation, with a corporate tax rate drop from 7.2 percent to 5.9 percent. She said she wanted to rate to equal Arizona at 4.9 percent, and will make that pitch later down the road to the Democratically-controlled Legislature, when she says the benefits of the lower tax will be evident and justify an additional 1 percent cut.

"We have to compromise, we know that," Martinez said. "We have to reach across the aisle, we know that. It's better to get something than nothing, and we can always go back to the table."

Martinez also talked about the importance of job training assistance programs, which allow the state to split salary costs with industries such as Southwest Cheese while a new employee learns fundamental skills for the position.

Martinez was asked about the status of the Tres Amigas project as another example of industry legislators are working with to ease transitions. In 2012, Martinez signed a bill sponsored by Rep. Anna Crook, R-Clovis, also in the audience, exempting the power substation from gross receipts taxes.

Martinez said she had not talked to Tres Amigas officials since the legislative session, and deferred the question to local officials. Gene Hendricks, an economic development specialist for Clovis Industrial Development Corp., said the project was moving along.

Amid the talk of business and regulations, Clovis-Curry County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ernie Kos said all she wanted to hear about was Martinez' experience at the inauguration of Pope Francis as part of Vice President Joe Biden's U.S. delegation.

"As a young girl attending Catholic school, we would always see the pope (on television and publications)," Martinez said. "I think we always figured you would never get to see him in person. Vice President Biden said, 'You can think about it and get back to me.' I told him, 'I don't need to think about it.'"

She said the experience was amazing, but the most humbling thing was to see the pope leave the bulletproof "popemobile" in the middle of a crowd and bless sick people.

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