With the 30-day session of the New Mexico Legislature nearing the halfway mark, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed many of the high-profile bills pushed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, such as a proposal to stop allowing undocumented residents to get driver’s licenses.
However, the second half of the session, which ends Feb. 18, is likely to be dominated by the Democrat-controlled Senate stalling or killing many of the governor’s pet bills — and House Republicans blasting the Democrats for doing so.
The chief purpose of the 30-day session — crafting a state budget — has not produced much heat, mainly because estimates of how much revenue the state will have to spend keep getting smaller as falling oil prices put a damper on the state’s economy and government receipts from taxes and royalties.
“It’s been very fast paced emotionally due to the [revenue] projections,” said Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage, R-Kirtland, who sits on the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “We’re working with one set of numbers, then another set, then another set. … Now we’re wondering about how much money we’re going to have for the departments, how much money we’re going to have for capital outlay. Right now it just looks like we’re going to have to work hard and dig deep.”
In addition to the debate over driver’s licenses for undocumented residents, another perennial issue included among the governor’s top priorities is her push for mandatory retention of third-graders who can’t pass reading tests. Republican-backed bills on both topics passed the House last week along mostly partisan lines. However, as in past years, neither is expected to make it through the Senate.
In fact, when it reached the Senate, the House driver’s license bill — House Bill 99, sponsored by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque — received three committee assignments, which could be a kiss of death with only two weeks left in the session.
House Republicans complained Friday when three bills that would increase penalties of those convicted of crimes against children also received three committee assignments each. “Senate Boss Michael Sanchez Leaves Children Vulnerable to Predators,” screamed an email from the House GOP. (Referring to Sanchez as “Senate Boss” instead of Senate majority leader has been the practice of the House Republican press office since the session began.) The news release said Sanchez “effectively killed” the three bills.
Those bills are HB 65, which would allow prosecutors to charge one count of possession for each obscene image possessed by a defendant in a child pornography case; HB 69, which would make life in prison possible for a person convicted of intentionally fatally abusing any child under 18; and HB 68, which triples the prison sentence for somebody who intentionally injures a child in nonfatal cases.
Senate Democratic Whip Michael Padilla of Albuquerque disputed the conventional wisdom that three committee assignments was a death blow. “Twenty days is an eternity in the Legislature,” he said Friday. He noted instances in which House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro, gave Democrat-sponsored bills he didn’t like even more committee assignments.
As for the House bills, Padilla said, “Every bill will receive fair hearings.”
Padilla, noting the large number of crime bills coming out of the House this year, said Senate Democrats prefer to work on the root causes of crime, such as poverty, and plugged a 14-bill jobs package that Democrats announced last week.
However, those bills are not moving. In a 30-day session, any bill that doesn’t directly relate to the budget and state finances can’t be considered without a message from the governor. Martinez has not given messages for most of the bills in the jobs package, Padilla said.
The coming battle
The driver’s license issue once again promises to be one of the most bitter fights of the session. The battle in the Senate should start Tuesday, when the Public Affairs Committee will be the first stop for Pacheco’s bill and three other driver’s license bills sponsored by senators.
House Bill 99 — which passed the House on a 39-30 vote — would require residents to obtain driver’s licenses that comply with requirements of the federal Real ID law and would require the verification of citizenship. Applicants who lack proof of immigration status would be issued driving privilege cards that would have to be renewed annually.
Senate Democrats and some Senate Republicans have rallied around Senate Bill 174, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. This measure is modeled after a bill sponsored last year by Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, that passed the Senate in 2015 with a big bipartisan margin but died in the House.
The bill would create a two-tiered driver’s license system that would give U.S. citizens and immigrants with lawful status the option of getting a Real ID-compliant license. Those who don’t want such a license or can’t prove citizenship could apply for a license that would be good for driving but wouldn’t be recognized for federal purposes, such as boarding a commercial airline flight or entering a military base.
Martinez and House Republicans insist that such a system would not comply with the Real ID law, which Congress passed in an attempt to regulate state driver’s licenses. However, Homeland Security officials have said other states with two-tiered licenses do, in fact, comply with the law.
New Mexico U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have called on the Legislature to pass such a bill. But it’s not certain what the House would do if the Senate adopts SB 174 and rejects Pacheco’s bill.
Another bill passed by the House that is likely to cause controversy is a crime bill, HB 56, also sponsored by Pacheco. This would expand New Mexico’s never-used “three-strikes” law for repeat violent offenders.
It passed the House late Thursday on a 47-15 vote. House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, voted in favor of it after Pacheco agreed to an amendment to ensure that only violent felons would be sentenced to life in prison under the proposal. A judge would have to find that the defendant committed or intended to commit great bodily harm in a violent manner.
Egolf was joined by eight other Democrats in voting for the bill. However, 15 Democrats voted against it.
The bill is bound to have a harder time in the Senate, where Sanchez and other Democrats have questioned whether laws that impose mandatory sentences are effective.
Calm before the storm
Despite some obvious political spinning and a few examples of rhetorical overkill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have noticed that despite some controversial legislation, the session has not produced the heat and rancor that marked last year’s session.
Democrat Padilla said he thinks much of last year’s animosity was a natural result of Republicans winning control of the House for the first time in six decades. “There was a 60-year flush,” he said. “But now, we’re learning to dance again.”
There is another reason as well, he said: Those gloomy revenue projections.
“With zero new money, everyone’s deflated now,” he said.
Republican Clahchischilliage agreed, saying everyone seems to be grown-up about the financial crunch.
“Amazingly, I feel like everyone has been calm,” she said. “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm. I’m a little surprised. I thought there probably would be more outbursts.” Referring to controversial measures such as the crime bills, she said. “I think that’s where we’re venting our frustrations.”