A driver’s license fix that makes New Mexico compliant with the federal REAL ID Act, gives immigrants without legal status a way to drive legally, and ends a bitter five-year political battle.
A proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would let judges hold some people accused of violent crimes in jail without bail while awaiting trial, give people accused of nonviolent crimes a way to get out of jail even if they can’t afford bail, and save counties millions of dollars on jail costs each year.
Oh, and in a year that will be remembered for the affect falling oil prices had on the state’s coffers, a budget. A $6.2 billion budget that makes some cuts and sweeps funds to temporarily prop up spending but avoids tax increases and job losses.
For a 30-day session — one during which shifting economic forecasts necessitated a rewrite of the fiscal year 2017 budget — the session of the New Mexico Legislature that ended Thursday was arguably productive. From driver’s licenses to the state’s finances, Democrats and Republicans worked together to find compromise.
That’s especially noteworthy given that all 112 state legislative districts are up for grabs in November. On many issues, election posturing took a backseat to solving problems. Even Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Democrat — whose disdain for each other is palpable — toned down the rhetoric and got things done.
That was apparent as the session wound down Thursday. During a discussion of a memorial that urges state agencies “to protect declining bee populations,” Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, referenced “the spirit of this legislative session, which has been a compromise session.”
The issues on which lawmakers found bipartisan compromise also included legislation to make more readily available a drug to reverse opioid overdoses, a bill to clarify regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft, and a proposal to expand voting rights to some 17-year-olds.
The tension that often characterizes the final day of sessions — which is constitutionally mandated to end at noon — was absent in the 2016 session’s final hours. Lawmakers were aware they’d accomplished much of what they went to Santa Fe to do, and they weren’t frantically racing the clock.
“This is the calmest last day I’ve seen in 20-something years,” Sanchez said Thursday on the Senate floor. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it this calm before.”
Working ‘with many stakeholders’
During the session, which was primarily focused on the budget, Martinez and House Republicans also got some of the tough-on-crime bills they wanted. The Legislature sent bills to strengthen child pornography penalties and crack down on repeat DWI offenders to the governor early Thursday. And, at a time when the U.S. Congress appears incapable of acting on any legislation related to guns and gun deaths, New Mexico’s state lawmakers approved a bill that requires the state to report mental health records to a federal background check system used by firearms sellers.
Perhaps the most tense moments of the session came when Attorney General Hector Balderas opposed an amendment to the child-porn bill that exempted kids 14 to 17 years old who engage in the consensual exchange of explicit photos.
But Balderas appeared to be standing largely alone. The attorney general was chastised by one senator on Wednesday who said he “has not been helpful to this process” — and senators then voted to kick the attorney general’s staffers off the Senate floor.
The child-porn bill, with the amendment Balderas opposed, passed both chambers unanimously early Thursday, illustrating how policymakers from both parties were able to find compromise on many issues this session.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, said she had “worked hard this session, with many stakeholders, including Governor Martinez and Senate Floor Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, to enhance penalties for manufacturing, distribution and possession of child pornography, because protecting our children is a top priority.”
Lawmakers couldn’t always find agreement. Many Democrats were upset that the governor didn’t allow consideration of their job-creation bills. And they criticized Martinez for pushing criminal-penalty legislation they said wouldn’t do much to combat crime and would increase prison costs during a budget crunch.
Democrats successfully stopped some of Martinez’s tough-on-crime bills.
“The governor refused to help New Mexicans looking for jobs and kids hoping for a better education,”said Joe Kabourek, Democratic Party of New Mexico executive director. “Instead she put the full weight of her office behind politically motivated legislation.”
More to be done
Two bills to fund public-works projects passed with little fighting — a dramatic improvement over last year’s capital outlay battle that required a special session to resolve — but not before Sen. Joseph Cervantes railed for nearly an hour on the Senate floor Wednesday against the capital outlay bill. The bill was altered to take millions of dollars away from water projects, and the Las Cruces Democrat complained on Twitter that the Senate approved a “House raid of water project fund for unauthorized Gov. projects.”
That served as a stark reminder that the Legislature soundly rejected a proposal to reform the state’s ridiculed capital outlay system. While bills to create a better campaign reporting system and archive House webcasts did pass, a number of ethics and transparency bills died, including a proposal to create a state ethics commission.
Claudia Anderson, a Farmington Democrat, mentioned all the Legislature didn’t approve in explaining her frustration. During a discussion NMPolitics.net facilitated on Facebook, she mentioned failed proposals to create an ethics commission, fund early childhood programs, and shore up the state’s lottery scholarship fund. And Anderson called the governor’s crime bills “a short term fix for a long term problem, but politically popular this year.”
Others called the session a success.
“I think what got accomplished was pretty remarkable, considering the hatred and hyper-partisan stances going in,” said Mike Johnson of Santa Fe. Johnson, like Anderson, complained about the death of the ethics commission. Unlike Anderson, he wanted to see more of the governor’s crime bills pass.
Ray Wilkinson of Albuquerque was also pleased with the session.
“There were some very positive accomplishments,” Wilkinson said. “Celebrate this weekend, then Monday start working and planning on the remaining urgent needs.”
As the session came to an end, Senate leaders — including President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales — talked about the session’s challenges and praised the work of lawmakers.
“We passed some good legislation here,” Ingle said. “We did our work for the people of the State of New Mexico. We never get it all done, but we did the most important things.”
Legislation headed to governor, voters
Of course, most legislation that received the OK from lawmakers still needs Martinez’s signature or, in the case of the proposed constitutional amendment on bail-reform, the approval of voters in November. The House rule on archiving webcasts needs no further approval because it’s a chamber issue.
Thus far Martinez has only given approval to one piece of legislation — the bill that funded the session.
Martinez’s office hasn’t responded to a request for comment on the just-concluded session. But the governor has said she will sign the driver’s license compromise, and she gave her support to a number of other bills the Legislature approved.