Local officials and others are taking sides in the debate over legislation that would consolidate most local elections, but Gov. Susana Martinez isn’t yet taking a stance on the proposal.
“We haven’t reviewed this legislation,” said Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan.
But with it appearing increasingly possible that the Legislature will send House Bill 174 to Martinez, the lobbying of the governor has already begun. The Las Cruces City Council has taken no formal position on the legislation, but Mayor Ken Miyagishima sent Martinez a letter on Friday expressing “serious City of Las Cruces concerns” about it.
Miyagishima noted the New Mexico Municipal League’s opposition to the legislation. He asserted that forcing consolidated elections on so-called “home rule” cities would violate the New Mexico Constitution, which he wrote “expressly prohibits the Legislature from passing special laws ‘changing or amending the charter of any city, town or village.'” In other words, the city currently runs its own elections, and Miyagishima says it’s unconstitutional for the state to change that.
Miyagishima also wrote in his letter to Martinez that consolidation would result in “long and confusing ballots.”
“I would ask you to carefully consider vetoing this legislation if it reaches your desk,” Miyagishima wrote.
Members of the N.M. House of Representatives approved the legislation on a vote of 38-29 on Friday. It would also need Senate approval to reach Martinez’s desk.
The bill would consolidate elections for cities, school districts, special hospital districts, community college districts, technical and vocational institute districts, learning center districts, arroyo flood control districts, special zoning districts, soil and water conservation districts, and water and sanitation districts beginning in 2019. In 2023 it would also add conservancy districts.
The bill would not consolidate elections for mutual domestics or homeowner associations.
If the bill becomes law, one November you’d vote in races like county commission, state Legislature and U.S. Congress, and the next you’d vote in races the legislation would consolidate, including school board and city council. The intent is to increase voter turnout by making it easier for voters to understand when and where they can vote and bring more attention to elections by having more candidates and issues on one ballot.
Doña Ana County Clerk Scott Krahling and the state’s other county clerks, who would take on a greater role in overseeing elections, support the legislation, as does the New Mexico Association of Counties.
Las Cruces Public Schools officials oppose the legislation, saying they’d have a more difficult time convincing voters to approve general obligation bonds and tax mill levies that help fund construction projects if they had to compete with other government agencies on the same ballot. And New Mexico State University opposes the legislation, which would impact Doña Ana Community College funding proposals, because of fees the college would have to pay to the state and possible increased advertising costs to compete with bonds proposed by other government entities.
Meanwhile, the Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution on Tuesday in support of the legislation. And the Las Cruces Sun-News editorial board endorsed the bill. The newspaper wrote that school board elections held every other February come as the paper is focused on covering the county, state and federal officials elected in November who are just settling in to their new jobs. That “almost ensures” that school board elections get less attention than they deserve, the board wrote, “and that always means way fewer people voting than the races deserve.”
Las Cruces Mayor Pro Tem Gregory Z. Smith has a middle-ground stance. He said Miyagishima “has made an important point about the legislation needing to respect the will of municipalities, such as Las Cruces, with home rule status.” And he said he hopes the Senate will “carefully consider” the points made by Miyagishima and the Municipal League.
“However, I have great confidence that our legislators can amend HB 174 so that it fully complies with the New Mexico State Constitution, respects home rule municipalities, and still reduces the smattering of elections with low voter turnout that occur many years,” Smith said. “I sincerely believe this is something the governor should sign, not veto, if appropriate amendments are made.”