SANTA FE — Republicans, the underdogs of state legislative politics, last controlled the New Mexico House of Representatives in 1953.
But as this year's legislative session opens, they will find themselves stronger than they could have imagined.
Two Democratic House members -- Reps. Ernest Chavez of Albuquerque and Phillip Archuleta of Las Cruces -- will be absent from at least the beginning of the 30-day session because of illness.
Neither will be able to cast votes on any bills until he physically returns to the Capitol.
Republicans at this time last year were the minority party by a 38-32 margin. They picked up one seat last fall after Democratic Rep. Stephen Easley of Eldorado died and Gov. Susana Martinez appointed fellow Republican Vickie Perea of Belen to replace him.
With Chavez and Archuleta unable to start the session, the Democratic majority drops to 35-33. In turn, Republicans will improve their chances of advancing two of the governor's legislative priorities, though they still likely face difficulty in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Martinez wants to repeal a 2003 law that allows people without proof of immigration status to obtain a New Mexico driver's license, and she is pushing for mandatory retention of thousands of third graders who do not read proficiently.
Archuleta, though only a freshman lawmaker, last year led the way in bottling up the driver's license repeal in the labor committee. He said the licensing law had worked well and improved public safety by listing more drivers in police databases.
Though Republicans stand a better chance of getting driver's license and retention bills through the House of Representatives, they face a tall hurdle in the Senate. Democrats have a 25-17 edge in the Senate, and most of them have opposed the governor's initiatives.
House Speaker Kenny Martinez played down the political ramifications of having two of his members out because of illness.
He said the Legislature is "a very human institution" where policy trumps politics most of the time.
Speaker Martinez said everyone's thoughts are with the ailing legislators, not on partisan politics.
Archuleta broke a hip and femur in a fall last September. He said in an interview last year that he intended to run for re-election in 2014.
Speaker Martinez said he did not know details of Chavez's illness. The speaker said he spoke with Chavez's daughter, but he did not seek information on any particulars.
Chavez, 76, has been a House member since 2004.
Speaker Martinez said there were no discussions about either ill lawmaker resigning from office so Democrats could replace him at the start of the legislative session.
Chavez and Archuleta both represent single-county districts in which Democrats control of the board of county commissioners. This means the county bodies could have sent Democratic replacements to Santa Fe if Archuleta and Chavez had stepped aside.
Democrat Easley represented a district that included parts of four counties. With split recommendations from county commissions, Gov. Martinez had the latitude to appoint a Republican to succeed him.
Milan Simonich covers politics for The Santa Fe New Mexican. He can be reached at 505-986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.