Session marked by smaller budget
SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers ended their 30-day session Thursday with high-profile compromises to boast about but still clashing over priorities in a state with a declining population and the nation's highest unemployment rate.
Among the bills that legislators approved were a measure that will put New Mexico in compliance with federal Real ID requirements while still allowing undocumented immigrants to drive lawfully. Democrats and Republicans also came together with a ballot initiative to revamp the state's bail bond system and agree on a $6.2 billion budget that reflects the state's sagging revenues because of declining oil prices.
But some big-picture matters, like job-creation packages, went largely unaddressed, giving way instead to lengthy debates over anti-crime proposals and how to pay for them.
"It was disappointing that the governor and the House Republican majority failed to assist Senate Democrats' numerous efforts to create jobs and revive economic activity in New Mexico," said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. "It was a missed opportunity."
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez called it "almost laughable" that Democrats criticized her over job bills because they cut money from the Job Training Incentive Program. She said the approval of legislation to help ride-booking companies such as Uber, an online internship portal and a rapid workforce development fund are examples of GOP legislation that will create jobs.
Sanchez said Republicans ignored many of the Democrats' job bills that could have put thousands of people to work. For instance, he said, Democrats tried to reserve 25 percent of local economic development funds for small businesses, sought to expand tax credits for those who create "high-wage jobs" and to add New Mexican-grown produce to school lunches.
Rep. Bealquin "Bill" Gomez, D-La Mesa, was among many lawmakers who said they were frustrated that bills by Democrats to clear the way for production of industrial hemp sat idle because Martinez would not put them on the agenda for the short session. Legislators last year approved an industrial hemp bill that Martinez vetoed. Gomez said industrial hemp is a crop that requires relatively little water but has countless commercial uses, everything from the manufacture of carpeting to auto dashboards.
Martinez and leaders in the House of Representatives focused on crime bills, saying the state cannot prosper without improved public safety. They got through measures to lengthen sentences for certain repeat drunken drivers and for those who possess or distribute child pornography. The latter bill to crack down on those who exploit children also was a compromise measure that started in the House and then was revised in the Senate.
Senate Democrats stopped other crime bills, including a measure to allow cities and counties to enact youth curfews and a "three-strikes" bill to send repeat violent offenders to prison for life. Democrats said the three-strikes proposal was similar to laws that have failed across the country. "Along with numerous experts, and former Republican Governor Gary Johnson, and even the libertarian Rio Grande Foundation, Senate Democrats said 'no' to expensive, discredited mass incarceration policies," Sanchez said.
Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco, a retired Albuquerque police officer, said the three-strikes bill he sponsored would have improved public safety. "We have a small percentage of extremely violent predators on the streets of our cities and in the state of New Mexico who are committing the majority of violent crimes. These individuals, there's no hope for them for rehabilitation," he said.
Pacheco intended to name his three-strikes bill Lilly's Law, for 4-year-old Lilly Garcia, who was shot to death in a road-rage case last year in Albuquerque. Lilly's mother, Veronica Garcia, said Pacheco's bill was important to her and many others.
"I never thought this would be my journey, that's for sure. I've never been political," she said. "I've never been up here before. ... I lost my Lilly in a tragic way and in a senseless way, but I'm going to continue to fight because I have my son, Isaac, and I need to know New Mexico's going to be a safe place for him to grow up. ... I'll be back next year."
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said nearly all the crime bills proposed by Republicans carried a price tag, yet none was vetted by the GOP or the House Finance Committee to determine how much they would add to the state budget in a year when funding for some institutions, such as universities, was being cut.
Sanchez said examining the costs of crime bills was especially important because New Mexico has "a corrections system in crisis." State prisons are understaffed, and to compensate, corrections officers often are working mandatory overtime that keeps them on the job for 16 hours a day or 72 hours a week. Corrections officers who traveled to the Capitol during the session said New Mexico cannot be made safer by jamming more people into prisons without better staffing.
They said New Mexico ignored its prisons before, and that led to tragic consequences. The 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico left 33 inmates dead at the hands of other inmates. Prisoners also took 12 guards hostage, raping and injuring some of them.
Martinez, who was a prosecutor for 25 years before being elected governor in 2010, said money could not be the primary consideration in fighting crime. "You cannot put a price on what a victim has to endure or the victim's family," she said.
Still, Martinez and Democrats found one high-profile public-safety bill to agree on. Martinez tried for five years to repeal the New Mexico law allowing those without proof of immigration status to obtain a state driver's license. She gave ground this year, agreeing to a two-tier system in which immigrants will get driving authorization cards that keep them on the roads lawfully and the state will still meet requirements of the Real ID Act, a federal identification system.
The compromise bill on driver's licenses was rewritten by Smith and Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales. They took Pacheco's original proposal, heavily amended it and then got it through both chambers of the Legislature with only two dissenting votes.
"Our bill keeps our roads safe and supports the needs of law enforcement while giving U.S. citizens the choice to obtain a Real ID driver's license or a driving authorization card," Sanchez said.
Part of the compromise centered on fingerprinting. Pacheco lost his version in which 90,000 immigrants who have state driver's licenses would have been fingerprinted as a condition of maintaining driving privileges. The bill legislators approved limits fingerprinting to immigrants who get driving authorization cards for the first time.
Animosity between Senate Democrats and House Republicans that marked much of the session seemed to dissipate during the final week.
In sharp contrast to the House Republican news conference last year, which amounted to a blistering attack by House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, on Sanchez, the tone this time was different. Gentry began by thanking his Democratic counterpart in the House, Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.
"Representative Egolf and I had a conversation very early on," Gentry said. "We agreed to tone down the rhetoric. I was very pleased that he voted ... for the vast majority of our public safety measures. As for Senator Sanchez, I'd characterize our relationship as a good working relationship this session. ... I carried one of his bills, and we had frequent conversations."
For his part, Sanchez said he and Gentry began speaking halfway through the session. "This was the first time we actually talked in two years," he said.
Egolf said he talked with Gentry several weeks ago. "We cooperated on the bail reform amendment and other issues," he said. "And during the budget debate, we disagreed on priorities, but we respected the decorum."
The compromise on the bail initiative brought Gentry together with Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. They put forth a proposal to allow judges to deny bail to defendants they consider a danger. A second part of the measure would enshrine in the state Constitution a provision saying judges can release indigent but nonviolent defendants on their own recognizance. Voters will get the final say on that proposal in the November election.