Dems, Republicans trade jabs over crime bills

Steve Terrell and Milan Simonich
The Santa Fe New Mexican
From left, Democratic state Sens. John Arthur Smith of Deming, Michael Padilla of Albuquerque and Peter Wirth of Santa Fe say the House of Representatives approved a series of crime bills without any plan to pay for them. Smith has introduced a generic bill to provide $3 million to $5 million to pay for any of these crime measures that the Senate may approve.

SANTA FE – State Sen. John Arthur Smith, the Democrats' leading budget hawk, said Wednesday he has introduced a generic bill that would allocate $3 million to $5 million for crime-fighting bills that House Republicans approved without appropriating any money to fund them.

"We're going to do our best to try to fix their bills," Smith said Wednesday during a news conference by Senate Democrats. He said his comment was not a partisan dig, but a realistic assessment that passing crime bills with longer prison sentences usually comes with a cost.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, at a House Republican news conference, a member of the Appropriations and Finance Committee told reporters that the House budget bill — which could be debated as early as Thursday — "absolutely" will have enough money for courts, prisons and other law enforcement costs likely to come with the tougher prison sentences.

"The first thing we did was prioritize those central government services — the courts, the public defender, the Public Safety, the Corrections Department," said Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque. "So we have already taken those steps forward to provide additional resources to our court system because when it comes down to that issue of central government services, there's no one else who can protect our children from child abusers, from predators. That's our job."

Asked about Smith's bill that would provide more money, James said, "We'll certainly take a look at it."

But much of the rhetoric at the news conferences was harsher and more partisan. Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, called Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, "an obstructionist," while Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, accused House Republicans of "grandstanding" on the crime issue. "It's one thing to grandstand. It's another if you can't pay for it," Padilla said.

Referring to that remark, Pacheco, a former police officer who is the sponsor or co-sponsor of several House crime bills, said, "I find that very insensitive, unfeeling and offensive in regards to the victims, the victims' families and to the citizens of New Mexico."

He recounted some of the violent crimes in the state last year that prompted the stream of crime bills. "It is time for the Senate to stop playing their games. The safety of the communities in the state of New Mexico, this is not a political matter."

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, drew an analogy from what is happening in his hometown. Drunken-driving cases have declined since Republican Richard J. Berry became mayor of Albuquerque, at least in part because of police staffing problems, Ivey-Soto said. So the House should have given more consideration to how the proposed tough new laws should be paid for.

"If there's nobody to arrest them, it's not going to matter," Ivey-Soto said.

Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said House Republicans complained because their crime bills received three committee assignments in the Senate. But one of those assignments was to the Senate Finance Committee, and that is smart policy, Wirth said.

He said three committee referrals for the bills is not necessarily a death sentence for the Republican measures. Instead, Wirth called it an essential step so that the financial implications of incarcerating more people for longer sentences are weighed along with the particulars of the bills. "We're going to do the right thing," Wirth said.

But House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said giving three committee assignments to the crime bills is "a transparent attempt to kill this legislation."

Referring to two House bills aimed at child abusers and pedophiles, Gentry told reporters, "I point out to you all that identical legislation that died on the vine last session did not receive a [Senate Finance Committee] referral."

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