House crime bills languish in Senate committees

Justin Horwath
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE — Some of the tough-on-crime House bills preferred by Gov. Susana Martinez will likely not reach her desk, as the legislative session ran down to its last hours Wednesday night with many of them still in Senate committees. But the full Senate did pass a few key proposals in a tense, late-night session.

Early in the 30-day session, House Republicans took a cue from Martinez's State of the State speech, offering a budget that prioritizes public safety spending. Citing high-profile crimes, particularly in the Albuquerque area, Republicans also quickly sent proposals through GOP-controlled House committees that would toughen criminal sentences for a range of crimes, including repeat DWI offenses, possession of child pornography and child abuse.

Democrats have said such proposals are politically motivated and meant to distract voters from New Mexico's economic woes, as all 112 seats in the Legislature will be up for re-election this November.

A bill that would toughen sentences for DWI offenders, proposed by Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, passed the Senate on a 34-2 vote. But dissenting from the bill, Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said New Mexico should be putting more money into treatment programs.

"I know how this will be used," Sanchez said, referring to potential campaign advertisements in the coming year. "But I'm not afraid of it being used against me at this point in time."

In the House, Democrats led a rhetorical assault during a debate about the budget that centered on the costs of increased prison sentences. Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, said he remembered when he was in the Legislature in the '90s, when an economic development plan called for building a prison in each of the 70 House districts.

"'That's how we get re-elected,'" Garcia recalled his colleagues from both parties telling him. "'I've got to get tough on crime.'"

But Republicans have maintained that their measures would protect New Mexicans and spur economic growth by making communities safer.

A bill to allow local governments to set curfews for youth between midnight and 5 a.m., sponsored by Reps. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, and Carl Trujillo, D-Nambé, passed the House on a 44-21 vote. But it did not make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee as of late Wednesday night. Some worried a court could rule that such a law is unconstitutional.

A bill by Rep. Conrad James, R-Albuquerque, to increase penalties for intentional child abuse passed the House 61-1 but has not yet made it out of the Senate Public Affairs Committee. Another bill by James also is sitting in Senate Public Affairs. That measure would make intentional child abuse resulting in death a first-degree felony regardless of the child's age. The bill passed the House 63-0.

A bill by Albuquerque Republican Reps. Jim Dines and Bill Rehm would have allowed for enhanced sentences for felony DWI offenders. It cleared the House 49-16 but did not make it out of the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

Not all the tough-on-crime legislation cut down partisan lines. The Senate on Wednesday sent to the governor's desk a bill by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, that requires the state to report mental health records to a federal background check system for firearms purchases. Mark Kelly, a Navy combat veteran and former astronaut, praised the legislation in a statement Wednesday. Kelly co-founded the gun violence-prevention organization Americans for Responsible Solutions with his wife, former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011 during an event near Tucson, Ariz.

Last week, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said he wanted to set aside up to $5 million to pay for the House crime proposals. But then revenue projections collapsed and the Senate passed an amended budget without including that money.

Fiscal impact reports in many of the House crime bills included estimates from the New Mexico Corrections Department on the costs to house an inmate in a state prison: $123 per day and about $45,250 a year. Corrections officials say the state prison budget has grown $5 million, or 7 percent, since the 2011 budget year "as a result of the growing prison population."

One sentence became familiar in many of the crime bills: "Enhanced sentences over time will increase the population of New Mexico's prisons and long-term costs to the general fund."

Legislative analysts also wrote in reports on crime bills that "it is difficult to accurately estimate the costs of increased trials," which would require more funding for public defenders, district attorneys and courts.