Guest Editorial: Politicians must fix ID law

The Las Cruces Sun News
Nov. 4
Guest Editorial

What has been a wedge issue between Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and Democrats in the New Mexico Legislature ever since her first election in 2010 has suddenly taken a serious turn.

After years of granting extensions to us and other states, the federal government announced that New Mexico drivers licenses will no longer be accepted under the federal REAL ID law. That means starting Jan. 10, state drivers licenses can no longer be used to enter federal facilities such as White Sands Missile Range. And some time after that, they can longer be used to board an airplane.

Despite those pending consequences, the governor has said she will not call a special session to deal with the issue before lawmakers meet in late January. Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said last month the Senate would not take up the issue next year, though that announcement came before last week’s decision by the feds.

Few issues have divided the Legislature and the governor like this one, and positions have only seemed to harden over the years. But for one brief moment late in this year’s session, a reasonable compromise was at hand.

Senate leaders John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, came together to craft a bill that would have created a two-tiered licensure system. Immigrants in the country illegally would still be able to drive under the bill, but their licenses could not be used for official identification.

Such a two-tiered system is in place in more than 10 other states, and all are in compliance with federal law. The Senate bill passed with a substantial 35-5 majority in the Senate, with all Democrats and most Republicans voting in favor.

“We have to get this issue behind us,” Smith said at the time.

But the bill never got a hearing in the House. Republican House leaders explained after the session that a similar proposal had died earlier in their chambers, which was true. But that was early in the session, when much was still possible. Whatever other possibilities House leaders may have envisioned at one time, all of those were gone when the Senate bill came over in the final week.

By then, it was a choice of that reasonable compromise, or continuing to live with the status quo. House leadership chose the status quo.

Governor Martinez also opposed the Senate compromise. Rep. Andy Nuñez, who has worked for years to repeal the bill allowing illegal immigrants to get a state driver’s license – first as a Democrat, then as a Republican – said Martinez had agreed to a two-tiered compromise before the session started, but then reconsidered.

The threat of federal action to secure compliance with REAL ID may have seemed like something of a bluff in the past – with another extension always around the corner. That allowed politicians on both sides to refuse to compromise without fear of the consequences.

But the consequences of that refusal have suddenly become very real. We think the Senate compromise passed last year offers the best hope for a quick resolution that is now needed on this issue, and we urge lawmakers to take the issue up as soon as possible.