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Editorial: Make 2014 the session to fix driver’s licenses

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It’s time for a reasonable compromise instead of another pitched battle on the ridiculously counterintuitive law that allows New Mexico to issue gold-plated government identification to people living in this country illegally.

Do we really have to have this debate for the fourth year in a row?

Yes, absolutely.

Because the 2003 law that was sold to the public as a way to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows and get them schooled on the rules of the road, to register their vehicles and to pay insurance premiums hasn’t achieved those goals. But it does issue an unrestricted ID to people who don’t have to prove legal status, thereby creating a shadow economy of human smugglers who prey on immigrants from far-flung locales ranging from Brazil to Russia. These thugs gouge vulnerable individuals out of thousands of dollars for an $18, four-year license they could get on their own if they really lived here – which the Tax and Rev Department concluded a third don’t.

Yet while Gov. Susana Martinez is drumming up contributions while citing another repeal attempt, the reality is the state Senate has never allowed the issue out of committees for a floor vote, protecting majority Democrats from having to take an on-the-record position.

The focus in the next legislative session should be on the pragmatic compromise that made it through the state House of Representatives this year, a compromise Martinez supported and one that mirrors what nine other states do.

Those nine offer basic driving permits that cannot be used to board an airplane, enter a federal building or apply for employment or public benefits. They remove all the benefits of a government-vetted ID and leave only the ability to drive legally.

Which is what the law’s supporters claim is the bottom line.

While repeal opponents cite other states issuing licenses, they conveniently fail to mention those are issuing cards for driving privileges and not letters of transit that can be used by terrorists.

Only New Mexico and Washington offer full-fledged driver’s licenses to individuals in the country without documentation. Those licenses have not moved the needle on insured drivers, according to a New Mexico State University study. They have created a cottage industry of predatory criminal activity, according to state prosecutors and a federal judge. And they have given each side of the debate an all-or-nothing rallying cry that serves political purposes and smuggling rings.

And nothing more.

Before the 2014 Legislature convenes Jan. 21, lawmakers should recognize that a strong majority of New Mexicans polled do not support the current license policy. And they should revisit that failed bipartisan compromise that would have removed major security conflicts with federal law, including Real ID.

Otherwise, it is likely New Mexicans will have this same debate in 2015 – instead of doing things that might be more productive.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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