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Friday, March 04, 2011
House To Vote on License Bill
By Dan Boyd And Deborah Baker
Journal Staff Writers
SANTA FE — A grueling day of high-stakes political wrangling over immigrant driver's licenses in the New Mexico Legislature ended without a clear resolution.
However, House Republicans, with the help of several Democrats, gave life to one of Gov. Susana Martinez's campaign priorities by circumventing the usual committee process to revive a bill that would effectively repeal the state law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver's licenses.
A final vote on the measure, House Bill 78, was put off until today, with House Speaker Ben Lujan, D-Santa Fe, vowing it will be among the first items discussed.
Earlier Thursday, a Senate committee rejected similar legislation, signaling a similar fight could await in that chamber.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Andy Nuñez, a Hatch independent, had previously been derailed by a party-line vote in a House committee featuring just five lawmakers.
"In my estimation, a committee of five is just not sufficient," Nuñez said, explaining his decision to try to "blast" the bill onto the House floor. "In this case, three people made the decision for 70."
The skirmish started Wednesday night, when Nuñez made the blasting motion and continued Thursday, with a number of House Democrats arguing the rare procedural ploy would set a dangerous precedent.
Immigrants rights groups were also quick to criticize the action.
"This isn't about driver's licenses," said Marcela Diaz, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Somos Un Pueblo Unido. "This is about politics."
New Mexico is one of three states — Washington and Utah are the others — that don't require proof of citizenship as a stipulation for obtaining a driver's license.
Martinez has strongly advocated for a repeal of the 2003 state law, both during her gubernatorial campaign and since taking office in January.
However, the Democratic-controlled Legislature had largely stifled attempts to repeal the law before Thursday.
Martinez applauded Thursday's vote in a statement released by her office.
"Today, Republicans, Democrats and the House's only independent ensured that New Mexicans will get the up-or-down vote on a bill they have repeatedly demanded be passed," Martinez said. "I applaud House members, especially the two Democrats, who courageously stood up to Speaker Ben Lujan and stood with New Mexicans who want this dangerous law repealed."
Some Democrats, including Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, suggested Martinez's office was pushing the vote for purely political reasons.
"This is a political maneuver that is going to do nothing to address the problems in the state of New Mexico," said Egolf, who called the effort a "sad political attempt."
A Governor's Office employee was present for the six-hour debate, filming the discussions from a media gallery next to the House chamber.
Nuñez, who changed his political affiliation earlier this year from Democrat to independent after backing an attempt to unseat Lujan from his leadership position, insisted the legislation was his idea.
"This bill was not given to me by the Republican Party," Nuñez said. "This bill is mine."
In the Senate
Meanwhile, the Senate Public Affairs Committee rejected the legislation backed by the governor on a 4-2 party line vote, with the Democratic majority voting to table it and Republicans voting to keep it alive.
"I'm still looking for the problem that we're trying to solve here," said Sen. Eric Griego, D-Albuquerque, who argued that the bill "marginalizes 80,000 people."
Testimony to the committee included pleas from Santa Fe's mayor and police chief not to overturn the current law.
A spokesman for the state's Roman Catholic bishops called the legislation "extremism."
"We're looking for a compromise," said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sanchez suggested in an interview that a compromise could include, for example, a requirement that license-holders renew their licenses every year or two, tighter regulations on identification, and tougher penalties for fraudulent applications.
Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla said public safety is jeopardized by the issuance of licenses to illegal immigrants.
Martinez says New Mexico has become a "magnet for illegal immigrants" who want driver's licenses so they can move freely from state to state.
Martinez cites a series of driver's license trafficking investigations over the past seven months involving citizens of India, Chinese nationals, a Costa Rican national, a Brazilian, and an Illinois man helping Polish immigrants.
Supporters of licenses for illegal immigrants say if the problem is fraud, penalties should be tougher and the Motor Vehicle Division should be given more resources and its employees better training.