SANTA FE – The 30-day legislative session hit its halfway mark at the Roundhouse with hopes of a bipartisan breakthrough on crime-related bills.
The top-ranking House Republican and Democrat worked together to craft an omnibus bill – rolled out Wednesday – that would increase penalties for the crime of being a felon in possession of firearm, give retention bonuses to veteran police officers and reclassify certain nonviolent offenses.
Crime bills filed in recent legislative sessions in response to several high-profile tragedies have sparked heated debate, but entrenched philosophical differences over the effectiveness of stiffer penalties have derailed all but a few proposals.
“Clearly there’s a problem with pubic safety, and I was kind of tired of beating my head against the wall,” House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, told the Journal.
He said Wednesday that he had worked closely with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, on the legislation, which rolled five existing House bills into one.
It passed the House Judiciary Committee 10-1 Wednesday, with Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, casting the only “no” vote, and now moves to the House floor.
The bipartisan approach got the backing – at least for now – of a broad range of groups, including the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the state Law Offices of the Public Defender.
“I think with the bill there are parts I dislike and parts I really like … and that may be a true hallmark of progress in legislative policy,” Ben Baur, the state’s chief public defender, said during Wednesday’s committee hearing.
Several lawmakers did question the unusual approach of rolling several different existing crime bills into a single piece of legislation.
However, backers of the measure defended the omnibus approach, describing it as a way to win political support by addressing hard-liners’ crime concerns and a desire for more treatment and prevention programs.
“The fact is we’re not going to address crime unless we look at all the elements that address public safety,” Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, said during Wednesday’s committee hearing.
New Mexico posted the nation’s highest property crime rate in 2016 and the second-highest rate for violent crime, after Alaska, according to recent FBI data.
The state has also been rocked by several horrific crimes involving children, including the recent death of 13-year old Jeremiah Valencia near Nambé. His mother and two other adults have been charged in the case.
A Legislative Finance Committee analysis released before the session began found that hiring more law enforcement officers and deploying them to crime hot spots can be a more effective way to deter criminal behavior than increasing the severity of penalties. The bill approved Wednesday would do a little of both, as the bonuses for veteran officers could help understaffed police forces keep officers longer.
It remains to be seen whether Gov. Susana Martinez would sign off on the omnibus legislation, as a spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill.
Both Gentry and Egolf said they’re optimistic the bill could move quickly from the House to the Senate, and then on to the governor’s desk for final approval.
“My motivation isn’t political at all; it’s responding to a very serious problem,” Gentry said.