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Legislators prepare broad anti-crime package

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bipartisan pair of legislators is turning to an unusual strategy as they propose streamlining New Mexico’s criminal justice system.

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, left, and Sen. Sander Rue

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, left, and Sen. Sander Rue

Democratic state Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Republican Sen. Sander Rue are crafting a massive “omnibus” bill that would roll a dozen or more ideas into one piece of legislation.

The proposal would touch on a host of crime initiatives, ranging from the handling of eyewitness testimony to New Mexico’s system for probation and parole.

Every proposal, Maestas and Rue say, already has significant backing. Some are based on legislation that has generally already passed at least one chamber of the Legislature with broad, bipartisan support. Others came from bipartisan working groups that have consulted with national experts.

The two legislators, both from Albuquerque, plan to package the ideas into one bill. It’s an unusual strategy that would force lawmakers to vote on the legislation as a whole, even if they support parts of it and oppose others.

The state Constitution allows the strategy, supporters say, as long as the different parts of the bill are related. In this case, all the measures would relate to fighting crime, thus meeting the requirement, they say.

The New Mexico Constitution prohibits the passage of any bill “embracing more than one subject,” but with some exceptions, such as general appropriation bills.

Maestas and Rue, in any case, say it’s the right way to approach substantial changes to the criminal-justice system, where individual agencies interact in complex ways.

“A lot of these things need to be done together, because they play off each other,” Rue said in an interview.

Maestas, an attorney, said the overarching goal is to combat crime. He also said they heard from nonpartisan legislative analysts that “swift and certain justice” is a key to deterring criminals.

An omnibus bill “sends a strong message to the people of New Mexico that crime is our top priority,” Maestas said.

Debate on approaches

Not everyone is a fan.

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, told his colleagues in a recent meeting that rushing to pass complex legislation could lead to litigation, undermining the whole proposal.

“I’m not here to save time,” Alcon said.

It’s far better, he said, to introduce individual bills and schedule them for committee hearings one at a time.

“Every piece of legislation should be vetted,” Alcon said. “Every piece of legislation should have its own hearing.”

Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the influential House Judiciary Committee, said other states that have passed sweeping criminal-justice legislation recommend the omnibus approach.

Furthermore, she said, the components of the omnibus bill have been analyzed between legislative sessions.

“I reject any notion that we haven’t properly vetted it,” Chasey said.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said it can be difficult to deal with legislation that has “so many appendages.” But he said he will look more closely at the bill when it’s proposed before deciding whether it’s the right approach.

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said legislators are in a tough position when they’re expected to vote on one bill with different components – some they may support and others they may not.

There are also judgments that must be made, he said, about what makes it into the omnibus and what should be voted on separately in a stand-alone bill.

“I have some concerns,” he said.

The omnibus strategy is unusual, but not entirely new.

Just last session, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and then-House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, worked together to win approval for a 90-page crime bill that increased penalties for violent felons caught with a firearm, offered retention bonuses to veteran police officers and sought to improve treatment for inmates struggling with mental illness or addiction.

Many of the measures had originally been proposed separately, but they were ultimately packaged together in one bill.

It passed the House 66-1, with Alcon casting the lone dissenting vote.

Gov. Martinez signed much of it into law, though she used her line-item veto authority to block parts of the bill.

The omnibus proposal planned for the upcoming legislative session is more ambitious since it involves more proposals.

Hopeful outlook

Lawmakers have been working with the nonprofit Council of State Governments on ideas that have been put in place elsewhere.

And they’re hopeful that New Mexico’s incoming governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, will agree to support the crime package.

“Gov.-elect Lujan Grisham is committed to working with both parties in the legislature to attack crime and make meaningful reforms to our criminal justice system,” Dominic Gabello, the incoming governor’s transition director, said in a written statement.

The omnibus bill won’t be the only crime proposal. It’s just a package of ideas expected to win broad support with little need for amendments, Maestas said.

Plenty of other bills that are expected to be more controversial – proposed restrictions on firearms and the like – will also be introduced and may win approval on their own.

As for the omnibus bill, the different components might be introduced on their own, then rolled into one substitute during the session, or they might start out bundled into one bill from the beginning.

Maestas and Rue are still discussing which is the better strategy. They are also discussing exactly what will be in the omnibus bill.

Democrats are returning to the Roundhouse next month with increased strength. They picked up eight seats in the House – where they’re expected to have a 46-24 majority – and maintain a 26-16 edge in the Senate.

And for the first time in eight years, a Democrat will occupy the Governor’s Office.

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