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‘Patriot’ groups challenge more NM laws

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – More laws passed this year by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are being targeted for repeal by self-described “patriot” groups from around New Mexico.

Five new referendum petitions aimed at bills such as an approved increase in New Mexico’s $7.50-per-hour minimum wage, a landmark renewable energy law and a framework for having certain criminal records expunged from public view were filed last week with Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver’s office.

In addition, two previously filed petitions that Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, had rejected for technical defects were resubmitted by proponents.

So far this year, at least 13 bills have faced referendum petitions.

Most were filed by patriot groups in four different Republican-leaning counties – Eddy, Sierra, Chaves and Valencia – and appear to be similarly formatted.

Laura Schneberger of Winston, who is part of the Sierra County patriot group, said the various groups have been in discussion with one another about repeal efforts but have made individual decisions about which bills to target.

“They don’t seem to really care about the rural parts of the state,” Schneberger said, referring to the Legislature and the first-term Democratic governor.

She also told the Journal that the new minimum wage bill, which her group is targeting and will gradually raise New Mexico’s statewide minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2023, will cause many small businesses to close their doors.

However, Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the referendum push appears motivated at least in part by political sour grapes and the goal of placing an administrative burden on the Secretary of State’s Office.

“I’d be curious what the rationale is other than to try to overturn the results of the 2018 elections in the state,” Stelnicki said Friday.

Democrats swept all statewide offices on last year’s general election ballot, while also expanding their majority in the Legislature. That set the stage for this year’s 60-day session in which numerous Democratic-backed measures were approved, including a measure to expand background check requirements for gun sales.

As a response, the barrage of petitions appears to represent a new tactic, as New Mexico’s voter referendum process has been rarely used historically and poses a high bar for repealing laws.

Since statehood, just three such attempts have been officially launched, and only one – in 1930 – was ultimately successful in repealing a state law, according to the Legislative Council Service.

But this year, referendum petitions have now been filed on at least 13 bills – with perhaps dozens more still in the works. The initial petition was filed by House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, in an attempt to overturn the new gun law.

But none of the petitions has thus far been approved by the secretary of state, who has consulted with the state Attorney General’s Office on how to handle at least one of the referendum petitions.

Even if approved by Toulouse Oliver, backers of this year’s petition effort would still face significant logistical challenges.

That’s because in order to get the targeted bills on the 2020 general election ballot, they would have to obtain valid signatures from more than 70,000 state voters – or at least 10% of those who voted in last year’s general election, according to the state Constitution. There is also a geographic requirement that a certain amount of the signatures come from at least 25 counties.

Schneberger acknowledged that those requirements pose a daunting task, but said meeting them is not impossible.

“We think we’ll be able to give it a run,” she said.

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