SANTA FE – Legislation imposing tougher penalties on repeat drunken drivers – backed by GOP Gov. Susana Martinez as part of her anti-DWI package – tanked in its first House committee on Thursday.
The Consumer and Public Affairs Committee rejected two bills on a party-line vote, with Democrats voting to table them and Republicans voting to keep them alive.
House Bill 32 would have increased prison time for fourth and subsequent DWI convictions. For example, the current 6 to 18 months for a fourth offense would be hiked 18 to 36 months.
House Bill 31 would have required DWI convictions to count when determining whether someone is a habitual offender and therefore subject to a longer sentence.
Similar bills fared better in last year’s session; the habitual offender measure passed the House in 2012 before dying in the Senate, while the increased penalties bill cleared two House committees before dying in a third.
“We are disappointed that the Legislature isn’t more concerned about tackling the repeat drunk driver problem in New Mexico. … This is a serious problem we have a responsibility to address for New Mexico’s drivers,” said the governor’s spokesman, Enrique Knell.
Lawmakers opposed to the legislation cited the costs stemming from bigger caseloads for public defenders, more jury trials and longer prison sentences.
They questioned the effectiveness of stronger penalties and said the money could better be spent on treatment and prevention programs.
“I just don’t see the enhancement here as being a deterrent,” committee Chairman Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said of the higher-penalties bill.
The bills’ supporters included the New Mexico State Police.
“These subsequent offenders are not getting the message,” said State Police Chief Robert Shilling.
According to the Martinez administration, a state Department of Transportation study found that 60 percent of all DWI deaths in 2011 were because of repeat offenders.
Supporters also suggested that if the proposals proved costly, the state could find enough money to pay for them.
“Money is not an issue when it comes to people being maimed and killed,” Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, the bills’ sponsor, said in an interview after the committee hearing.
Martinez’s DWI proposals also include seizing vehicles of those driving on suspended or revoked licenses, and making it easier for the state to administratively revoke licenses after an arrest.
— This article appeared on page A6 of the Albuquerque Journal