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Governor gears up for driver’s license fight

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Gov. Susana Martinez plans to renew her push against illegal immigrant driver’s licenses when the Legislature convenes in January, and she’s looking to donors for financial help.

More than a month before the session opens, Martinez is turning to her political base as she prepares for the fourth year in a row to seek a repeal of the controversial law. The first-term Republican governor is asking supporters for cash donations to ensure she is “prepared to fight” when the session begins.

“Over the last few years, we have passed the repeal out of the state House, but it has been killed by liberal Democrats in the Senate,” Martinez said in a recent fundraising email. “Now, our opponents want us to give up. They are organized and well financed so I am asking you to join me by contributing whatever you can to help make sure we go into the session prepared to fight.”

Opponents question the governor’s need to raise money for her legislative effort, saying its mostly immigrant rights activists who fill committee hearings to protest a potential repeal of the law that has allowed driver’s licenses to be issued to illegal immigrants since 2003.

“The people that are opposing the governor for the most part have zero dollars,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque.

“This is an effort by people who have been here, are members of the community, going to school, holding jobs who need a driver’s license to continue functioning,” he said. “There’s nobody funding a resistance movement.”

Although polling shows most New Mexicans oppose giving illegal immigrants driver’s licenses, the broader challenge for Martinez appears to be the political makeup of the Legislature.

In the House, which previously has passed versions of driver’s license repeal legislation backed by the governor, Democrats hold a 37-33 advantage. Republicans have said they hope to win control of that chamber in 2014 elections.

The higher hurdle for a driver’s license repeal is on the Senate side, where the driver’s license legislation has consistently stalled in committee. Democrats in that chamber hold a 25-17 advantage, and senators aren’t up for re-election until 2016.

Martinez campaign adviser Jay McCleskey said the fundraising pitch highlighting the governor’s efforts on the driver’s license issue is intended to raise money for her re-election campaign. McCleskey declined to comment on the record about other uses of the funds related to the driver’s license debate.

The governor-backed version of the proposed license repeal considered last year would have allowed an exception for those who were brought to the U.S. as children and have been granted deferred immigration action status by the federal government.

“The governor has said many times that she would fight at each chance to repeal the dangerous law that gives driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants; it’s a commitment she made to New Mexicans, who also want to see the law repealed,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said in a statement.

Knell said the latest version of the proposed repeal was introduced last year after the governor “negotiated a compromise.” Asked whom Martinez negotiated with, Knell pointed to supporters of the governor’s position, including Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming.

Opponents contend the governor has been unwilling to yield or consider Democratic-proposed compromises. That has included a nontransferable one-year driving “permit” card for illegal immigrants proposed to address Martinez’s stated concerns about licenses being transferred to other states.

“Back in the day, I would trot out my attempts at compromise, and it was not received. No way,” said Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. “It’s just, no.”

House Republican Whip Nate Gentry of Albuquerque said he expects the legislation proposed last year to have a better fate in 2014 because House Republicans have added a tie-breaking vote to their ranks. The governor in November appointed Rep. Vickie Perea, R-Belen, to replace the late Rep. Stephen Easley, D-Santa Fe, who died in August. Easley in 2013 voted against allowing the proposed driver’s license repeal from reaching the House floor, a vote that contributed to the 35-35 tie that left the proposed legislation stuck in committee.

But the Senate in 2014 will remain an obstacle.

“I would say it just depends on the committee, if they want to get it out,” said Ingle, the Senate Republican leader. “It’s not something you can predict whether it’s going to come out of that committee or not.”

New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., said the driver’s license debate has become an annual issue under Martinez because polling shows a majority of New Mexicans support her position.

“The majority of New Mexicans support the governor’s position on the driver’s license issue and the governor knows that,” Sanderoff said. “Therefore, it’s smart politically for this administration to continue to bring it up, even if they have no reason to believe that it will be successful.”