SANTA FE — New Mexico’s special legislative session sputtered to a start on Tuesday, with a protest against Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s push to prevent illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses and a reminder that tea party members are watching that and other issues.
Repeal of the driver’s license law for foreign nationals is among a dozen items that Martinez put on the agenda for the session that was called to redraw the elective districts for Congress, the Legislature, and other offices.
On opening day, the Senate and House met jointly for a refresher course on redistricting, and House leaders named a committee to weigh whether Public Regulation
ssioner Jerome Block Jr. should be impeached.
But aside from the bill needed to fund the special session, no other legislation was introduced.
Even before the special session officially began, dozens of border-area supporters of the current driver’s license law rallied in the Capitol rotunda with a message for Martinez.
“Governor,” the crowd roared, led by a representative of the state’s Roman Catholic bishops. “Compromise!”
Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, touted a bill the Senate passed during the last legislative session that would have tightened the requirements for obtaining such licenses — including fingerprinting — and provided tougher penalties for breaking the law.
Martinez’s office, however, said Tuesday that the governor is sticking with the repeal proposal. Spokesman Scott Darnell said Martinez already had compromised, by agreeing that legal foreign nationals could continue to get licenses, and by telling Democratic leaders she would not pursue revocation of licenses already issued.
Supporters of the current law, who came from Las Cruces and other southern communities, said it keeps insurance rates down and highways safer.
“I feel that it is a safety issue, an economic issue,” said Alberto Lino, a Las Cruces native who uses a wheelchair and doesn’t drive.
Lino said he depends on his wife — who he said is undocumented and caught up in a years-long process of legalizing her status — for transportation.
Because of the current law, “We drive around with insurance,” he said.
The law’s supporters say it’s crucial for immigrants to be licensed to they can drive to work, take their kids to school and get to doctors’ appointments, for example.
The group delivered petitions bearing what it said were 5,000 signatures to lawmakers and the governor in support of the current law.
Tea party members from around the state, meanwhile, set up card tables in the Capitol and held an outdoor rally on a wide range of issues.
“Overturn Licenses for Non-Citizens,” read one sign in support of Martinez’s repeal proposal.
Tea party advocates also supported another of Martinez’s proposals for the session, banning so-called social promotion by requiring third-graders to show adequate reading skills before they are moved on to fourth grade.
Oron Palmer, a Silver City resident, said he made the trip to Santa Fe to let lawmakers know that New Mexicans want policy changes.
“We’re here to give them the idea that they’re being watched,” Palmer said.
The special session agenda Martinez announced Tuesday immediately drew criticism from the Senate’s top Democrat.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, said the governor’s proclamation for the session — the to-do list for lawmakers — was full of political rhetoric that was “antagonistic.”
And he complained he hadn’t known in advance of her request to transfer $130 million from the state’s reserves to shore up the unemployment insurance fund.
That fund had $137.3 million as of a week ago, according to the Department of Workforce Solutions.
Jennings said the transfer would deplete the state’s reserves, especially if lawmakers next year also approve the shift of up to $100 million from the reserves to make up for a Medicaid shortfall that resulted from reporting errors.
The Martinez administration said the $130 million transfer would be done over two budget years. That and a related proposal to freeze employer contributions at cu
rrent rates for the next two years would keep the fund solvent through 2013, according to Finance and Administration Secretary Tom Clifford.
The unemployment fund was among the topics discussed when Martinez met Tuesday afternoon with Senate and House leaders of both parties, according to Darnell.
Jennings complained on the Senate floor that the governor unfairly portrayed lawmakers as tax-raisers for passing an unemployment compensation fix in the last session that included increased contributions from employers to keep the fund solvent.
Martinez, who vetoed that portion of the bill, called it a “$128 million tax increase on New Mexico businesses” in the proclamation.
Jennings objected that while it may have been a tax increase, the bill — which also reduced benefits — had strong bipartisan support and was endorsed by the business community.
“Are you campaigning or are you governing?” Jennings said later in an interview with the Journal.