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House adds more punch to ‘three strikes’ law

SANTA FE – Budget-balancing plans moved through House committees on Sunday, while the full House – after emotionally charged debate – voted to broaden New Mexico’s “three strikes” law that mandates life in prison for some convicted felons.

Two House committees, on the third day of a special legislative session, made changes to a solvency package that has already passed the Senate.

The House’s version of a plan to make up for a $589 million state budget shortfall in the current and just-ended fiscal years could be voted on as early as today.

“We’ve been working diligently trying to do some of these budget issues,” said House Speaker Don Tripp, R-Socorro.

If the House passes a package different from the Senate’s, the Senate – which adjourned early Saturday morning – would have to return to the Capitol to iron out the differences.

The package the House was assembling includes roughly $175 million in spending cuts for the current budget year, which began in July.

The House budget committee signed off on the plan Sunday, although it delayed a final decision on a proposal to cut the University of New Mexico 8 percent, more steeply than other colleges and universities.

“These cuts to higher education are going to be really difficult,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park. New Mexico State University, which faces a 6 percent cut under the House plan, already “has cut to the bone,” he told fellow members of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The House Appropriations and Finance Committee approved a bill that would generate $89 million by switching the funding for some previously authorized capital projects around the state and canceling others that have been stalled.

The vote in the House was 49-14 to expand the list of crimes that qualify an offender for a “three strikes” prosecution.

Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, called the current law “a joke,” saying it is too narrow and has not yielded a single conviction since it was enacted in 2004.

“I am tired of burying my friends. I am tired of losing children,” said Pacheco, a retired police officer who sponsored House Bill 5. Violent repeat offenders, he said, “victimize all of us.”

The bill was among three crime measures – including reinstating the death penalty – that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez put on the agenda of the special legislative session, which was called because of the gaping holes in revenues in the current and just-ended fiscal years.

Democrats have objected to the inclusion of crime legislation in the special session that began Friday, calling it politically motivated because of the upcoming general election.

The Senate’s Democratic majority didn’t consider any crime bills; the Senate adjourned early Saturday after passing a package of legislation to balance the budget.

Democratic opponents of the “three strikes” expansion said it doesn’t do anything to prevent crime in the first place and creates a false sense of security.

“Us working to send people to prison is more important than us working to keep people out of prison,” complained Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan.

The legislation adds about a dozen crimes to the list that can subject an offender to “three-strikes” prosecution.

According to data from the New Mexico Sentencing Commission, had the proposed law been in place between 2000 and 2014, 59 offenders would have been sentenced to life in prison.

Similar legislation – dubbed “Lilly’s Law” for a 4-year-old girl killed in a road rage incident – passed the House on a vote of 47-15 during this year’s regular legislative session but died in the Senate.

Lilly Garcia’s mother, Veronica Rael-Garcia, was among crime victims’ family members who held a news conference Sunday to demand the Senate return to the Capitol and vote on crime bills.

She and others said family members are angry about lax laws and feel that their concerns have been dismissed.

“None of these laws will help our families, but it could help somebody else’s,” Rael-Garcia said.