I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Martinez faces tough road ahead for repeal of driver’s licenses
Republican Gov.-elect Susana Martinez promised repeatedly during this year’s election to try to repeal a law allowing illegal immigrants to get New Mexico drivers licenses and to revoke thousands of already-issued documents. But interviews with state lawmakers this week make clear that undoing the law isn’t a sure thing when the New Mexico Legislature convenes in Santa Fe in January for one of the toughest sessions in recent memory.
For one, it’s unclear whether enough state lawmakers support the repeal effort to push it through both chambers in the Legislature, which Democrats still control despite losing eight seats in the House of Representatives during last week’s election.
Then there’s the potential for New Mexico’s budgetary problems to crowd out other large, controversial measures, some lawmakers said.
Fixing the state’s budget will dominate the legislative agenda as Martinez and state lawmakers learn to work together to close a $260-million gap in the 2012 budget after the state already has cut costs and raised revenue during previous legislative sessions.
On Tuesday a spokesman said Martinez remains committed to the goal in the upcoming 60-day legislative session.
“It was a top priority during the campaign and absolutely it is part of the agenda moving forward,” spokesman Danny Diaz said.
Citing a September poll that found more than 70 percent of New Mexicans oppose the state law, Diaz added, “There’s no disputing where the people of New Mexico are and they want the law repealed and licenses revoked.”
But veteran lawmaker, Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe, said he wasn’t persuaded that state lawmakers will have enough time to juggle a potentially contentious debate over immigration with a wide-ranging, tough budget battle.
“We have so many important issues,” Varela said. Besides, he added, “I don’t know if we have the votes.”
State lawmakers have shown an ability over the years to juggle several substantial issues simultaneously, and there’s no reason to think they can’t this time too, responded the House’s top Republican, Minority Leader Thomas Taylor, R-Farmington.
“Just to think everyone is going to sit around and do nothing (except the budget) is ridiculous,” Taylor said. “I would think all of those issues will be discussed and voted on.”
Pressure builds to repeal the law
About 10 states had similar laws on the books when New Mexico passed its drivers’ license law in 2003. But since then that number has dwindled to only three – New Mexico, Washington and Utah.
Combined with the national debate over illegal immigration, thanks to Arizona’s toughest-in-the-nation law, political pressure thrust immigration into this year’s New Mexico governor’s race.
From the start, Martinez took the tougher stance than Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, her opponent. Whereas Denish said she’d consider stopping the issuance of licenses going forward, Martinez vowed to work toward repealing the law and to revoke the tens of thousands of the state’s drivers’ licenses already issued to illegal immigrants.
Currently around 80,000 foreign nationals have New Mexico driver’s licenses, but not all are illegal immigrants, making it difficult to determine the exact number of illegal immigrants with state driver’s licenses, state officials said earlier this year.
State lawmakers are familiar enough with the issue, said Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, the state Senate’s top Republican lawmaker. They’ve debated it in previous sessions and “people have answered lots of questions,” Ingle added.
“After an election like this, you’d think people would pay attention to what their constituents want them to do,” Ingle said.
The unknown is whether Martinez, working with legislative allies, can cobble together enough votes in the House and Senate to push through legislation repealing the law, and revoking the already-issued licenses, observers say.
Legislative Republicans won big in last week’s election, picking up eight seats in the House of Representatives. But Democrats still retain a four-seat advantage in that chamber, 37-33. Democrats enjoy a 12-vote advantage in the Senate, although enough conservative and moderate Democrats make common cause on key issues to sometimes nullify that advantage.
Legislative Republicans also likely will feel more emboldened with one of their own as governor, GOP lawmakers say. In Martinez they will have a powerful ally in the executive branch for the first time in eight years. Martinez replaces outgoing Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson.
“There’s a bigger place at the table. The governor tips the scale a little bit,” Taylor said.
But Sen. President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, said while he understood that there’d be a push to repeal the drivers license law, he hoped the debate could wait.
“We have such a pressing issues on the budget that all the other side issues are just things we have to figure out how to deal with if the time is there,” Jennings said.
Then saying what other state officials have said across the nation, Jennings said, “We need to tell Congress to do their business and let us do our business. Congress is regulating how many drains you can put in a swimming pool, but they are not balancing the (federal) budget or taking care of immigration. We need to send them that message.”