Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Roundhouse Roundup: A Classic State Senate Debate

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 11, 2010

It seemed like a simple enough bill and one that might even get widespread support: Make it easier to get a driver’s license. Cut out the need to spend half your day at the Motor Vehicle Division when your license expires.

Senate Bill 137, sponsored by Sen. Phil Griego, D-Ribera, would allow New Mexicans to renew their driver’s licenses online or over the phone. But when it reached the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon and senators started sinking their teeth into it, the bill veered far beyond the MVD.

During the next 45 minutes, the discussion touched into areas including illegal immigration, terrorism, drug abuse, Guatemalan gangs and Islam. Not to mention a discussion of racism that began to get heated.

In other words, a classic New Mexico state Senate debate.

At first, the main discussion of Griego’s bill dealt with technical issues. But things started getting interesting when Sen. Rod Adair, R-Roswell, introduced an amendment that would prohibit the MVD from issuing a license to anyone who wasn’t a citizen of the United States of America. That amendment would have overturned a law the Legislature passed in 2003 that allows foreign nationals to present a passport, a federal tax-identification number or a consular identification card to apply for a driver’s license.
Such laws have been a hot-button issue nationwide in recent years. Supporters say it encourages immigrants to get auto insurance and to cooperate with local law enforcement. Opponents say it encourages illegal immigration and could provide terrorists with a way to secure official identification.

That’s what Adair argued in introducing his amendment. He said New Mexico’s law flies in the face of the national Real ID Act — which is not yet being enforced. The Real ID Act, passed in 2005 in response to concerns about terrorism, sets strict national standards for state-issued driver’s licenses. Adair said his concerns were based in national security concerns. Without his amendment, he said it would be easier for al-Qaida members to get New Mexico driver’s licenses.

Of course, if he could get a license online, at least a terrorist wouldn’t be tempted to blow up the MVD office as he sat waiting there for hours.

Adair’s amendment angered Sen. Richard Martinez, D-EspaƱola, who said he was tired of Mexicans being equated with “a bunch of hoodlums.”

Sen. Eric Griego, D-Albuquerque, took it even further, saying he resented Mexican immigrants mentioned in the same breath as al-Qaida and didn’t like Adair’s mention of “Muslim nations,” which Eric Griego said were mostly peaceful countries. Such talk, Eric Griego said, was “blatant racism.”

Several Republican senators angrily said they resented being called racists.

As the tensions mounted, Senate President Pro-tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, asked senators to “step back and take a little breath.”

He said the United States and Mexico have traditionally had good relationships and noted that those who pulled off the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks didn’t come from Mexico. Going off on a tangent about drug violence in Mexico, Jennings said this was the fault of America’s appetite for drugs.

Some were hoping that Jennings would lead the Senate in another override of some veto by Gov. Bill Richardson — just as a unity-building exercise.

(Adair would later explain that he was not trying to equate Mexicans with al-Qaida. A few hours later, during debate on a different bill, Eric Griego said he didn’t mean to call anyone a racist.)

Senate Republican leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, provided one of the few moments of levity during the debate. In discussing how renewing your license by telephone would affect requirements for vision tests, Ingle quipped, “Virtually everyone who took the eye test over the phone passed it.”

Adair’s amendment was defeated by a mostly party-line vote.

And when all the dust cleared and all the emotions settled, the Senate passed SB 137 by a 39-2 vote.

That was a lot of fire and fury for such a lopsided vote. But that’s our Senate.

The bill goes on to the House.