Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Setback for License Bills

In the first test this year of what has been the most contentious issue of driver's licenses in the past three legislative sessions, a House Committee voted along party lines to effectively kill a bill, backed by Gov. Susana Martinez that would repeal a 2003 law that allows the state to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The House Labor & Human Resources Committee took the vote on House Bill 132, sponsored by freshman Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, following a three-hour hearing. All five Democrats on the panel voted to table the bill while all four Republicans voted to keep it alive.

Following that debate, the committee also tabled HB 161, sponsored by Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque. His bill would have repealed the 2003 law. Unlike Pacheco's bill, it would have revoked all licenses already granted to illegal immigrants.

But while tabling a bill in committee normally means an issue is dead in a legislative session, that's probably not the case with the driver's license matter, which Martinez has made a key priority of her administration since taking office two years ago.

House Speaker Kenny Martinez, a member of the Labor committee, said during Tuesday's debate that the Legislature should seek a middle ground in solving problems with fraud brought up by Pacheco and Martinez's Tax & Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla.

Since the beginning of this session, Senate Republican Leader Stuart Ingle of Portales and Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, have said they are working on a compromise driver's license bill. The governor has indicated she might consider signing such a bill if she can't get a full repeal. Ingle and Smith have said their bill would be based on the Utah law that issues driver's permits to undocumented residents — but not driver's licenses that can be used for identification.

However neither senator has filed a driver's license bill yet.

One possibility is that bill supporters on the House floor could "blast" Pacheco's bill out of the committee for immediate debate by the full House. This happened in 2011 with a similar bill backed by the governor. That bill passed the House but died in the Senate. However since that time, Republicans have lost seats in the House, now controlled by Democrats by a 38-32 margin. It's not clear whether supporters would have the votes to go the "blasting" route.

More in Wednesday's New Mexican