Controversial issues divide state lawmakers along party lines

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By Steve Terrell and Milan Simonich The New Mexican February 23, 2015 SANTA FE--This could be called the "Year of the Wedge" in state government.

Party-line votes are commonplace most days in the New Mexico Legislature, and they often occur on the bills that Gov. Susana Martinez and Republican lawmakers say are priorities. Democrats generally oppose each of the measures, calling them "wedge issues."

Two of these -- mandatory retention of many third-graders who don't pass standardized reading tests and repealing the law that grants driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants -- have been perennials since Martinez became governor in 2011. The third, a bill to prohibit mandatory union fees, is new under Martinez, although it was a hot topic in New Mexico 35 years ago.

Critics say that not much is being done besides those divisive bills. Only the feed bill, which pays for staffing and legislators' daily expenses, has passed both the House and Senate at the halfway point of the 60-day session. That's not unusual at this point of the game. The Senate so far has passed 16 of its own bills, while the House has passed 47.

Here is a quick look at where the most controversial legislation stands.

Right-to-work: The bill that has generated much heat in this session is the "right-to-work" measure, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Roch,, R-Logan.

This session is the first in 35 years in which right-to-work has been a major issue in New Mexico. Proponents of the measure, which aims to prohibit union membership as a condition of employment, undoubtedly were emboldened by the Republican takeover of the House in the November election, as well as Martinez's landslide re-election. Both the governor and House Speaker Don Tripp have said right-to-work is a top priority in the Legislature this year.

Republicans definitely have the votes to pass the bill in the House. But things became complicated at a Judiciary Committee hearing when House Republican Leader Nate Gentryof Albuquerque offered a substitute bill that added a statewide minimum wage of $8 an hour -- a 50-cent increase over the current state wage. The committee voted along party lines to adopt the substitute and send the bill to the House floor.

Initially, it appeared that the full House would vote on the bill last week. However, according to Roch, some House Republicans disagreed with the addition of the minimum wage increase to the right-to-work bill.

And further complicating matters, two conservative Democratic senators -- Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith of Deming and Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces -- last week publicly committed not to help Senate Republicans "blast" the bill to the Senate floor if it gets stuck in committee as expected. Without Smith and Papen, it's hard to see how Republicans could get enough votes to blast the bill.

The House is expected to act on the bill next week.

Driver's licenses: A bill to repeal the 2003 law that enables state residents without proof of immigration status to obtain a New Mexico driver's license has been a centerpiece of Martinez's campaigns and her legislative agenda.

She says the law is dangerous and weakens border and national security. Proponents of the licensing law, including police in Santa Fe and Española, say it improves public safety because licensed drivers have to pass tests and they are listed in law enforcement databases.

Other law enforcement officers disagree. Most members of the New Mexico Sheriffs Association and many other police officers, including those working for Martinez's administration, favor the repeal.

Marcela Diaz, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said driver's licenses are Martinez's ultimate wedge issue.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have approved driver's licenses for residents without proof of immigration status since New Mexico's law has been on the books. The law has spread because it's good policy that improves public safety, Diaz said.

She also said the licensing law helps the state's economy. For example, New Mexico's famous green chile is harvested almost entirely by Mexican nationals who travel to farms.

State Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, is an outspoken opponent of the licensing law. In a committee hearing where the repeal bill carried on a party-line vote, Rehm said immigrants who enter the state unlawfully disrespect the system and other newcomers who went through all the arduous steps to establish legal residency.

All 37 House Republicans and two Democrats ultimately voted for the repeal bill, sending it to the Senate. The bill will face much more opposition in the Senate, and it may not make it through a committee hearing.

Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, the majority leader, says the existing licensing law should stand. He said he doesn't plan to work for a compromise because he believes families, police and businesses all benefit from the law.

Meantime, two other senators, a Republican and a Democrat, have introduced a bill to allow immigrants who are living in New Mexico illegally to get licenses while making a provision for the state to comply with the federal Real ID law.

Education: Martinez had no trouble getting her bill for mass retention of third-graders through the House of Representatives. It carried 38-30, as all 37 Republicans and Democratic Rep. Dona Irwin of Deming voted for it.

But in the Senate, a bill similar to the House version was blocked last week by a committee on a 5-3 party-line vote. All the Democrats opposed the retention bill, saying research shows that mass retention does not work.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, supports the governor's retention initiative. A former school board member, he said students all too often are passed along, unprepared for anything but failure.

But Democratic Sen. Bill Soules, a teacher from Las Cruces, said Martinez's motives for pushing the retention bill are purely political -- good for sound bites, bad for children.

Students will become better readers not through mass retention, but with well-funded programs that supply struggling students with extra help, he said.