Election Timing May Explain Governor’s Shift on Licenses

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By: Thom Cole
ABQ Journal 

The session of the Legislature now under way may be the last and best chance for Gov. Susana Martinez to win approval of major initiatives before she seeks re-election next year. That could explain why Martinez said this week that she would consider compromise legislation on the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

The governor pledged during the 2010 campaign to put an end to the state’s practice of issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

Since taking office, the Republican has used seemingly every ounce of her political muscle to accomplish that but has failed in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

The House has twice approved a bill to stop the practice of issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, but the Senate has refused to go along.

But voters expect their elected leaders to produce, no matter the degree of difficulty. Martinez recognizes that. “I believe governing is delivering exactly what you promised you were going to do during the campaign,” Martinez said in 2011.

The Legislature will meet in regular session one more time before the 2014 elections, but that session, beginning next January, will be a short one, just 30 days, and Democrats will be reluctant to hand any significant wins to Martinez in an election year.

Under a state law enacted in 2003, foreign nationals living in New Mexico can obtain driver’s licenses regardless of whether they have lawful status to be in this country.

Martinez said during the 2010 campaign that New Mexico was attracting illegal immigrants by providing them with driver’s licenses, and Journal polls in 2010 and 2012 found that more than seven out of 10 New Mexicans want a stop to issuing the licenses.

A federal judge called issuing the licenses “unreasonable.”

Supporters of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants say the licenses are a means to help ensure all drivers are identified for law enforcement purposes, meet driving requirements and eligible to purchase motor vehicle insurance.

There are conflicting studies on whether the number of uninsured drivers has declined since New Mexico began issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and, if so, whether the 2003 law is the reason.

A recent study in California found that unlicensed drivers are far more likely to cause a fatal crash, and a growing number of states are issuing driving privileges to at least some illegal immigrants.

Since taking office in January 2011, the governor has used her bully pulpit, intimidation, fear and more to try to persuade the Legislature to pass a bill to stop the practice of issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

In February 2011, less than two months after taking office, Martinez launched a campaign of radio advertisements to try to put the heat on the Legislature.

She used her executive powers that same year to launch a program to check whether foreign nationals with driver’s licenses resided in New Mexico, as required by law.

A judge ordered a stop to the program after a Hispanic civil rights group filed a lawsuit.

With the Legislature still unwilling to act, Martinez targeted some opposing lawmakers in elections last year, taking out then-Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, but failing to defeat Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen.

The administration also has been quick to publicize arrests of illegal immigrants falsely claiming New Mexico residency to obtain driver’s licenses, and it has warned that issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants means we might need passports to get on airplanes someday soon.

In its latest news release on the issue, the administration on Friday announced the guilty plea of an Albuquerque man who was accused of being part of an organized crime ring that transported at least 100 illegal immigrants to New Mexico to fraudulently obtain driver’s licenses.

With the possibility she might come away empty-handed again from this year’s Legislature, Martinez said Tuesday that she would consider legislation to create a driver’s permit for illegal immigrants if the proposed permit card could not be used for identification or used to get a driver’s license in another state.

“I’ve made a commitment that I will cross the aisle and see where we can come together on a compromise that satisfies public safety,” the governor said.

On Wednesday, Martinez did a little crawfishing, saying her No. 1 priority is still to end the practice of issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

She long ago gave up on revocation of licenses already issued.

Having opened the door to compromise, the governor now seems to be preparing to make her case to voters that she did the best she could on the issue.

It’s much easier to make that case if you have a half-loaf instead of no loaf at all.