Governor-backed retention bill tops list of high-profile proposals before lawmakers

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By Milan Simonich The New Mexicn January 18, 2015 SANTA FE--Gov. Susana Martinez, now in her fifth year in office, has a legislative agenda that resembles her first one from 2011.

Martinez, a Republican, is again supporting a bill to retain third-graders who are not proficient on standardized reading tests. It will be among the high-profile proposals of the 60-day legislative session that begins Tuesday.

During her first year as governor, Martinez persuaded members of the House of Representatives to approve a bill to hold back third-graders who score below par on reading tests. But that measure died in the Senate, and Democrats have since increased their opposition to forced student retention.

Passing along ill-prepared third-graders, which Martinez calls “social promotion,” is a disservice to kids and taxpayers, the governor says.

Senate Democrats, though, say mandatory retention laws don’t help kids succeed academically and may actually hurt their progress.

Sen. Bill Soules, a teacher, says even researchers who have tried to vouch for mandatory retention programs cannot make a compelling case.

For instance, third-graders in Florida who were retained for low reading scores were required to attend summer school. After that, they were placed in the classroom of a “high-performing teacher,” and they received an extra 90 minutes of reading instruction daily throughout the school year.

Soules, D-Las Cruces, said those aggressive and well-funded steps by Florida lawmakers accounted for any student improvements in reading. Without morale-killing forced retentions, students getting all that extra academic help might have done better still, Soules said.

Martinez also will continue her push to repeal a 2003 law that allows New Mexico residents without proof of immigration status to obtain state driver’s licenses.

The House of Representatives approved similar bills favored by Martinez in 2011 and 2012, but they died in the Senate.

This year, Republicans are in control of the House for the first time since 1954, so the license repeal should easily clear that chamber.

Democratic state senators, however, traditionally have closed ranks to stop Martinez’s repeal bills.

In addition, a number of other states have approved laws similar to New Mexico’s that grant driving privileges to residents without proof of immigration status. They include Colorado, California and Illinois.

Most Democrats in the Senate say public safety improves when drivers are licensed and listed in police databases. Then people who are involved in an accident will take responsibility, not flee, they say.

Another argument by proponents of the licensing law is that foreign nationals are critical to certain parts of New Mexico’s economy.

For instance, about 98 percent of the workers who harvest the state’s green chile are Mexican nationals, said Eddie Diaz of Diaz Farms in Deming. Without these laborers, New Mexico’s most famous crop would not get from farm to market.

“A certain percentage of the field hands do have their [driver’s] license,” Diaz said in a phone interview.

Another part of the debate may focus on the federal Real ID Act. Those who want to repeal New Mexico’s licensing law say it’s a necessary step to comply with the federal law. But deadlines for Real ID have regularly been pushed back, and more than a dozen states, including Arizona, have passed laws saying they will not accept the federal law.

Here are other bills of note:

• Democrats have introduced three proposals to cap interest and fees on loans. They say predatory lenders are charging exorbitant rates to people in desperate need of money.

More than 680 small-loan businesses operate in New Mexico, a total greater than the number of fast-food restaurants in the state, said Steve Fischmann, a former Democratic state senator who now is with the New Mexico Fair Lending Coalition. He says these loan companies are charging interest rates of 80 percent to 3,000 percent.

Fischmann said in an interview that his organization would support a cap of 36 percent on interest rates. He said that number is still too high, but his organization is backing a figure that it believes could clear the Legislature.

Caps of 36 percent have become a widespread reform rate on loans, but Arkansas has a cap of 17 percent and New York is at 25 percent, Fischmann said.

• Two Democrats, Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela of Santa Fe and Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants have filed bills to raise the statewide minimum wage of $7.50 an hour.

Martinez vetoed a $1 increase in the minimum wage two years ago, saying $8.50 an hour was too big a jump. She would have supported $7.80 at the time.

Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces already have minimum wages higher than the state’s.

• Republican Rep. Jim Smith of Sandia Park is sponsoring a bill to require identification to vote. He says it is far less onerous than previous voter ID bills that Democrats have killed on grounds that they would make it harder for older people and low-income people to vote.

Smith’s bill would allow expired driver’s licenses to be used for voter identification. In addition, members of federally recognized Indian tribes could use identification cards or letters of enrollment that do not have photos.

Still, opposition is likely to be heavy. Democrats in the Legislature say in-person voter fraud is rare, and voter identification bills would be expensive to implement.

• Sen. Sander Rue has drafted a bill sure to bring a showdown with public employee unions. Rue, R-Albuquerque, proposes to change the bargaining act to prohibit payroll deductions of union dues.

Other Republicans are sponsoring a bill to bar compulsory membership in unions.

• Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, has introduced a bill to eliminate the state’s restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages on Christmas Day and Sundays.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat column and blog at santafenewmexican.com.