Fourteen of the 33 House Democrats appeared together at the South Valley Economic Development Center to highlight their priorities for the 60-day legislative session that starts Tuesday. Republicans in the House have 37 members, giving them better odds of moving their bills through the chamber and on to a state Senate controlled by Democrats.
The House Democrats’ new floor leader, Rep. Brian Egolf of Santa Fe, said his party would rebut Republican attempts to hold down an increase in the minimum wage with what he called “Chicken Little sky-is-falling” scare tactics.
Egolf said House Democrats favor Santa Fe Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela’s bill to raise the statewide minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.50. Another bill by Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, calls for an increase to $8.30 an hour. Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces already have established higher minimum wages than the state’s.
Other House Democrats said they would fight for bills to limit class sizes, reduce standardized testing in public schools and keep a 2003 law that allows state residents without proof of immigration status to obtain a New Mexico driver’s license.
Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque, said she was a teenage mother on Acoma Pueblo, a tough start.“Education saved me,” said Louis, now 37 and an attorney. “The opposition values testing over teaching, and that’s not what we’re about.”Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, has introduced a bill enabling parents to withdraw their children from certain tests now mandated by the state. A teacher, Garcia Richard also has filed a proposed constitutional amendment to limit class sizes.
She said House Democrats want available money spent in classrooms, “not testing and testing companies.”
Rep. Nate Gentry of Albuquerque, majority leader of House Republicans, criticized Democrats for being combative.
“It’s sad that it’s not even opening day of the legislative session and already the House Democrats are choosing Washington, D.C.-style divisiveness over bipartisanship,” Gentry said in a statement. “We hope they can change their course and join us in putting politics aside in order to advance our state.”
Egolf said Democrats are willing to join with Republicans on issues that are in the interest of state residents, but would not abandon core principles.
Rep. Kenny Martinez, D-Grants, the outgoing speaker of the House, said he is committed to fighting the Republicans’ attempt to pass a bill that would outlaw compulsory membership in unions.
Martinez said that Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was a fitting time for House Democrats to pledge their support to organized labor.
“Collective bargaining for jobs is a civil right,” Martinez said.
He said the Republican proposal would hurt workers, not create jobs. Their bill “takes away the ability of labor to fight for that brotherhood and sisterhood,” Martinez said.
A freshman Democratic representative, 33-year-old attorney Javier Martinez of Albuquerque, no relation to the outgoing speaker, said Republicans were disingenuous in their attempts to repeal the law that allows New Mexico residents without proof of immigration status to obtain a state driver’s license.
Republicans often say the repeal is not about immigrants but about public safety.
“Of course it’s about immigration,” Javier Martinez said. “They’re targeting immigrants to score cheap political points.”
Javier Martinez, born in El Paso, spent his boyhood on the U.S.-Mexico border. He said immigrants come to New Mexico because they want a better, safer life.