By: Steve Terrell
The New Mexican
In the first test this year of what has been the most contentious issue during the past three legislative sessions, a House committee voted along party lines to effectively kill a bill to repeal a 2003 law that allows the state to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
The House Labor and Human Resources Committee took a vote on House Bill 132, sponsored by freshman Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, and backed by Gov. Susana Martinez, 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 His bill also would have repealed the 2003 law, but, unlike Pacheco’s bill, it would have revoked all licenses already granted to illegal immigrants.
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 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 license fraud brought up by Pacheco and Tax and 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 a Utah law, which 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.
Though the bill has been hotly debated for the past few years, and the arguments for and against repeal largely have remained the same, there are some new factors that colored Tuesday’s debate.
One is the fact that the governor of Illinois signed a law Sunday that will allow undocumented immigrants in that state to legally drive with a temporary visitor’s license.
Speaker Martinez also pointed out that President Barack Obama’s executive order last year suspending deportation of young, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children has led several states to consider allowing these immigrants driving privileges. Martinez said there are 33 states that have decided or are considering providing some kind of driver’s license to those affected by the executive order.
“It seems the [national] momentum now is on the side of expanding driver’s licenses,” the speaker said.
A major argument used by Pacheco and supporters of his bill is that the measure would make New Mexico driver’s licenses compliant with the federal Real ID Act. “New Mexicans could board a plane and enter a federal building,” Pacheco said.
Gov. Martinez raised the issue of Real ID late last year in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. At that point, the deadline for states to comply with the act was this month. But the department eventually pushed the deadline back. Under the Real ID Act, proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or U.S. passport would be needed to obtain a driver’s license.
So far, only 13 states have complied with the act. But 17 states have gone the other way, adopting laws prohibiting compliance with the Real ID Act.
Most of those testifying in favor of Pacheco’s bill at Tuesday’s hearing were officials in Gov. Martinez’s administration or law-enforcement officers. Public Safety Secretary Gordon Eden said his department “spends a tremendous amount of resources helping the Tax and Revenue Department with fraud cases.”
Padilla said the cost of investigating driver’s license fraud is a strain on the budget of the Motor Vehicle Division, which is part of the Tax and Revenue Department.
Padilla said that while the state has issued driver’s licenses to some 94,000 foreign nationals, only about 16,000 of those filed state income-tax returns. This, she said, indicates that most of those who got driver’s licenses did not remain in New Mexico.
Opponents argued that repealing the 2003 law would be a hardship on families who depend on their licenses to drive to work, take their children to school and shop for groceries.
One man in the audience said he is an undocumented immigrant with a state driver’s license. He argued that only a small minority of immigrants with licenses have committed fraud. Most, he said, are law-abiding people. “Listen to the human side of this,” he said. “Listen to those who depend on their driver’s licenses.”
Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, told a reporter before the hearing, “The only reason we are here is that the governor made a promise she can’t keep. Let’s table this and go home.”
Contact Steve Terrell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com