By: Milan Simonich
Texas-New Mexico Newspapers
SANTA FE — Democrats on the House labor committee on Tuesday night blocked another bill that would repeal the 2003 law allowing illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver's licenses.
The vote was 5-4 along party lines. The sponsor, Republican Rep. Paul Pacheco of Albuquerque, said afterward he did not know if he would appeal to the full House of Representatives to hear his license bill.
Pacheco said he considered it unfair that one committee could "hold a bill hostage." He said 37 of the 70 members of the House of Representatives had signed onto his bill, which he called a compromise.
But Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque, said he pored over Pacheco's bill but could not find any compromise at all. Neither did the Catholic bishops of New Mexico. They called for a compromise proposal this winter, but sent a spokesman to oppose Pacheco's bill as one that did not fit the description.
Pacheco said his latest bill was indeed a compromise because it would allow one group of immigrants with lawful presence in the country — classified as those on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — to receive temporary New Mexico licenses.
But Elsa Lopez, of the immigrant group Somos Un Pueblo Unido, said that the bill actually was "a step back" from Pacheco's initial measure in that it was more restrictive.
Proponents of the existing licensing law testified that immigrants contribute mightily to the state economy, working on farms and in oil fields.
They said granting immigrants licenses improves public safety because they must pass driving tests and are listed in police databases.
Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell, cited an Albuquerque Journal poll that showed about three of four people oppose licenses for illegal immigrants. She said the public wants an up-or-down vote on the licensing bill, not endless committee debates.
House Speaker Ken Martinez said the poll was tilted based on the way the question was asked.
Martinez said he did not believe Democrats and Republicans on the committee were far apart in reaching an agreement on a licensing bill. But Martinez, like all the Democrats on the committee, eventually voted to table Pacheco's bill.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, campaigned in 2010 on repealing the licensing law. Pacheco's bill was the latest attempt at getting through the legislation she wants.
A companion bill to Pacheco's has been introduced in the state Senate. It has not been heard yet.
Another bill, by Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, would allow illegal immigrants to continue driving. But they would receive privilege cards, not regular licenses that also could be used as government-issued identification.
If Pacheco tries to revive his bill, he would have less than three weeks to get it through the House and the Senate. The legislative session ends March 16.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at email@example.com or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.