Ringside Seat: REAL ID controversy is a smoke screen for Martinez


By Milan Simonich/The Santa Fe New Mexican

Posted: Sunday, January 10, 2016

In the deep freeze of January, Gov. Susana Martinez is feeling so much heat that she has resorted to diversionary tactics.

She hopes to create enough confusion about New Mexico driver’s licenses and the rules for domestic airline travel that she can shift attention to her enemies. Her strategy is transparent, even if her administration is not. By staging a frontal assault on her political opponents, Martinez hopes to reduce the scrutiny she’s under.

Her character and honesty have been challenged for the last month, since she told dispatchers that police need not investigate disturbance complaints about her rowdy, boozy holiday party at the Eldorado Hotel in Santa Fe. In hopes of shoring up her flagging reputation and silencing the jokes about her, Martinez has returned to her favorite issue to debate but never resolve. It is New Mexico’s 12-year-old law that enables people without proof of immigration status to obtain a state driver’s license.

Martinez has said that New Mexico cannot become compliant with the Real ID Act, a national identification system, because it issues driver’s licenses to state residents who do not have documentation of their immigration status.

The governor’s claim is not true. No matter, her administration repeated it on Friday, after the U.S. government announced that residents of New Mexico and 26 other states are not compliant with the Real ID law can continue using their driver’s license for two more years to board domestic flights.

In reaction, Martinez went into full spin mode, letting her spokesman, Michael Lonergan, issue an error-filled statement. It said: “This is the federal government confirming that, because Democrats in the Legislature have insisted on giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, New Mexicans will have to buy a passport to board an aircraft. It’s unfair that New Mexicans are being punished for the obstructionism of the Democrats in the Legislature.”

Despite what Martinez’s spokesman says, you don’t need to buy a passport unless you’re flying internationally. That may always be the case. Federal executives have delayed implementation of the Real ID Act for a decade and numerous states refuse to comply with it.

More important, issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is not an impediment to compliance with the Real ID Act.

Six states — including Colorado, Utah and Nevada in the West — allow undocumented immigrants to receive a driver’s license or driving privilege card. All three are in compliance with the federal Real ID law. And all three recognize that immigrants are important to the economy.

Utah and Nevada also have Republican governors. They have not wasted large parts of the last five years arguing about driver’s licenses the way Martinez has. Instead, politicians in Utah and Nevada have devoted more time and attention to jobs and schools. Both of those states are doing better than New Mexico economically.

Martinez also tried to mislead the public by blaming Democrats, ignoring the fact that a bloc of Republicans opposed her last year on driver’s licenses. Eleven Republicans in the state Senate joined all 24 Democrats in voting for a bill that would have satisfied requirements of the Real ID law and still allowed immigrants to continue to be licensed drivers. The measure was co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, a Republican from a conservative district in Eastern New Mexico. Ingle’s bill cleared the Senate on a 35-5 vote, but Martinez opposed it, choosing confrontation over compromise.

Another Republican tried three years ago to put New Mexico into compliance with the federal law but received no support from Martinez.

Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, introduced a bill that would have provided for New Mexico to issue identification cards that meet the requirements of the Real ID Act. Bandy’s bill had nothing to do with driver’s licenses. Instead, he offered an alternative route to compliance. His bill died.

For the legislative session that starts next week, Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos, has filed a bill similar to Bandy’s. This is significant because Garcia Richard last year was one of only two Democrats in the House of Representatives to vote for the governor’s bill to repeal the immigrant driver’s license law.

Garcia Richard said people are tired of the driver’s license debate, which has occurred in every regular legislative session since Martinez took office in 2011. They want a solution, and Garcia Richard says her proposal can provide it.

“I am offering a bill that takes the heated, polarizing debate out of the equation and simply makes New Mexico Real ID compliant,” Garcia Richard said.

Martinez made hay as a candidate by promising to repeal the law giving immigrants driver’s licenses. She probably wants to use the same tactic in the 2016 legislative elections. That would mean another legislative session of tedious debate about driver’s licenses without anything changing.

Since Martinez’s self-destruction at the Eldorado Hotel, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval is the Hispanic governor who seems most likely to rise in Republican politics.

Martinez has no chance to ascend to the national stage, if she ever did. But in the forthcoming 30-day legislative session, she has an opportunity to follow the lead of Senate Republicans or Garcia Richard to achieve a compromise. Otherwise, bills about complying with the Real ID Act will be another exhibition of pugilism that leads nowhere, which is exactly where Martinez is going.