Senators seek compromise on license law

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By Milan Simonich The New Mexican February 20, 2015 SANTA FE--Two of the New Mexico Legislature’s longest-serving members have introduced a last-minute bill that they say is intended to forge a compromise on the controversial law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.

Sens. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, have introduced legislation to make the state compliant with the federal Real ID law, but still allow residents without proof of immigration status to obtain a New Mexico driver’s license.

Smith said he would vote for this bill to allow undocumented immigrants to receive a driver’s license, even though he has previously voted to repeal the law.

“We’ve got a lot of workers in my part of the state that we don’t want to displace,” he said in an interview. “It’s the same with the dairy industry in Stuart’s area.”

Smith says he doesn’t know if the bill has any chance of advancing, even as a bipartisan proposal.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has campaigned for four years to repeal the licensing law, which she says endangers border and national security. She is at odds with most Democrats in the Legislature, who say the licensing law makes roads safer and helps the economy because the work immigrants do is critical to agriculture, oil and gas and other industries.

“We’re trying to have a conversation with the Governor’s Office to see if we can find a 50-yard line,” Smith said.

But, he said, he doesn’t know if Martinez would consider anything less than a repeal or if his own Democratic caucus would be amenable to an alternative law when they are satisfied with the one that is on the books.

Martinez’s spokesman said the administration was open to at least talking about the bill. “We have concerns with the legislation as drafted, but as always we are happy to work with the senators to find common ground on this important issue,” he said.

Ingle would not commit to voting for the bill that he has introduced with Smith, but said he has one objective.

“I’ll do anything I can to solve the problem,” Ingle said.

Like Smith, Ingle has previously voted to repeal the licensing law.

Smith and Ingle, both members of the Senate since the 1980s, did not write the bill they are sponsoring. It is a duplicate of one introduced recently by Democratic House Minority Leader Brian Egolf of Santa Fe.

“It’s getting late in the session, and I needed a bill title,” Smith said.

House Republicans rejected Egolf’s bill this month, and instead approved a repeal measure favored by the governor.

But the bill that made it through the Republican-controlled House faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Democrats are the party in power. The majority leader, Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, has said the existing licensing law works well, and he wants to keep it in place.

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said the continued attempts to repeal the licensing law have taken time and energy away from more important issues.

“The sidebar distraction goes on when we should be focused on the budget, poverty, child well-being,” Morales said.

Smith said his intent in introducing the bill is to break the logjam. The bill has three committee assignments, lessening its chances of getting through the Senate. Ingle, though, said his hope is that the bill starts a discussion that will lead to a compromise.

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