Legislation is plentiful but likely futile

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From banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy to raising New Mexico’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, state lawmakers already have filed more than 100 pieces of legislation for their monthlong session set to begin in mid-January.

Most of those bills are not going anywhere.

Thirty-day legislative sessions are constitutionally limited to bills on the budget and taxes, as well as items placed on the agenda by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and bills she has vetoed in previous years.

Martinez has indicated that public safety will be a priority, signaling she will accept legislation to repeal bail reform and tighten sentences for convicted criminals. Other issues, however, even those that legislative leaders or the governor consider important, might never get a hearing.

For example, Democrats have pushed to raise the state’s minimum wage – a rate that has remained at $7.50 an hour since 2009 – and passed two separate bills earlier this year to boost hourly pay for the state’s lowest-paid workers.

Martinez vetoed both measures.

Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, a Democrat from Albuquerque, has filed a measure for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which would be adjusted annually based on the cost of living. The lawmaker has proposed similar measures before – the biggest increases in the minimum wage proposed by any legislator each year.

Some business groups, such as the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, dropped their opposition to a more modest increase in the minimum wage earlier this year. Still, Democrats are less than optimistic about such a measure moving forward in 2018.

“We need an increase in the minimum wage,” said state House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Democrat from Santa Fe. “I would love for it to happen because there are folks who need it now.”

But, he added: “I believe we would have to have a message [of support] from the governor, which I don’t expect would happen, given that she vetoed our last two attempts to raise it.”

The upcoming session will be the last regular session for the Martinez administration. The governor leaves office at the end of the year. Raising the minimum wage seems to fall into a category of legislation that is only growing: bills that Democrats expect will simply not become law under Martinez.

There are plenty of other reasons why some of the 100 or so measures filed by lawmakers so far may not make it to the governor’s pen during the 2018 session.

Egolf said legislators are expecting a flat budget. That could offer a reprieve from the sort of budget cuts exacted in recent years. But it also means that extra spending will be limited and signals dim chances for launching any big new programs or initiatives.

And then there are issues that cannot muster the consensus needed to pass through a divided government.

The 2018 session will be Rep. Yvette Herrell’s third session sponsoring legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy – what are often called “late-term” abortions.

A similar measure passed the House in 2015 after Republicans won a majority in the chamber for the first time in decades. Some Democrats helped pass the bill, too, by a vote of 42-26. It went on to die in the Senate.

This does not mean the bill is likely to roar back in 2018.

Democratic leaders, back in control of the House after the 2016 election, have proven keen to quash it as fast as possible.

Herrell, who is sponsoring the bill with a group of Republican lawmakers, is not sure if the governor will add the issue to the agenda.

Even so, she said: “It’s important to continue to introduce this legislation, so people are aware and educated on what the late-term abortion is.”

Meanwhile, even abortion bills the Democrats might support are unlikely to go far. For example, Rep. Joanne Ferrary and Sen. William Soules, Democrats from Las Cruces, have introduced a bill to decriminalize abortion. While the procedure is legal under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, New Mexico’s statutes still include a ban on abortion that predates the 1973 decision.

Here are how other hot-button pieces of legislation might fare after lawmakers are gaveled into session Jan. 16:

Crime

Martinez wrote on her Facebook page in October that she will call on legislators to repeal and replace a bail reform amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016. She has argued the amendment created a “catch-and-release” system that too easily allows suspects to get back out onto the streets after arrest.

But even Republicans have argued there may be other solutions besides another constitutional amendment.

The rhetoric suggests Martinez also might be open to tougher sentencing laws.

Rep. Nate Gentry, a Republican from Albuquerque, has filed legislation to broaden the state’s “three-strikes” sentencing law, which imposes a mandatory life sentence on anyone with three convictions for certain violent felonies. And Rep. Bill Rehm, a Republican from Albuquerque, has proposed tougher penalties for those who commit a felony with a firearm.

Martinez has called off and on for reinstatement of the death penalty in certain cases. She even put such a measure on the agenda for a special session last year. But Republicans could barely muster the votes back then to pass the death penalty out of the House. With Democrats in control of the chamber, the death penalty’s odds are only diminished. And no one has yet filed a bill to bring back capital punishment.

Early childhood education

Reps. Javier Martinez and Antonio “Moe” Maestas, Democrats from Albuquerque, are back with a proposed constitutional amendment to use a larger share of the state’s nearly $17 billion state trust endowment, the Land Grant Permanent Fund, for early childhood education. Democrats have pushed the idea for years and passed it out of the House on a narrow vote during the 2017 session.

They have had the Catholic Church on their side, which argues that the funding would help break cyclical poverty in one of the poorest states in the country, which also boasts one of the largest investment portfolios.

Republicans and a sizable number of Democrats reject the idea, however. They argue it would be financially imprudent to use more of the funds that the state is relying on to prop up its education system in the future when oil may no longer provide such a healthy stream of revenue.

Even if Democrats marshal the votes to pass this measure out of the House again, it likely will die in the Senate.

Gun control

Rep. Matthew McQueen, a Democrat from Galisteo, wasted no time in filing legislation to ban what are known as “bump stocks” – equipment that can turn a semiautomatic weapon into a rapid-fire gun. A gunman who opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, Nevada two months ago that left 58 people dead and injured hundreds more used just such an attachment.

Gun control proponents are quietly skeptical.

The Legislature passed a watered-down bill earlier this year that was intended to keep firearms out of the hands of people under domestic-violence restraining orders. Even with significant changes, Martinez vetoed the measure, leaving many Democrats believing she will not support even modest gun control legislation.

Cigarette taxes

New Mexico has not raised the tax on cigarettes since 2010, leaving it with the 25th-highest rate in the country at about $1.66 a pack.

Sen. Howie Morales, a Democrat from Silver City, is back with a proposal to double the tax on cigarettes to $3.16.

Public health advocates like the idea, believing it will drive down rates of smoking or, at the very least, make up for some of the costs associated with treating smoking-related illnesses. And proponents in the Legislature view it as a means of boosting revenue for the state.

Morales got a similar measure out of the Senate earlier this year. But it died in House committees, and Martinez has rejected tax increases.

Marijuana

Proponents of legalizing marijuana have seemed resigned to the governor’s long-running and apparently unflinching opposition.

Martinez, a former prosecutor, even vetoed bipartisan legislation this year that would have given the go-ahead for research of industrial hemp – a big step short of legalizing recreational use of cannabis.

But Sen. Gerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat from Albuquerque, is proposing a constitutional amendment to legalize possession and personal use of marijuana for anyone over the age of 21.

The governor is hardly the only person standing in the way of legalizing marijuana. A constitutional amendment would not need her approval to get on the ballot, anyway. Several conservative Democrats, particularly in the Senate, have opposed similar measures in the past.

Legislation filed early for 2018 session

The New Mexican analyzed 116* pieces of legislation filed by Friday afternoon (Dec. 22). The bills and resolutions fall into these categories: Crime and public safety: 23 Education: 19 Health care: 17 Governance: 11 Energy and the environment: 8 Taxes: 8 Regulation: 5 Economic development: 5 Social issues: 4 Technology: 3 Animal welfare: 2 Gun control: 1

*Does not add up to 116, as miscellaneous bills are not included.

Andrew Oxford is at aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican,

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