Dispatch New Mexico: Another legislative session around the bend

So here we are, at the onset of another legislative session. It’s one of the short ones, 30 days, and it’s at the front end of an election year, so it probably won’t be an overly productive one.

Sure, a budget will be passed, since that’s essentially required by state law. But I’m not optimistic that much of anything else will get done in the upcoming session.

Take the REAL ID issue as an example of what’s to come (or what’s not to come). Two weeks ago it appeared reasonable to expect Democrats and Republicans to sit down and hammer out compromise legislation that would satisfy the feds when it comes to the issuance of New Mexico driver’s licenses. Now it’s not so certain.

In October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security denied an extension for the state to comply with the REAL ID Act. State Republicans, with Gov. Susana Martinez leading the charge, sounded the alarm that something must be done in the upcoming session or else New Mexicans would be required to have their passports to fly commercially inside the U.S.

Word of a compromise bill that would create a two-tiered licensing system was circulating—until reports late last week that Homeland Security will allow New Mexicans at least two more years of flying with their driver’s licenses as identification. That set off an alarm from the Democrats, with Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez leading that charge, accusing the governor of inciting unnecessary “panic” over the issue.

Going into this year’s legislative session, compromise is still being discussed, but it remains to be seen if that’s possible now.

This will be the sixth year for Martinez to try to overturn the state’s law and prohibit undocumented immigrants from getting licenses. The Dems have blocked her efforts every year and could well do the same this year.

Another proposal that’s expected to surface this session involves capital outlays, but I’m not optimistic about that one either.

Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan think tank with a track record for success at getting common sense legislation passed, is proposing an overhaul of the process used to fund capital projects around the state.

Nicknamed the Christmas Tree Bill for its “gifts” to lawmakers to take home to their constituents, the process used to select and fund these projects is tainted in politics. Lawmakers control the process from beginning to end (or, almost the end, as the governor still has the power of the line-item veto).

Think NM wants to shift the process to a more transparent, merit-based system of funding, by creating a “capital outlay planning board” of qualified appointees instead of elected officials.

The board would prioritize the projects based on need and send its top priorities to lawmakers for approval. Politics would still be part of the equation, but not nearly as much—and actual need would be elevated in the process.

As much as the state needs to address the inefficiency and wasteful spending inherent in this current process of selecting the state’s capital investments, I doubt that the tone of this coming session will be such that a nonpartisan, good-government bill will make it very far. More likely, Think NM will plant some seeds of support for its proposal, so it will have a better shot at passage in 2017.

Of course there will be sundry other proposals out there for lawmakers to consider in this year’s session. As of this writing, about two weeks before the session is to convene, there are already about 200 bills, resolutions and memorials pre-filed, so there will be plenty to consider. But it’s the governor who sets much of the 30-day agenda, and she’s yet to release her message for the upcoming session.

A lot of issues will rise to the level of media attention, then subside and all-but-disappear as the session draws to an end in February. That doesn’t mean they won’t resurface later, but only so much can and will get done in a single session.

I’ll be paying particular attention to the budget and capital funding, driver’s licenses and reform efforts.

Then comes the primary and general election cycles, when most of the same lawmakers who rose and fell in Santa Fe will be hearing from their constituents as to how they’re doing on the job, and whether they deserve to keep doing it.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com or tmcdonald@rdrnews.com.