State Sen. John Arthur Smith is worried about one divisive issue obscuring bigger, more important legislation.
Smith, D-Deming, says political posturing over a driver's license law could dominate the legislative session that starts next month.
He says more critical issues then would be shoved aside -- victims of bare-knuckles but shortsighted politics.
The law in question allows illegal immigrants with proper identification documents to obtain New Mexico driver's licenses.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez wants the law repealed, saying it threatens border and national security.
Smith is the only Democrat in the Senate who has stood consistently with Martinez on this issue.
Even so, he said in an interview, he is worried about the licensing issue draining the time and energy of lawmakers when they begin their 30-day session in January.
"I'd hate for it to dominate. I personally think we have more pressing problems," Smith said.
A power on finance committees, Smith is hearing from constituents who say their institutions are backsliding for lack of money.
Smith said he has heard such appeals from cash-strapped state courts and New Mexico State University.
Smith, citing a report from September by The Associated Press, said Martinez's administration had cut back on the number of driver's licenses issued to undocumented immigrants. He said this indicated that what the governor sees as a serious problem had abated.
But in truth, the state is doing nothing different in screening applicants for driver's licenses, said a spokesman for the Motor Vehicle Division. The process is set by law, which is why Martinez needs legislation to repeal it.
People with proper identifying documents are still obtaining New Mexico driver's licenses, regardless of immigration status, the MVD spokesman said.
Many of the applicants who are rejected for driver's licenses cannot prove they live in New Mexico. Martinez said the licensing law leaves the state vulnerable fraud.
Illegal immigrants from around the country see New Mexico as a place where they can exploit a weak licensing policy, she said.
The only solution, in the governor's view, is to repeal the law.
About 1.6 million people have New Mexico driver's licenses. Of them, some 93,000 are listed as foreign nationals.
But not all of those people are in the country illegally. Some are students, soldiers or workers with visas.
The governor is especially interested in pushing the licensing law because 2012 is an election year for all 112 state legislators. Martinez wants them on the record in votes about whether the law should be repealed.
That may not happen. Democrats dominate the Senate, 27-14 with one seat open. Their leaders may bottle up any repeal bill in a committee.
Even if the license bill gets to the Senate floor, it would face almost impossible odds.
In the House of Representatives, the dynamic is different. Forty-two of 70 House members voted to repeal the licensing bill last winter.
Eight House Democrats and one independent joined 33 Republicans in voting to repeal the law. Their bill then died in the Senate.
House members spent 14 hours debating the licensing bill before it reached a final vote.
This time, Smith said, the licensing issue could turn the Legislature into a fractious bunch that gets little accomplished.
The oddest part of the story is that Smith thinks the governor is right about the repeal.
He said his district, among the most conservative of those held by a Democrat, would not forgive him if he opposed Martinez on the licensing issue.
"I've stood with her in the past on this, and I will again," Smith said.
But he is not happy about the prospect of long debates over driver's licenses.
Most other Democrats, especially in the Senate, say Martinez is using the licensing issue for political gain.
Even Smith sees merit in their assessment.
It was Senate Democrats, he said, who advocated fingerprinting and two-year renewals for foreign nationals applying for driver's licenses.
Martinez was not satisfied with those concessions. She took an all-or-nothing approach.
The governor wanted the law repealed, and would not consider compromises.
She lost, and the existing licensing law remained intact.
State Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said the law is humane and sensible.
Without a car and a driver's license, people cannot get to their jobs, Alcon said.
He also says undocumented immigrants with licenses do dirty work -- picking crops and cleaning motel rooms -- that Americans will not not touch.
Alcon says the law is sensible, giving the underdog a shot at the American dream.
Rep. Andy Nunez, an independent from Hatch, plans to again sponsor a bill to repeal the licensing law.
Many who cross into New Mexico illegally have bad intentions, Nunez said.
"They come here to get a license to legitimize themselves. Then they can go anywhere in the country," Nunez said.