Four Democrats joining 32 Republicans would tip the balance
For two years in succession, the state House of Representatives has voted to repeal the law that enables illegal immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver's licenses.
But the bills never made it through the Senate, so the licensing law remains on the books.
This year, odds of the proposed repeal reaching a vote of the full 70-member seem to have declined. The Democrat majority is a bit larger in the House, 38-32, meaning the bill could be stalled in a committee and never receive a floor vote.
But if the repeal bill advances to the full House of Representatives, it is likely to carry in that chamber again.
Simple math tells the story:
All 32 Republicans would vote to repeal the licensing law. They need the votes of four Democrats to get the repeal through the House.
House Speaker Ken Martinez, D-Grants, is a staunch opponent of the repeal. But seven of his veteran members voted with the Republicans last year for the repeal, leaving him vulnerable on the issue.
In addition, two newly elected House Democrats -- Stephanie Garcia Richard, right, of Los Alamos and Emily Kane of Albuquerque -- said during the fall campaign that they favored the repeal.
Here is the breakdown of veteran Democrats in the House who have voted for the repeal at least once:
Rep. George Dodge of Santa Rosa -- He voted against the repeal in 2011 but reversed himself last year.
Rep. Dona Irwin of Deming -- A lawmaker whose district is on the Mexican border, she voted for the repeal for two consecutive years.
Rep. Sandra Jeff of Crownpoint -- She also supported the repeal for the last two years. Jeff and Irwin combined with the Republican minority in the House of Representatives to force the repeal to a floor vote in 2011.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup -- She voted for the repeal the last two years.
Rep. Debbie Rodella of Espanola -- Rodella also voted for the repeal in 2011 and 2012.
Rep. Henry "Kiki" Saavedra, right, of Albuquerque -- He opposed the repeal in 2011 but voted for it last year.
Rep. Nick Salazar of Ohkay Owingeh -- The longest-serving House member at 40 years, he also changed his position. Salazar voted against the repeal in 2011 but for it the next year.
In this session, freshman Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, is sponoring the repeal in concert with Gov. Susana Martinez's administration.
If Pacheco's proposal, House Bill 132 is bottled up in a Democrat-controlled committee, he will have difficulty "blasting" it to the floor.
In 2011, six House Democrats who eventually supported the repeal voted against bringing the measure directly to the floor.
They said the committee process should be honored. But the taxpaying public cares little about the chain by which a bill normally moves from committees to the full House of Representatives. Most ordinary people see nothing wrong with the full House voting on a bill, even if a committee has decided to block it.
But, for those legislators who want political cover, a deviation of the normal committee process could be offered as an explanation for strangling the driver's license bill.
As for the Senate, two of its most conservative members are talking about teaming up on a compromise bill that would continue allowing illegal immigrants to drive in New Mexico.
Sens. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, and John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, both have favored the repeal in years past. Smith, in fact, was the only Senate Democrat of 28 to support it last year.
But Smith also has said that the driver's license issue has taken too much time -- time that ought to be spent on other matters.
So Smith and Ingle, right, have recently talked of introducing a bill to grant privilege cards to illegal immigrants that would be good for in-state driving privileges only. Utah has such a system.
Gov. Martinez wants a repeal, an issue she campaigned on.
Senate Democrats previously offered bills to keep the law intact but require that foreign nationals renew their licenses annually. New Mexico licenses typically are valid for four or eight years.
Fraud-fighting penalities also have been part of the Senate compromise, which the Catholic bishops of New Mexico favor.
From the way this one is shaping up, the most likely outcome is another year of competing bills that do not clear both the House and the Senate.
That means nothing would change, and the licensing law for illegal immigrants would remain on the books.