By Justin Horwath
Gov. Susana Martinez on Tuesday set forth a sweeping agenda for the short 2016 legislative session, calling on lawmakers to get tough on crime, further stiffen DWI penalties, implement her education and economic development proposals and to finally pass a Real ID driver's license bill that has been a touchstone of her gubernatorial tenure.
But while Martinez touched on a wide range of issues in her sixth State of the State address, her emphasis on public safety early in her speech helped set the tone for what she and fellow Republicans hope will be a major theme of the 30-day session, setting the stage for a political battle with Democrats ahead of the November elections.
"It is an honor to join you for the State of the State Address and open this legislative session, where our call and purpose will be to confront violent crime, demand more than mediocrity in education and compete for jobs with the resolve that is expected of us," she said in her opening her remarks.
Even before Martinez appeared in House chambers Tuesday -- showing up 53 minutes after the scheduled 1 p.m. start time -- the session was off to a rancorous start with some Democrats, sparked by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, wearing socks decorated with images of pizza slices, a reference to incidents during the governor's now infamous holiday party at the Eldorado Hotel & Spa in Santa Fe last month.
Short sessions held during even-numbered years are primarily intended for lawmakers to hammer out a state budget, but other bills can be considered as well. Lawmakers go into this session facing a public hungry for ethics reforms, an unemployment rate that, at 6.8 percent, is the nation's highest, and a continuing slump in oil prices that could mean hard bargaining sessions against grim revenue forecasts. Also hanging over the session is the specter of the November elections in which all 112 seats in the Legislature will be up for for grabs.
And while Democrats have called Martinez' focus on crime a ploy meant to distract from real problems facing the state, high-profile violent crimes, particularly in the Albuquerque area, have shocked the state's conscience, with Martinez calling 2015 a year that brought "unthinkable personal pain and horrific tragedy" for Julie Benner and Michelle Carlino-Webster.
They are the wives of Gregg "Nigel" Benner, an officer with the Rio Rancho Police Department who died after being shot during a traffic stop in May, and Daniel Webster, an officer with the Albuquerque Police Department who died after being shot during an October traffic stop. Members in the gallery stood and applauded for the two women for more than 30 seconds.
"Call them boomerang thugs, turnstile thugs, whatever," Martinez said. "We have vicious, heinous criminals among us who are willing to take the lives of our greatest heroes, and who have no business being out on our streets."
She called for a proposal that would allow judges to keep "the most dangerous criminals in jail" without bail, saying there should be "no more excuses for light sentences and automatic bail for violent offenders." But Martinez did not say whether she supports another element of a current proposal to amend the constitution to also allow judges in the state to release defendants from custody if they're too poor to make bail.
She said that skipping out on parole should be a fourth-degree felony and that she fully supports the bipartisan effort to allow local communities "to adopt curfews if it's necessary to keep us safe." Opponents of such measures have questioned whether they are constitutional.
And Martinez found a political friend across the aisle in Democratic Attorney General Hector Balderas with regard to closing what she considers a loophole in a state law that does not allow judges to sentence child pornography offenders for each image they possess.
She said with limited new money available in the state budget, policymakers need to do a better job of prioritizing how those dollars are spent. "Public safety should be at the top of that priority list," she said.
That includes putting money into clearing a backlog of rape kits in New Mexico, hiring more state police officers, expanding a Corrections Department unit "that tracks down violent absconders" and hiring more child abuse caseworkers. In calling for stiffer penalties for repeat DWI offenders, Martinez said it is "cynical and factually incorrect to suggest that our drunk driving laws are tough, or anything like surrounding states."
She added that preventing crime "also means working to prevent people from becoming criminals," which she called a "longer-term challenge."
"Behavioral health can be one of many factors," she said. She cited New Mexico Human Services Department data that show an "84 percent increase in behavioral health services provided in our state -- to the highest level in state history."
Under her proposed budget, she said, "We will use additional behavioral health dollars for new crisis triage centers, mobile crisis response teams and community behavioral health clinics."
On education, Martinez touted efforts to put money into pre-kindergarten programs and again called for a law that would make it tougher for New Mexico children to move onto another grade if they are not proficient readers. In a jab at opponents of her education proposals, Martinez said that "simply opposing this education agenda is not, in and of itself, an agenda."
Toward the end of the speech, Martinez urged lawmakers to approve a compromise two-track driver's license proposal under which the state would issue licenses that comply with the federal Real ID law as well as grant state driving privilege cards for undocumented immigrants, a step back from her past calls to prevent such residents from legally driving at all.
"Some have advocated just kicking the can down the road," she said. "That's getting much harder to do. Others want to continue giving preferential treatment to illegal immigrants at the expense of U.S. citizens. That's not common sense, it's not acceptable and it ignores the will of the people who elected us."
Democrats have been calling on Martinez to put ethics legislation on the legislative agenda this session. In her speech, she said "we should improve the campaign finance reporting process, close the revolving door between legislators and lobbyists and require the disclosure of capital outlay allocations and any private clients served by public officials in New Mexico."
(c)2016 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)