A House committee spent about nine hours Friday from the early afternoon deep into the evening debating and listening to public testimony regarding three bills aimed at toughening violent crime sentences.
All three bills passed the committee and two will head to the House floor next.
The debate turned most heated when the committee discussed a bill to reinstate the death penalty. Sponsored by Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, and Rep. Andy Nunez, R-Hatch, the bill focuses on those convicted of killing law enforcement officers or children.
The legislation passed on a party-line vote.
Youngblood cited recent cases of children and officers being killed, but in particular the recent death of Victoria Martens.
“I am here as her voice for justice,” Youngblood said.
Nunez, who supported the repeal of the death penalty in 2009, said a recent killing of a Hatch police officer encouraged him to co-sponsor the measure.
House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe took issue with the socio-economic issue of the death penalty.
“It is disproportionately applied to the poor, it is disproportionately applied to minorities, it is disproportionately applied to people without a college education,” Egolf said.
Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, is not a sitting member of the committee, but is part of another panel that was invited to take part in the hearing in an advisory capacity. Williams Stapleton asked Youngblood about costs associated with enacting the death penalty, given the state’s budget crisis.
“What is a life worth?” Youngblood responded. “Maybe that’s what we should be discussing.”
Williams Stapleton went on to criticize Youngblood for bringing the measure to the special session.
“If you want to do something you need to do it right, and if you want to do it right in New Mexico, according to the research it’s going to take money,” Williams Stapleton said.
As the conversation escalated, Youngblood countered with, “You don’t have to vote for this, I will find the money.”
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, later added his take on Youngblood’s assurance that money would be available to cover the new law.
“We don’t find the money,” Maestas said of the Legislature. “We appropriate the money, which is what this body has not done for two sessions.”
Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the death penalty repeal bill in 2009. She also criticised the timing of the bill.
“When I first heard this was to be on the special session I was incredulous and outraged,” Chasey said.
Chasey also addressed Youngblood’s question regarding the cost of a human life.
“We put a price on everything here, that is what we have to do,” Chasey said.
Child abuse penalty increase
Albuquerque Republican Reps. Conrad James and Sarah Maestas Barnes sponsored a bill that would extend a current child abuse law to children 12 to 18 years old. The current law, often referred to as “Baby Brianna’s Law.”
James stressed to the House Judiciary Committee the importance of passing the measure before another tragic and violent act happened to a child.
“We need to do this now and we need to pass this out as soon as possible,” James said.
James introduced the same bill during the 2016 regular Legislative session, when it passed the House unanimously.
Maestas was the only committee member Friday to cast a dissenting vote. He suggested crime bills were added to the special session as a way to impact the upcoming legislative elections.
“I understand the rage and frustration and the political desire to get this done now,” Maestas said ahead of the vote.
Maestas debated the merits of James’ bill, but mostly raised concerns that the House spent the entire first day of the special session trying to pass crime bills.
“All of these minds right here should be going over our capital outlay with a fine tooth comb,” Maestas said.
After the final 12-1 vote, Maestas explained his vote by reiterating his point that the budget should be the first priority.
Three strikes expansion
“We are in a constitutional budget crisis,” Maestas said. The state is required by the state constitution to balance the budget each year.
The hearing was filled with emotional testimony that culminated when House Minority Leader Egolf questioned Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque about his bill that would expand the state’s three strikes law.
Pacheco introduced a similar bill during the 2016 regular session which successfully passed the House, in a heavily amended state, but stalled in the Senate.
Egolf, who spearheaded an amendment to the original bill in January, wondered why Pacheco’s current bill did not include the amendment.
“We agreed in January, but we don’t agree now and I don’t understand why, Representative Pacheco,” Egolf said.
Pacheco said he spoke with a number of victims and law enforcement officers and came to the conclusion that there are some crimes that are “life changing” that do not result in great bodily harm.
“My mind was changed after talking to those victims,” Pacheco said.
Egolf continued to question Pacheco on why he removed an amendment that would require the result of or intention to cause great bodily harm. The increasingly contentious debate came to a halt when Egolf paused mid-sentence as he looked towards the families of victims and began to wipe tears from his eyes.
“I don’t think I’ve respected you more than in the past two minutes” Pacheco said.
Maestas again took issue not only with the bill itself but that the Legislature discussed it during the special session. He referenced how unsuccessful the bill was during the 2016 budget session, which lasted for 30 days.
“If you can’t pass it in 30, you can’t pass it in three,” Maestas said.
Maestas also pointed towards the Senate and what they had already accomplished already at that point.
“The Senate is hashing out the budget while we are debating a bill from 1993 that nobody in the country is talking about,” Maestas said.