February 19, 2016

Session Recap: Driver’s license bill (finally) passes

Members of the public lined up to speak against the Republican driver's license bill

It took six legislative sessions, but the Legislature finally sent a bill to the governor related to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.

Members of the public lined up to speak against the Republican driver's license bill

Members of the public lined up to speak against the Republican driver’s license bill

The compromise legislation ended up being closer to the version that passed the Senate late in the 2015 session than the versions that passed the House in the previous years. The bill allows those who are in the country illegally to get a driver’s authorization card, which would not be compliant with the federal REAL ID Act.

Those who can prove they are in the country legally could choose to either have a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or the driver’s authorization card.

This is the first in a series of stories looking back at the key things that passed or failed during the 2016 legislative session.

Gov. Susana Martinez indicated that, after years of saying she would only sign a bill that would repeal letting those who in the country illegally drive, she would change course and sign this bill.

The issue was so controversial for years—including through much of this year’s legislation—but the compromise passed with wide bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

The reason came on a pivotal night in the Senate Finance Committee last week.

The original version cleared the House on a largely partisan vote, and then tensions rose when the Senate made large changes in the first committee.

Senate Judiciary Committee hearing REAL ID/driver's license bill.

Matthew Reichbach

Senate Judiciary Committee hearing REAL ID/driver’s license bill.

Essentially, Sens. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, replaced the House version sponsored by Reps. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, and Andy Nunez, R-Hatch, with their own version in the Senate Public Affairs Committee.

A visibly upset Pacheco called it a “hijacking” and said it was “unacceptable.”

He went into the Senate Finance Committee hearing with a similar tone. But after Sen. Steven Neville, R-Aztec, the sponsors on both the House and Senate side, Department of Public Safety Secretary Greg Fouratt, Taxation and Revenue Department Secretary Demesia Padilla got together to hammer out a deal, Pacheco expressed his happiness.

“Mr. Chairman, I love this amendment,” he said.

The sticking point that House Republicans and the governor’s office had came on fingerprinting requirements for those who could not prove they were in the country legally. The original bill sought to require fingerprints from anyone who could not prove they were in the country legally.

The compromise only required fingerprints from new undocumented immigrants who are initially getting the driver’s authorization cards; all of those who currently have driver’s licenses will not need to be fingerprinted if they don’t let their licenses expire.


A sample New Mexico driver’s license

The immigrant-rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido hailed this provision, saying that it was a defeat for the governor and Republicans who wanted to stop undocumented immigrants from driving. The governor also declared victory, saying that she stopped immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.

From there, it was smooth sailing to passage and an almost anti-climactic end to the years-long slog that involved campaign mailers.

The Senate quickly passed the legislation on a 41-1 vote, with only Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, voting against. The House followed up by concurring with the Senate changes on a 65-1 vote. Only Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero, D-Albuquerque, voted against the measure.

Now all that is needed is a signature by Martinez—likely in front of TV cameras, with Pacheco, Núñez, Smith and Ingle smiling in the background.