Stung by the recent passage of legislation that would expand requirements for instant federal background checks on New Mexico firearms purchasers, House Republicans are looking for a way to override the bill.
Their solution: Employ an arcane provision in the state constitution that would send the question directly to voters in the next statewide general election, scheduled for 2020.
The House of Representatives earlier this week voted almost totally along party lines to approve Senate Bill 8, moving the legislation to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She has said she will support such gun-control measures.
House Republican leaders on Thursday sent a letter to Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, asking her to use the constitutional referendum provision to place the question on the 2020 ballot.
That provision gives the people the “power to disapprove, suspend and annul any law enacted by the Legislature” with some exceptions. If the secretary of state approved the request, it would prepare petitions to send to voters on the issue.
But there are a few hurdles to clear to make that quest a reality. At least 10 percent of voters from three-fourths of the state’s 33 counties would have to sign the petition to make it eligible for placement on the ballot.
In addition, the total number of petitioners must equal at least 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election. About 701,000 people voted in the 2018 election, so House Republicans would need at least 70,000 signatures to make the procedure viable.
House Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said he’s convinced more than 10 percent of New Mexicans would sign the petition to put the matter on the ballot.
Noting that 25 counties in the state already have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuary counties, Montoya said the Democrat-heavy House is not adhering to the will of the populace.
“What we’re seeing with this bill is what we’ve been seeing this entire session — Santa Fe ruling over the state,” he said.
He said the battle over Senate Bill 8 is not one of party politics, but of urban versus rural concerns.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, disagreed. He said Republicans can “try all they like, but that’s not going to get them anywhere.”
Egolf said the constitutional provision allows for some exceptions, including one that excludes “laws providing for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety” from being annulled.
He said SB 8 clearly falls into that category.
“It is the height of irony that House Republicans want to use an unconstitutional effort to undo a bill that they say is unconstitutional,” Egolf said.
Toulouse Oliver’s office responded quickly to the letter, asking Montoya and Minority Floor Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, to provide a draft petition for her office to first review, adding she would then make a determination if the petition meets legal requirements.
History shows that it could be a challenge to get such a measure on the ballot.
Since New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912, only three referendums have gone to voters, according to Legislative Council Services data. The first, in 1930, involved a repeal of a tobacco excise tax. It was the only one voters approved.
The other two, in 1950 and 1964, had to do with repealing an amendment to the primary election code. Both failed.