Legislature: Bishops weigh in on early education, minimum wage, marijuana; mum on gay marriage

Note: This story is part of a package of news stories on the New Mexico Legislature that the Quay County Sun has obtained from the Santa Fe New Mexican.

By Milan Simonich
The New Mexican

New Mexico’s three Catholic bishops made no mention Wednesday of the legalization of same-sex marriage when they met with dozens of state lawmakers.

Instead, the bishops focused their attention on five other measures, notably a constitutional amendment that would pour about $100 million more each year into early-childhood education.

“We’ve got to help kids have a chance,” said Michael J. Sheehan, archbishop of Santa Fe.

Spending money to put infants and toddlers on the right path in life means that New Mexico will have more high school and college graduates and fewer people in prison, Sheehan said.

The proposal is controversial.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez opposes tapping the state’s $12 billion land-grant endowment in order to help fund early-childhood programs. So does state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who heads the Senate Finance Committee.

Smith declined to give the proposal a vote in his committee last year after it cleared the House of Representatives. He said the initiative was fiscally irresponsible because it could erode the endowment.

The endowment, called the Land Grant Permanent Fund, grows through a combination of royalties from leasing of public lands, often for oil and gas exploration. The state manages the endowment. This includes distributions and investments to grow the endowment.

Currently, more than $500 million a year is spent from the endowment on public programs, mostly public schools that serve children in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The bishops say the endowment would continue to grow, though more slowly, if income from it was used for early-childhood development.

They and other proponents are again lobbying legislators to put the amendment on the November ballot so voters can make the final decision.

Sheehan and Bishops Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces and James S. Wall of Gallup also renewed their support for a law that enables undocumented immigrants to obtain New Mexico driver’s licenses. Martinez wants to repeal that law.

Cantu said the federal immigration system is broken. New Mexico took a step to fix it regionally by allowing immigrants the privilege of driving, he said.

He said the state’s law has improved public safety because licensed drivers know the rules of the road and are listed in police databases.

Cantu said immigrants with licenses can drive lawfully to their job, support their family and pay taxes.

Martinez did not attend the breakfast meeting with the bishops, but she knows their position. All 50 Republicans in the 112-member Legislature have joined her in opposing the licensing law.

They say it inspires fraud at Motor Vehicle Division offices and causes security problems by providing government-issued identification to people who are in the country unlawfully.

Most Democrats in the Legislature have voted to keep the law, which has been on the books since 2003.

Abortion, the minimum wage and marijuana are other topics the bishops are monitoring.

The bishops said they would support legislation requiring physicians to notify parents if a girl seeks an abortion. Allen Sanchez, a spokesman for the bishops, said they would agree to limiting the notifications to parents of girls 15 or younger.

They want to study amendments to increase the state’s minimum wage and to legalize marijuana.

Most of New Mexico has a minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. Albuquerque and Santa Fe have higher minimums.

As for marijuana, Colorado has legalized recreational use of the drug. Cantu said this provides the opportunity for New Mexico to study the effects.

“We need to be quite cautious,” he said. “Many have used it as an entry to more dangerous drugs.”

The bishops said nothing about same-sex marriage, which the New Mexico Supreme Court last month ruled is legal.

Sanchez said the bishops probably would support a constitutional amendment by Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington that, if approved by voters, would define marriage as between one man and one woman.

“But right now we have an emergency on the early-childhood issue,” Sanchez said. “That is their priority for this session.”

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com. Follow his Ringside Seat blog on the New Mexican site.

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