SANTA FE — Money will not be the only battleground issue when the New Mexico Legislature begins its 30-day session on Tuesday.
Two contentious bills will pit Republican Gov. Susana Martinez against majority Democrats for the fourth time in four years.
Martinez favors a bill mandating retention of certain third-graders who struggle with reading. She also will push again for the repeal of a 10-year-old law that allows people without proof of immigration status to obtain New Mexico driver's licenses.
She faces a fight from Democratic legislators who say neither of Martinez's initiatives would improve life in New Mexico.
In addition, the most-watched and controversial hearing of the session will focus on one of Martinez's appointees, Hanna Skandera of the Public Education Department.
Skandera has overseen the state's 830 public schools since January 2011, but she still has not received a confirmation vote from the Senate Rules Committee or the full 42-member Senate.
Martinez has criticized Senate Democrats, especially Rules Committee Chairwoman Linda Lopez, for stalling on Skandera's confirmation vote.
Lopez, D-Albuquerque, also is running for governor. She said in an interview that Skandera will receive a vote this session. Lopez actually began Skandera's confirmation hearing last year but then recessed it after 10 hours of testimony across three days.
A Senate vote on Skandera probably would be close. Democrats control the Senate 25-17. Skandera would need the votes of all the Republicans and at least four Democrats to be confirmed. A 21-21 tie would give Republican Lt. Gov. John Sanchez the deciding vote on her nomination.
Driver's licenses have been a state controversy longer than Skandera has.
Republicans say they have the votes to get the driver's license repeal bill through the House of Representatives, but they are less optimistic about its prospects after that.
"Can it get out of the House? I think so, but as for the Senate, I don't know," said Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque.
Bills to repeal the licensing law have twice in three years cleared the House of Representatives, where Democrats still have a 37-33 advantage.
Those bills never advanced in the Senate.
Last year, Democrats in the House of Representatives stopped the bill in a committee. Gentry then tried but failed to vault the bill through the full House.
Martinez in 2010 campaigned hard on the licensing law. She said issuing driver's licenses to people in the country unlawfully creates security problems and breeds fraud at motor vehicle offices.
But Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Martinez's arguments had lost steam, especially because eight other states last year followed New Mexico's lead by approving laws granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Two years ago, only New Mexico and Washington state had laws allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Proof of identity and state residency are required. Utah has a similar system in which immigrants receive driving privilege cards.
Martinez said New Mexico was on the wrong side of the national statistics.
"It's not that hard. Forty-eight states have figured it out," she said in 2012.
But last year, Illinois approved a law similar to New Mexico's. Soon after, seven other states and Washington, D.C., did the same. Colorado and California, the nation's most populous state, were among them.
Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque, is the perhaps most outspoken proponent of the licensing law. Garcia said it helps ordinary people who are contributing to the state's economy.
The lobbyist for New Mexico's green chile industry once told legislators that all the harvesters are Mexican nationals, typically men in their 60s.
Garcia said the law enables hardworking people to lawfully drive to their job.
Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, is another supporter of the law.
He said it actually improves public safety because those with driver's licenses are listed in police databases and can easily be tracked. People without licenses will still drive but are more likely to flee if they are involved in an accident, Maestas said.
Law enforcement agencies largely have backed Martinez in her push for a repeal. But Santa Fe's police chief and sheriff have broken ranks and supported the licensing law.
Critics of the governor say her interest in driver's licenses is out of balance with the state's needs.
"Repealing the law is not going to help one child or create one job," said Marcela Diaz of the Santa Fe-based immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido.
Her organization has lobbied hard to keep the licensing law in place.
The 50 Republicans in the House and Senate have been solid voting blocs for repealing the law. Gentry, the House Republican whip, said safety is compromised -- not improved -- by issuing driver's licenses to those in the country unlawfully.
"Not a week goes by without some case of fraud at a motor vehicle office," he said.
A variety of proposals have been offered to reduce scams in which people from elsewhere try to obtain New Mexico driver's licenses.
Diaz said yearly in-person driver's license renewals for people without proof of immigration status would eliminate fraud.
Moreover, Egolf said, the fact that so many other states are issuing licenses to undocumented immigrants makes it less likely that people who live elsewhere will travel to New Mexico in hopes of getting a license by falsely claiming state residency.
To Egolf, the driver's license issue is more about politics than public policy.
"Every day we spend debating driver's licenses is a day we don't talk about the governor's economic record or the inadequate staffing levels at the Children, Youth and Families Department," he said.
Another of Martinez's signature campaign issues in 2010 was ending what she calls social promotion -- passing along students to the next grade, even though they are not prepared to succeed academically.
Martinez initially wanted to hold back students in third, fifth and eighth grades, based on test results. But it quickly became apparent to her that such a bill would never clear the Legislature.
Eighth-graders held back en masse simply would drop out of school at their first opportunity, many legislators said.
Martinez refocused her initiative on third-graders. She said kids learn to read in the early grades. But after third grade, they must read to learn.
Kids who enter fourth grade without solid reading skills are more likely to fail and drop out, the governor has said in virtually all her speeches on education reform.
This session, two legislators who spent long careers as teachers are carrying bills that would hold back certain third-graders, based on lack of reading skills. The sponsors are Rep. Mary Helen Garcia, D-Las Cruces, and Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.
"In my mind, the retention bill is a no-brainer," Gentry said.
He said he was impressed with recent results in Tennessee and Washington, D.C., in which third-grade retention and remediation produced improved readers.
Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, is a teacher who says the retention bills would do far more harm than good.
Soules said no scientific evidence exists to show a correlation between forced retention and improved high school graduation rates. Immediate and sustained help for kids who are having a hard time academically is what's critical to success in school, Soules said.
Last fall, Soules skewered a study in which a researcher said Florida's retention system for third-graders had yielded better students.
Soules said kids did better because Florida paid for summer school, intensive coaching for struggling readers and a program in which highly ranked teachers were assigned to classrooms with students who needed the most help.
"They might have done even better if the same program had been put in place but without mandatory retention of those kids," Soules said.
New Mexico law now allows parents a one-time veto of a school staff's recommendation to hold back a student. After that, school staffs have the authority to decide whether a student is retained.
Budget issues traditionally are the centerpiece of 30-day legislative sessions. But Martinez's high-profile initiatives are among the other bills that will be considered.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he was uneasy venturing into other topics, especially Skandera's confirmation hearing. He said they could take time away from important discussions on finances.
Smith, D-Deming, said he preferred to put off a vote on Skandera for another year. If Martinez is defeated in the November election, Skandera would no longer be heading the Public Education Department. If Martinez wins, the Senate could take up Skandera's confirmation at the beginning of a second four-year term, Smith said.
Driver's licenses and third-grade retention may not go anywhere this session, but many senators say a decision on Skandera's confirmation has to be made.
Skandera has promised that she will do her job and not concern herself with lobbying senators.
Many senators are not inclined to talk about Skandera's confirmation until they have to. One is Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.
"I do know how I'm going to vote. I won't say, though," Cervantes said.
Milan Simonich covers politics for The Santa Fe New Mexican. He can be reached at 505-986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org.