Districts focus of special session

Robin Fornoff

There seems little question eastern New Mexico will lose a seat in both the House and Senate during a special session of the Legislature set to start Tuesday.

The challenge will be to minimize the damage, according to several area lawmakers.

The special session was set primarily to deal with the Legislature’s every-decade task of redistricting made mandatory by the U.S. Census. Their goal is to equalize representation based on population shifts. It will mean redrawing the state map for many districts.

Most of the state’s growth has been in the west side of the state, places like Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. Population on the east side has declined with few exceptions, notably Clovis and Curry County.

“I think it’s probably a foregone conclusion that we will lose an east side Senate seat,” said Sen. Clint Harden, a Clovis Republican whose District 7 includes portions of Colfax, Curry, Harding, Quay, San Miguel, Taos and Union counties.

Ditto the House, where District 63 Rep. George Dodge, a Santa Rosa Democrat, notes “at least one of the districts is going to get crunched.”

Both Dodge, whose district includes Curry, DeBaca, Guadalupe and Roosevelt counties, and Harden are concerned one party or another may try to gain a political advantage during the process. It’s a process called gerrymandering, though Harden prefers to label it “political skullduggery.” Harden says his goal is to minimize it.

Harden’s district is one of those in jeopardy. He bases that assumption on preliminary plans made public at a series of hearings recently held across the state. None of those plans has been endorsed.

Harden said a worst-case scenario would be adopting districts that pit incumbents against each other. State Sen. Stuart Ingle, a Portales Republican, says he has a plan that voids such a case, though he won’t divulge details until it is introduced as a bill in Santa Fe. He did say it would pare down a Senate district in Albuquerque.

“I have a plan that keeps everyone, all the incumbents we have now in districts and not having to run against each other,” said Ingle. “What I’m trying to do is maintain what we have.”

The real danger in the redistricting process said, District 67 Rep. Dennis Roch of Texico, is the prospect of losing a local representation.

“There won’t be a reduced number of representatives,” said Roch. “But what might happen is a representative from Las Vegas may have his district stretched east to the state line.”

Gov. Susana Martinez also wants state lawmakers to consider several other issues, including stopping the issuance of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants and ending social promotion in public schools. Roch, assistant superintendent of Texico schools, has a keen interest in the social promotion issue.

“I think we ought to enact it,” Roch said.

The law would stop the practice of promoting students who fail proficiency tests in third grade. Roch said studies have shown children who fail the test but are promoted to fourth grade are four times as likely not to graduate from high school.

“They need to be retained because we need to ensure that they have the skills to succeed later in life,” Roch said.