‘People didn’t realize what happened in state government,’ she said. ‘They don’t understand the impact of these laws on children in school.’
A grassroots movement is challenging six laws passed in the New Mexico state legislature that its organizers say threaten their communities, infringe upon parental rights, and compromise the election process.
“People are starting to realize that this is not the state that they grew up in,” Larry Marker, an independent oil and gas producer who is a part of the group that initiated the Referendum Project, told The Epoch Times.
The nonpartisan Referendum Project’s mission is supported by Article IV, Section 1 of the state constitution, which gives citizens the right to “reserve the power to disapprove, suspend and annul any law enacted by the legislature, except general appropriation laws; laws providing for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety; for the payment of the public debt or interest thereon, or the creation or funding of the same, except as in this constitution otherwise provided; for the maintenance of the public schools or state institutions and local or special laws.”
Among the opposed bills passed during the 2023 legislative session are HB 7: “Reproductive & Gender-Affirming Health Care,” SB 397: “School-Based Health Centers,” and SB 13: “Reproductive Health Provider Protections,” all of which work together in removing a parent’s right to be involved in their child’s health care.
“Imagine a young child deciding to change their gender and having the ability to start this process without their parents knowing,” Carla Sonntag told The Epoch Times. “The child can go from the classroom down to the onsite school health center without telling their parents. Staff can’t tell the parents, and if they did so, they would be in violation of the law.”
Ms. Sonntag is CEO of Better Together New Mexico, the organization that has acted as the public engagement arm of the Referendum Project.
The Reproductive & Gender-Affirming Health Care bill permits minors to receive medical procedures, abortion, and gender-affirming care without the parent’s notification or approval.
The School-Based Health Centers bill allows for students to be treated at onsite medical clinics on school grounds without the consent or knowledge of the parents.
“We aren’t taking a position on abortion or transgender issues,” she said. “Our position is a parent should be involved. It’s the parents who should be responsible for their child’s well-being, not the school system.”
The Reproductive Health Provider Protections places a “cone of protection” around providers of reproductive and transgender procedures, shielding them from civil, criminal, and medical malpractice.
This bill also allows for a $10,000 fine against those who discuss alternative treatments, such as promoting adoption instead of abortion.
As a part of its public engagement, Better Together New Mexico released the “Not My Kid” video campaign to garner support.
“Then there are the election laws, which have taken all the bad elements of what we’ve seen nationwide over the last few years and put them into two pieces of legislation,” she said.
HB 4, or “Voting Rights Protections,” and SB 180, or “Election Changes,” she said, invites fraud and rejects transparency by opening the door to a multitude of ways for those in charge to game the system.
HB 207, the final bill being challenged, sexual orientation and gender identity are classified as a protected class that must be recognized by churches, other religious organizations, or nonprofits that contract with the state to offer charitable services such as foster care, adoption, food banks, homeless shelters, and after school programs.
Men in girls’ locker rooms and secular, LBGTQ+ curriculums within religious organizations that don’t support those ideologies but are mandated to comply with them because of their partnership with the state are just a few of the potential consequences from this legislation, Ms. Sonntag said.
There was an initial goalpost for the Referendum Project to acquire approximately 180,000 signatures, which is about 25 percent of the eligible electorate, within 90 days after the 2023 legislative session ended.
This would have stopped the law from going into effect and put it on the 2024 ballot for voters to decide, Ms. Sonntag explained.
“We didn’t hit that for a couple of reasons,” she said. “First, it’s challenging, and secondly, you’ve got to get the form approved by the Secretary of State.”
Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, a Democrat, rejected some of the petitions “over a hyphen,” she said.
“Once she would kick it back, then we would have to start the process over, fix it, resubmit it, and she would take 30 days, right up to the 90 days after the session ends,” she said.
With the first goalpost not being met, they’re now working to get 10 percent of the eligible voters to sign the petition by June of next year, which means about 80,000 signatures per law. Though the laws have now gone into effect, this second goalpost would at least allow citizens to vote on whether they stayed in effect, she said.
“We want to hit the goal sooner because there are other things that come into play, but in the meantime, the Secretary of State has declined all six of the laws from being eligible for referendum because of a clause in the constitution that says laws passed for public peace, health, or safety are exempt from the referendum,” she said. “She’s put all six of those laws in that category.”
This has led to several legal battles, Ms. Sonntag said.
“She doesn’t have the authority to define the law that way,” she said. “Because during the legislative process, there are certain things that must happen for a bill to be for public peace, health, or safety. You must have two-thirds of the legislative body agree that it is for public peace, health, or safety, and once passed, the law must go into effect within 15 days, but none of that happened.”
This chess game was anticipated, said Mr. Marker, who is also the pro se attorney defending the case he’s filed in court.
“We’ve got two battles to fight: as the Secretary of State is going to continue to say the laws are providing for peace, health, and safety, we fight that in court while simultaneously we gather signatures,” he said. “That way, she can’t run out the clock. We’ll push this so hard and make such a damn mess that the New Mexico Supreme Court is going to have to exercise superintending control.”
It’s a slow process, Mr. Marker said, and to those who tell him they’ve yet to win a case, he responds, “Well, actually, I have because now I know what to do next time.”
Mr. Marker suspects the state Supreme Court to side with Secretary of State Oliver, after which he will then aim for the federal district court, he said.
“We’re alleging that the state is not enforcing its own constitution or its own state laws,” he said. “It’s violating its agreement with the United States in the way it’s governing its people.”
New Mexico’s Progressive Leadership
He’s seen these strategies before in his battles with New Mexico, a state that he said has become increasingly more corrupt and radically progressive.
He’s watched the state and its partnership with the Bureau of Land Management become increasingly unfriendly to oil and gas, in addition to the government’s rejection of traditional values as demonstrated in the passage of the challenged bills.
Most recently, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared an emergency order to temporarily suspend citizens’ right to carry firearms in public in Albuquerque and the surrounding Bernalillo County for up to 30 days in what she claimed was a response to the shooting deaths of several children.
After a reporter pointed out that she had sworn an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, Gov. Grisham stated, “No constitutional right, in my view, including my oath, is intended to be absolute.”
For citizens like Ms. Sonntag, the problem isn’t the guns, but failed leadership.
“The governor noted that there have been 143 children killed by guns from 2017 to 2021,” Ms. Sonntag said. “She said we needed immediate, swift, and bold action. This is 2023, and gun violence has only escalated. Her answer to those issues was the elimination of qualified immunity and reform of the bail system.”
Without qualified immunity, individual law enforcement officers can be sued if they injure someone even if they were following protocol, she said.
The bail reform system that was instituted was effective in reducing the correctional facility population to 50 percent capacity; however, this means criminals are back on the streets after being arrested before their paperwork is even complete, she said.
This, and the hands-off policy for transients, has added to the crime problem in the city, she said.
Ms. Sonntag pointed to a memo (pdf) Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina issued in April 2022 that directs police to “manage homelessness without arresting people or punishing them for sleeping outside.”
The memo instructs police to “make all reasonable efforts to pursue nonpunitive, service-based approaches and shall not attempt to enforce littering, trespassing, obstruction of sidewalk, and other laws and ordinances relating to quality of life” unless requested by a city a non-law enforcement agency called Family and Community Services Department.
“We got a hold of that memo and put it out to the public, and there was such an outcry that they rescinded the memo, but the evidence is they’re still operating under it,” she said.
The American Dream to Be Left Alone
Mr. Marker argued that it’s not the transients committing crimes who need to be protected, but the hardworking citizens minding their own business.
“All I want, personally, is to be left the hell alone, and come to find out, that’s the American dream, right?” Mr. Marker said.
It’s the federal and state constitutions that support this pursuit, he said.
“Before all this, I didn’t believe that there are actually people in this world who sit around and think of ways to control your life,” he said. “I had no comprehension of that. I thought I could get out of high school, work hard, make decisions, pay my money, and start a business so that my kids and grandkids can have a future.”
The increase in restrictive, progressive policies over the last several years cast a shadow, however, over that once bright future.
“I don’t know why the Secretary of State would fight us so hard on this,” he said. “There’s essentially no reason for her to challenge citizens voting.”
Secretary of State Oliver’s official response to the Referendum Project is posted on her webpage, where she calls the petitions invalid.
To this, Ms. Sonntag said the Secretary of State Oliver ultimately approved the form of their petitions but maintained that they’re still exempt based on public peace, health, and safety.
On moving forward despite the government resistance, Ms. Sonntag said the public has a right to know what’s taking place, which is why much of the public engagement has involved education.
“People didn’t realize what happened in state government,” she said. “They don’t understand the impact of these laws on children in school. For all of these reasons, that’s why we are pushing forward.”
For Victoria Derrer, a point of contact in Roosevelt County, New Mexico, for the Referendum Project, getting involved in the effort to gather signatures was more than just a political effort.
“As I learned more about these laws, I just knew that it was past time for me personally to put feet to my convictions,” Ms. Derrer said, adding that the congregation of like-minded people throughout the state to support the cause has built up a momentum that has in many ways been providential.
“We knew that it was now or never,” Ms. Derrer said. “We had to take action.”
In response to The Epoch Times’ request for comment, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office gave this statement:
“Two courts in New Mexico have already sided with our office on these matters and agreed that the Secretary of State is within her authority to deny the referendum petitions that have thus far been submitted to our office because they attempted to target laws that are exempted from NM’s referendum process,” the spokesperson said. “We are, of course, pleased that courts around the state have agreed with the Secretary of State and stood up for the rule of law on these matters.”