Referendum Project in New Mexico transcends partisan politics

By Sarah Valente

Aug 4, 2023

We the people are in charge of the government, but we do not directly make or enforce the laws. So that average New Mexicans can lead normal lives in peace and safety, we elect representatives who will do this work on our behalf.

This weighty thing that we place in the hands of a few elected officials should not be unbridled authority but rather the kind of obligation that only the most humble among us are willing to carry. Sadly, authority is what it often becomes.

Since its passage in 1910, the New Mexico Constitution has given us, the New Mexican people, “the power to disapprove, suspend, or annul any law enacted by the legislature…” Though the referendum process has rarely been attempted, and even more rarely been successful, in the history of our state, this right provides the people with recourse if and when our representatives fail us. 

The Referendum Project underway right now in New Mexico transcends partisan politics. Should children be legally allowed to begin the irreversible process of medically transitioning without the knowledge or consent of their parents? No, of course not. That is the position of extremists. Those opposing such an ideology are not the ones who have jumped the shark.

Both America-first Republicans and dyed-in-the-wool Democrats have rushed to sign petitions against the recent trampling of parental rights. Of the six most overreaching bills that were passed in this last legislative session, three of them impact our school children. Nothing makes friends of political foes faster than the goal of protecting our kids.

The nonpartisan legislative watchdog group Better Together New Mexico spotted six especially egregious bills as they made their way through our Roundhouse last spring. Thousands of emails and phone calls were made by average New Mexicans to our legislators demanding nay votes on these bills. Passed despite this expressed opposition, they were ripe for a referendum.

The democratic process of a referendum as laid out by our constitution is simple yet far from easy. Bills that pass both chambers and are signed into law by the governor go into effect ninety days after the end of the legislative session. This is true of all bills except emergency ones, which instead go into effect as soon as the governor signs them.

In order for the people to stop a law before it is enacted, in-person signatures must be gathered from at least 25% of New Mexican voters. If this process is completed successfully, the law is paused until it can appear on the ballot at the next general election. It is important to hammer the point that a successful petition drive merely brings the issue to the people. It does not undo or overturn anything on its own. 

We have passed the June 16th deadline, which was ninety days after the close of the legislative session. We did not have ninety days to gather signatures, however, as the process can only begin once the governor signs the bills into law. Because we did not reach our goal of 25%, the bills I will summarize below are now the law of our land.

We were not able to pause them, but the push for a referendum continues. If we are able to meet the obligation, and we will, of gathering signatures from 10% of New Mexican voters four months before the general election, these referendums will appear on the ballot after all. 

You’ve probably heard rumors that the Referendum Project is invalid because some or all of the targeted bills are exempt. Though the petitions in circulation were approved by the Secretary of State, she now seems bound and determined to block the democratic process.

There is a clause in our constitution that exempts laws necessary for “public peace, health, and safety.” Whether any of these bills are shaded by this broad umbrella is not for the Secretary of State to decide, however. In order to be exempt as a law providing for “public peace, health, and safety,” the legislature has to define the law as such when writing the bill. Additionally, the bill has to pass both chambers with a two-thirds majority vote, and the law has to go into effect immediately upon receiving the governor’s signature.

None of the six bills being opposed meet these qualifications, therefore none of them are exempt from the referendum. The fact that one elected individual believes that her will overrides the law is as worrisome as the content of the bills in question.

In order to understand the public’s opposition to HB7, SB13, SB397, and HB207, they must be read as a package. One picks up where another leaves off, and it is the missing language (no mention of “parent,” “minor,” “consent,” etc.) that is the most disturbing element of these bills that are now law in New Mexico. There is no reference to age at any point in any of these bills.

The lack of essential wording was addressed by the opposition before passage. Its absence is not coincidental, nor are the gaping loopholes left open as a result. SB397 is the trojan horse in which HB7 and companion bill SB13 is transported into our schools through government-funded school-based health centers.

Though many parents surely welcome the gift of expanded access to health care, most are not aware of the authority they are granting the state over their children. Because of these bills, if a student approaches a teacher, coach, counselor, or school nurse to tell them of their unwanted pregnancy or their desire for gender-affirming care, the adult in question must help the student obtain these “healthcare” services.

Not only do parents not need to be notified of these issues or procedures, but calling the parents could be seen as “interfering” with the student’s access to what is now classified as “protected healthcare activity.” I have been accused of opposing these bills simply because I am a conservative. Are parental rights something only conservative parents want? I find that hard to believe.

The other two bills drawing ire are HB4 and SB180. SB180 is the 172-page senate bill claiming to secure elections in New Mexico, and HB4 is the House companion to it. Among many other provisions, these bills provide for automatic voter registration, a permanent absentee voter list, and the increased use of drop boxes.

Intentionally vague language endangers the auditing of elections, canvassing, and other processes necessary for maintaining faith in the democratic process. In an effort to permanently dismantle the people’s constitutional right to suspend a law, the ten days that had been previously provided to the Secretary of State for granting approval or disapproval of petition applications has now been extended to thirty days. This is one of two extensions granted to the Secretary of State with the obvious intent of cutting short the ninety days afforded to the people. It is abundantly clear that the will of the people is not important to those in power. 

New Mexico’s founders expected us to hold our government accountable, and they explicitly outlined the process by which we could do so. The Republican majority had to be convinced of the benefit of adding a referendum to our constitution, but those who foresaw the potential pitfalls of representative democracy eventually won the debate.

This precious right that we were granted should be exercised unimpeded by government opposition. The collective disapproval of the bills in question emphasizes the need for careful consideration and examination of our legislative process. We have to start paying attention and stop trusting the party lines.

Republican and Democrat platforms are diametrically opposed on many issues, yet average New Mexicans raising families share goals and values that are largely the same. By uniting the people against the growing threat of unchecked government power, we strive to uphold the fundamental values that govern our society and protect the rights of all New Mexican citizens. 

Petitions can be signed every Monday and Thursday from 1-5pm at the Republican Party Headquarters in Taos, NM.

Sarah Valente is the chairwoman for the Republican Party in Taos County.