- Associated Press - Thursday, January 23, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - If some lawmakers have their way, New Mexico voters will be busy in the November general election deciding a host of policy questions ranging from legalizing marijuana to increasing the minimum wage.

A flurry of proposed constitutional amendments in the Legislature has Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and some lawmakers questioning whether the Constitution - a document defining fundamental law and rights in New Mexico - is being misused.

Constitutional amendments, unlike a bill to change statutory law, go straight to voters if approved by the Legislature. That provides a way to bypass the governor and a potential veto.

“I don’t want us to get into the process of saying, ‘OK, well we think the governor won’t sign it, so let’s do a constitutional amendment,’ ” said Senate President Mary Kay Papen, a Las Cruces Democrat.

Papen expressed reservations about the proposal that would have voters determining whether New Mexico follows neighboring Colorado in legalizing the personal use and possession of marijuana.

Among other constitutional amendments proposed this session are ones to create an ethics commission to investigate alleged misconduct by public officials and require a yearly report on the costs and benefits of all tax breaks and incentives.

Another proposal would reverse a 2003 constitutional change that gave the governor more control over public education. The measure would eliminate the secretary of education, appointed by the governor, as the administrator running the state Public Education Department. Instead, the proposal would return to having an elective state Board of Education as the policy-making authority for schools.

“I am in opposition to using our constitution as a voter referendum,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and Senate Finance Committee chairman. He’s under fire from the state Democratic Party chairman for not allowing a committee vote last year on a proposed constitutional change that would provide more money for early childhood education programs by boosting state permanent-fund payouts.

The sponsor of the marijuana-legalization proposal, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, contends that a constitutional amendment is a sound approach to deciding the issue.

“It really is much more responsive to the will of the people,” said Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat.

Martinez, a former prosecutor, strongly opposes legalizing marijuana.

In an election year when Martinez is running for another term and Democrats are trying to retain a majority of seats in the House, there’s a potential political bonus for Democrats if liberal-leaning voters flock to the polls in November to determine the fate of the marijuana proposal or a measure for automatically increasing the minimum wage annually for inflation.

Martinez said in an interview that lawmakers are “playing with the constitution” by trying to legalize marijuana with a constitutional amendment.

“The constitution is a very thought-out document, and just to get voter turnout you’re going to throw that into an amendment for the constitution. It’s politics. It’s not good policy,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, a Belen Democrat, said lawmakers must be cautious about using constitutional amendments to decide policy questions. But he doesn’t consider the amendment procedure as “an end run” around a gubernatorial veto.

“We have to really make sure that if we’re putting something in that it’s something that’s just not willy-nilly because the governor might veto a bill or not. It’s something you have to think very seriously about and understand that it becomes part of a constitution - not statutory law that you can amend whenever you want to. That’s where we have to be careful,” Sanchez said.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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