Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Referendum Project Targets Liberal Laws


Annette Castillo sat in the blazing sun on a Saturday afternoon in front of Albuquerque's Marriott Pyramid hotel  in an effort to collect signatures protesting what she calls six "bad bills." Castillo is a volunteer for the Referendum Project -- a coalition effort led by Better Together New Mexico, Change Course New Mexico, The Library Guild, NMET Network, Right to Life and One Name One Banner.

The groups, along with volunteers, like Castillo, want to stop the enactment of HB-4, HB-7, SB-13, SB-180, SB-207 and SB-397, which were passed during the 2023 legislative session. Instead, they'd like to put the bills on a ballot for voters across the state to have a say. The bills cover protections for abortion patients and providers, elections, gender affirming care and school based health centers.

"I have four kids of my own and all I ever wanted to be was a mom. Because I think that's a very important job...some kids, they don't have parents that are [as] involved as me, but they still need somebody to say that's wrong. These kids are going to have to live with these mutilations that they're doing with [these] gender transformation surgeries and these abortions..." Castillo said at the petition signing. 

In order for the Referendum Project to have suspended the laws and place the bills on the ballot in 2024, they would have needed 178,689 signatures -- 25% of the total votes that were casted in the 2022 general election by last Friday, June 16. To simply get the bills on a ballot, they will need 71,475 signatures four months prior to the state's general election in 2024. HB-7 and SB-13 went into effect June 16.  

While it's unclear how many signatures the Referendum Project has collected, the petitions that they are circulating were deemed invalid by Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver. She denied the referendum petitions on the grounds that the laws were exempt from the process under the state's constitution.

That means that any signatures collected so far are invalid. But that hasn't put a damper on the coalition's efforts. 

Since the denial by the SOS, several lawsuits across the state have been filed against the Secretary of State. One filed by Rio Rancho resident Ramona Goolsby argued that Toulouse Oliver overstepped her authority by blocking the referendums.

A 13th Judicial District Court judge sided with Toulouse Oliver's position that the petitions did not meet requirements and dismissed the case. However, the judge left the door open for the petition to be refiled with corrections.

A spokesman for the Secretary of State's office said they are confident in their legal position and that the law and case law are clear cut.

"As has long been interpreted by the New Mexico Supreme Court, exempted from the referendum authority are, 'laws providing for the preservation of the public peace, health or safety,' which represent an exercise of the state's inherent police powers," states a letter from the Secretary of State's Office.

However, despite the setback in district court, the Referendum Project has continued their efforts.

"She's [Toulouse Oliver] doing exactly what we thought she would do. Like she had done in the past, which is [block] every referendum. And she prides herself on it," Castillo said. 

“Bad Bills”

A focus for the coalition has been bills that impact reproductive and gender-affirming health care.

NM Bad Bills, a website dedicated to the Referendum Project, claims that HB-7, the bill that codified abortion and gender-affirming care rights, could allow child abusers to "Direct a minor to abortion or transgender interventions, both surgical and chemical, without parental notification."

The website also claims that SB-13, which protects abortion providers and medical records "Lays out a welcome mat for: sex trafficking, and child predators and questionable medical practitioners." The site provides no evidence to back up either claim. 

"These bills, in particular House Bill 7, are about reaffirming that the state regulates healthcare," said Majority House Whip Reena Szczepanski (D-47).  "And in this case reproductive healthcare and gender-affirming healthcare, and it is about making sure that people have access to the same types of healthcare no matter where they live in the state." 

Szczepanski said she saw fear-mongering among a wide variety of bills in the 2023 legislative session. She said that conversations surrounding policy should be grounded in the true nature of the bills, information, data and best practices instead of hypotheticals.

 School Based Health Centers

The Referendum Project also wants to overturn SB-397, which establishes school-based health centers. They claim the bill "serves as government expansion."

School-based health centers have operated in New Mexico for 25 years. Of the 79 that exist in NM; 54 are run by the New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH). The legislation that passed during the 2023 legislative session allows for greater access to federal funding.

The Bad Bills website also states that the health centers could, "Refer for surgeries including abortion and transgender procedures on minors without parental notification."

However, the bill does not explicitly state that. It says, "Referrals as necessary for additional treatment, including inpatient care, specialty care, emergency psychiatric care, oral health care and vision health care services."

"School-based Health Centers (SBHC) are federally prohibited from performing abortions. They are not mandated to perform abortions and gender affirming care," a NMDOH spokesman said in a statement. "The U.S. Department of Health defines gender affirming care as having four elements: social affirmation, puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery. SBHCs engage parents in patient care, including through consent form completion process, collection of medical history, planning for management of chronic conditions, and treatment of acute illness and injuries."

"In a state like New Mexico, where medical services are often lacking or located large distances away, SBHCs are an essential source of medical care for New Mexico’s children. In many cases, SBHCs are in communities with very few other healthcare options," the DOH said.

Castillo says that if referrals for abortions are given, it would side-step parents’ rights. In NM, abortions do not require parental notification if they are over 14 years-old. 

Castillo doesn't see her group's concerns as hypotheticals. "They're examples that are going to become reality that we need to know before we pass a law."

She said she's not concerned about the impact of the court’s decision to invalidate signatures collected by the Referendum Project.

"The SOS has no authority to say it's for the preservation of peace, public health and safety," she said.


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