By Skye McMillon / NM News Port
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made a ban on panhandling part of an ambitious public safety agenda this legislative session and although no bill has yet to be introduced, the idea has drawn support and opposition.
During her Jan. 16 State of the State speech to lawmakers, the governor proposed banning panhandling in order to protect both individuals and the community.
“We have one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in the entire country. And a situation where drivers are at increased risk is not tenable,” she said.
Nationally, pedestrian deaths are on the rise—and New Mexico has the country’s highest rate. More than 7,500 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in 2022, the highest number since 1981, according to a recent report from the Governors’ Highway Safety Association.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, a Republican from Belen, said he agreed that panhandling is a safety issue that should be addressed.
“You have people sometimes maybe with even a physical handicap or possibly impaired walking up and down this narrow strip near traffic, and you know, that’s just a recipe for disaster,” Baca said in an interview at the Roundhouse.
But others say this issue is less about pedestrian safety than the optics of crime on the street.
In Albuquerque, Mayor Tim Keller, also a Democrat, has targeted panhandling with mixed success. A 2017 ordinance attempting to ban asking for money on the street was struck down in 2019. In November, the City Council approved a narrower ban on standing on medians less than 4 feet wide on streets where the speed limit is over 30 mph.
Meanwhile, a coalition of civil liberties groups says panhandling is a symptom of other societal ills, they say, and the solution is to treat the larger problems.
Marshall Martinez, the executive director of Equality of New Mexico, said his organization would oppose any bill to criminalize panhandling.
“We believe that what we should be doing is putting resources and investing in better, more robust long-term housing options for people, access health care without a home, access to a shower without a home, and access to mental health, behavioral health and especially addiction treatment,” Martinez told News Port.
Martinez said that instead of having police officers use force to remove panhandlers, the state should hire more social workers to help address the root causes of poverty and homelessness.
But the issue may not come to a vote if it’s not introduced soon. Gov. Lujan Grisham needs a sponsor in the House or Senate to introduce the bill and none has done so yet.