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Nuestra Historia: Sen. Lopez began push for consolidation

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It was January 1967, and the 60-day session of the New Mexico Legislature was under way. Former West Las Vegas mayor Junio Lopez, a Republican, was the new senator from Las Vegas, having adroitly won election in heavily Democratic San Miguel County by taking advantage of the internecine warfare then dividing local Democrats. (How Lopez achieved his victory is recounted in “Junio Lopez and the Alpha News,” Nuestra Historia, April 26, 2013.)

As the session began, among the first legislative proposals introduced by Sen. Lopez was Senate Bill 68, which provided simply that “Any two or more municipalities having a common boundary for twenty years or more on the effective date of this section are consolidated.” The bill immediately evoked almost universal opposition in Las Vegas, as leaders on both sides of the Gallinas objected to “forced” consolidation.

The Optic quickly weighed-in, and in early February 1967, ran an editorial highly critical of Lopez’ consolidation bill. Entitled “Let’s Do It Right,” the editorial opposed any legislative attempt to force consolidation. The tenor of the editorial was that a municipal merger required studied preparation, that financial implications needed to be closely scrutinized, and that the probable effect on school consolidation also needed to be explored.

East-side residents were particularly concerned that New Town would assume the brunt of tax liability for the west side, something an Optic reporter had earlier broached when he likened consolidation to “a poor relative wanting to move in.”

At the time, the assessed property valuation was $2 million in Old Town and nearly $7 million in New Town, and the general obligation indebtedness was $307,000 in West Las Vegas, and $234,000 in East Las Vegas. (Sensitive to this concern, from the beginning, Sen. Lopez included language in his bill that municipal indebtedness based on property taxes would continue as liability of property owners on each side of the Gallinas.)

Opposition to forced consolidation was unrelenting, however, and even Radio Station KFUN and the Chamber of Commerce joined the Optic in conducting a telephone poll on the question of merger. Of the 552 persons who responded to the poll, 325 favored consolidation by referendum, 95 favored forced consolidation, and 132 opposed consolidation in any form.

Realizing that legislatively imposed consolidation might doom his legislation, Sen. Lopez amended the bill to provide for a public referendum on the question of merger. With this proviso, and though just a freshman legislator, Lopez succeeded in getting his consolidation bill through the New Mexico Senate. (Two years earlier, a consolidation bill had been quickly killed by a senate committee, at the behest of then longtime San Miguel County Sen. Gordon Melody, who was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and one of the most powerful legislators in New Mexico.)

Having triumphantly steered his amended consolidation bill through the Senate, Lopez was confident of success in the House of Representatives. When his bill came before the House Judiciary Committee, Lopez made forceful arguments for its passage, and was even joined by Old Town Mayor Fidel “Chief” Gonzales, who testified in favor the bill, and lamented that similar legislation had been killed in a previous legislative session.

Opponents of the Lopez bill also appeared before the House committee, and included East Las Vegas Mayor Ben Lingnau and San Miguel County’s two House members, State Reps. Luis Encinias and Alfonso Martinez, both Democrats. Encinias was affiliated with the Tiny Martinez faction of the local Democratic Party, while Martinez was aligned with the Apolonio Duran/Gordon Melody faction of the Party. On the issue of consolidation, however, the two representatives were united — they both opposed consolidation.

Also testifying at the House Judiciary Committee hearing was Dr. Lynn I. Perrigo, who had long advocated consolidation and done extensive research on the subject. A professor of history and political science at Highlands University, Perrigo “picked the bill to pieces,” according to his own admission. Perrigo’s main criticism of Sen. Lopez’ bill was that even a referendum on consolidation should not be rushed, and that more time should be allowed for preparation.

The ever-astute Junio Lopez, determined to get approval from the House Judiciary Committee, agreed to amend his bill to accommodate Perrigo’s concerns, and others expressed at the committee hearing. With that done, Senate Bill 68, proposing consolidation of East and West Las Vegas upon a vote of the people — already passed by the State Senate — was given a “do pass” recommendation by the House Judiciary Committee, and headed to the House for final action in March, 1967.

When the consolidation bill arrived on the House floor, however, it was met with emphatic opposition from both Luis Encinias and Alfonso Martinez, San Miguel County’s two House members. Each spoke against the bill, imploring their colleagues that the people of Las Vegas did not want consolidation.

After vigorous debate, the roll of the House was called, and the vote was 34 to 34 – a deadlock that would be broken by Speaker of the House Bruce King.

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.