Senate overrides veto on teacher absences; House action still necessary

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A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

State senators voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to override Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of a bill that would enable teachers to use more sick days without being penalized in their performance evaluations.

The Senate’s action marked the first time that either chamber of the Legislature has overridden one of Martinez’s vetoes in her six-plus years in office.

Even so, Martinez’s veto will stand unless the House of Representatives also decides to override it.

Senators voted 34-7 for the override, well above the two-thirds majority needed. Eight Republicans joined all 26 Democrats in supporting the move,

And it was a Republican, Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, who led the override initiative against the Republican governor. “It was extremely difficult. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt this kind of pressure,” Brandt said afterward.

He said several people asked him not to proceed with the override attempt, though he would not identify them.

Brandt also said he faces retribution from Martinez.

“I doubt that I’ll have many bills signed by this governor in the next two years,” he said.

Asked for comment on the override, Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan falsely claimed that the Senate action was linked in part to Martinez’s opposition to a tax on food.

“It’s no surprise that within hours of the governor telling Senate leadership that she would not support their massive tax increases on food and gas that they would pull this stunt,” Lonergan said in an email. He also called the override “the petty action of a bitter Senate.”

Senators recently approved a budget with a gas tax increase but it contained no food tax, contrary to what Lonergan said.

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Brandt described his push for the override as a matter of basic fairness.

“This was about making sure our teachers are not penalized for being sick,” he said.

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said Martinez’s camp mentioned a nonexistent food tax in hopes of deflecting attention from the fact that Republican and Democratic senators voted to overturn her veto.

“She’s scrambling to try to take the focus off what happened,” Morales said. “This was the action of a unified Senate trying to do the best it can for constituents.”

Brandt said he met four times with members of the state Public Education Department regarding the Martinez administration’s policy on teacher absences. He said one of the meetings was with Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera. Those sessions were unproductive in getting a compromise, Brandt said, so he went ahead with the override.

The measure Martinez vetoed was House Bill 241, which would have amended the system in which teachers can use three or fewer sick days in an academic year without being downgraded on their job evaluation. The bill would have allowed a teacher to take up to 10 sick days with no penalty.

The House of Representatives approved the bill 64-3, and the Senate voted for it 39-0.

Democrats control the House 38-32, but Republicans in that chamber typically are loyal to Martinez. That means the chance of an override in the House is much lower than it was in the Senate.

House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, did not respond to a question about where his caucus stood on the override. And House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, did not immediately answer as to whether he would push for the override in his chamber. “Stand by,” Egolf said in a text message.

Brandt said he hoped the overwhelming vote in the Senate would prompt House members to follow suit.

“We’ve completed half the journey,” he said.

Brandt later Tuesday added an amendment to a teacher evaluation bill by Morales. The amendment, like House Bill 241, would give teachers up to 10 sick days with no penalty. Republicans typically vote against attempts by Democrats to change the teacher evaluation system, but not this time. Most supported Morales’ bill, which cleared the Senate and moves next to the House.

This article has been updated.

Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or (505) 490-1048. Follow his Ringside Seat column at santafenewmexican.com.

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