Legislative leaders on Thursday approved a lawsuit against Gov. Susana Martinez to try to overturn vetoes of funding for the Legislature, higher education and other bills. They also directed staff to begin gathering signatures for an extraordinary session at which they might try to override some of her vetoes.
Democratic leaders said they’re still trying to negotiate a deal with Martinez, a Republican, to address the state’s budget crisis. But they don’t sound optimistic, as evidenced by their decision on Thursday to fight.
“Her action in unilaterally rejecting the bipartisan plan that was sent up there — and then trying to selectively veto pieces of the budget — has created a constitutional crisis,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, was quoted by the Albuquerque Journal as saying.
Later, Wirth said he and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, met with Martinez but reached no agreement, according to the Associated Press. Wirth said, as paraphrased by the news service, that the governor “repeated ideas for solving a budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year that already have been roundly rejected by lawmakers. They include tapping more funds from school district reserves and reducing state pension contributions.”
“Wirth says he repeatedly asked Martinez for more details of tax reforms that she wants incorporated into a budget compromise but left without clear answers,” the AP reported.
The lawsuit would apparently seek to have a court rule that Martinez lacked the authority to veto the entire budget for a separate branch of government — the Legislature — and the $744 million appropriated to the higher education system for the fiscal year that begins July 1. In addition, lawmakers plan to sue over 10 bills Martinez vetoed after the required 3-day period for her to act or without explanation. Some lawmakers say a stated reason is required by the Constitution.
Lawmakers can call themselves into what’s called an extraordinary session if three-fifths of House members and three-fifths of senators agree that an emergency justifies it. During such a session, lawmakers could consider overriding Martinez’s vetoes or pass new legislation.
Lawmakers have succeeded in calling an extraordinary session only once in the state’s history, in 2002 to override a budget veto by then-Gov. Gary Johnson.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said in a statement Thursday that the lawsuit and extraordinary session are necessary “to ensure the state Constitution is upheld.”
“As legislators, we take our oath to support the Constitution and the laws of the state seriously,” Papen said. “A strong system of checks and balances is crucial to the success of our democracy.”
Guv pledges to ‘try to work together’
Republican lawmakers remained largely silent after the Legislative Council’s Thursday action, which took place behind closed doors. Democrats hold a 9-7 majority on that administrative committee, but how each lawmaker on the committee voted wasn’t made public.
Democrats don’t have the votes in the House or Senate to call an extraordinary session or override vetoes alone, so support from Republican lawmakers in both chambers is needed. Enough Senate Republicans joined Democrats to approve overriding a veto of an education bill during the session last month, but that effort died in the House because Republicans there refused to go along.
With House Republicans thus far backing her up, Martinez has largely blamed the Senate for the standoff. That continued Thursday. A spokesman for Martinez said the Legislative Council’s move “demonstrates that the Senate is more interested in jamming through one of the largest tax increases in state history than coming together in a bipartisan way to find compromise.”
“This is something that we could solve during a special session, but they would rather take the same ‘my way or the highway’ approach as they did when they tried raising taxes while refusing to come to the table to negotiate,” Michael Lonergan said.
The governor “remains disappointed that they continue to dig their heels into the sand and shirk their responsibility to do the good work of the people,” Lonergan said, but the governor will “continue to try to work together to find common ground and solve this budget crisis.”
Martinez also vetoed a bill that included approximately $350 million in tax increases to balance the budget and a capital outlay bill that would help prop up funding for K-12 public education.
The state has been struggling to fund government largely because of falling oil and gas revenues. Martinez has thus far insisted on cuts and sweeps of existing funds to balance the budget — and until this year’s 60-day session that ended in mid-March, the Legislature went along with sizable cuts, many of them to higher education.
This session, with Democrats retaking control of the House, the Legislature insisted on adding tax increases into the mix.
Martinez has said she’s willing to consider tax reform, but she rejected the bill lawmakers sent her. That legislation had bipartisan approval in the Senate but no Republican support in the House.
The human cost
Meanwhile, the state’s economic woes and the Roundhouse standoff are having a tangible impact on New Mexicans. On Thursday, the University of New Mexico announced that it’s cutting its men’s and women’s ski teams to save $600,000 per year. The Albuquerque Public Schools announced that it’s canceling all middle school sports — volleyball, basketball and track — to save at least $500,000 per year.
In addition to the battle over the budget year that begins July 1, the state is limping toward the end of the current fiscal year. Democratic legislative leaders predict that the current budget will leave the state barely in the black on June 30, but Martinez has taken a more cautious view. She’s implemented a hiring freeze and says she’s considering employee furloughs, reduced hours at MVD offices and closing state parks to save money.
NMPolitics.net has heard many stories of tangible impacts of the standoff, a number of them related to the state’s colleges and universities having no certainty of funding in less than three months. A candidate for a professorship at New Mexico State University opted to accept a job elsewhere. Some college students are asking whether they’ll be able to take classes in the fall. High school seniors are considering the funding standoff as they decide whether to attend college in state or out of state in the fall.
Business owners have expressed concern about what taxes they’ll have to pay beginning July 1, and whether a shutdown of state parks would impact tourism and their income.
State employees have expressed worry about furloughs impacting their ability to pay their bills.
Without a breakthrough in negotiations, the standoff may not be resolved soon. A lawsuit could drag on. Efforts to call an extraordinary session will fizzle out unless some House Republicans decide to break with the governor.