Legislative Council asks Supreme Court to invalidate guv’s vetoes

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A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

As expected, the Legislative Council filed a lawsuit on Friday asking the N.M. Supreme Court to invalidate Gov. Susana Martinez’s recent vetoes of funding for the Legislature, higher education and other agencies.

If successful, the petition would reinstate funding for those agencies for the fiscal year that begins July 1, which lawmakers approved in their recent session.

“The stroke of a governor’s pen must never undermine the Constitution that creates the system of government which serves New Mexico families,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces. “Today’s action is important to check the power of the executive and protect against any overreach on behalf of those we represent. The governor’s political ideology is not above the law.”

The Legislative Council, which Papen co-chairs along with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, is a bipartisan, administrative committee of lawmakers. It recently voted in secret to file the lawsuit, then announced the decision publicly, so which members supported that action isn’t known to the public.

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Martinez’s vetoes “seek to defund and thereby effectively abolish the Legislative Branch of government and all constitutionally created and statutorily-authorized public institutions of higher education,” the Legislative Council’s petition states, in addition to other “constitutionally-created” agencies such as Carrie Tingley Hospital in Albuquerque, the N.M. School for the Deaf, the N.M. School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the state’s Department of Agriculture.

“The Governor’s actions violate the New Mexico Constitution’s principles of separation of powers and checks and balances on which our system of representative democracy has been based since 1911,” the petition states.

Martinez’s office said the governor “absolutely” has the authority to veto.

“They’re suing the governor because they want to raise taxes, and she’s the only one standing in their way,” spokesman Michael Lonergan said. “It’s disappointing because it shows a refusal to compromise, as this is nothing but an attempt to bully her by short-circuiting the legislative process before a special session.”

“Regardless, the governor will keep fighting for our families,” Lonergan said.

As part of the ongoing standoff over how to address the state’s budget woes, the governor also recently vetoed a tax-increase bill that was estimated to raise an additional $350 million to help fund the budget lawmakers approved. Martinez said the tax bill would hurt families. The petition doesn’t seek to undo Martinez’s veto of that bill.

And while Martinez’s line-item vetoes in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 add up to around $3 billion, according to an analysis from The Santa Fe New Mexican, the lawsuit challenges only vetoes that add up to $779 million.

The speed at which the Supreme Court addresses the lawsuit matters. The vetoes have put the state’s public colleges and universities in the difficult position of not being able to plan for the fiscal year that begins in a few weeks — and come at a time when high-school seniors are deciding whether to attend college in state or out of state.

Several university presidents and student body presidents from around the state have spoken out against the veto. State agencies, including colleges and universities, are required to submit preliminary budgets for the next fiscal year in early May.

“The Governor’s unconstitutional vetoes of all funding for our colleges and universities have added unneeded stress to students who attend these schools and families who hope to send their children to college in New Mexico,” Egolf said. “Her vetoes also threaten our prosperity because our colleges help drive our economy. We have heard from families across the state who are saying that they do not want the governor to use our education system as a political pawn.”

In addition to the lawsuit, the Legislative Council has directed staff to try to gather the signatures needed for the Legislature to call itself into an extraordinary session — which would require bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Such an effort has been successful only once in the state’s history.

Martinez, meanwhile, says she plans to call a special session to address the situation, but she’s not set a date and says she wants a deal in place first.

Thus far, House Democrats have held the line against considering additional cuts. Martinez has said she expects to fund the agencies she vetoed as long as doing so doesn’t involve tax increases.

No deal is in place, and it’s not even clear that policymakers are having serious talks.

This breaking news article has been updated.

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