Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed on Friday the entire higher education budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 as part of an ongoing standoff over the state’s budget woes and how to fund government.
She also vetoed the Legislature’s funding and a bill that would have raised additional money through a number of tax increases. And she reiterated her pledge to call lawmakers back for a special session soon.
“In the coming weeks, I will call the Legislature back to Santa Fe to finish the job they were supposed to do in the first place,” Martinez said. “I believe that by working together, we can balance the budget – without tax increases. While I’m disappointed in them, I am optimistic that we can come together.”
Statements from Democratic leaders suggested coming together may be difficult.
“Governor Martinez has chosen to play extreme political games rather than act responsibly,” said Senate Majority Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe. “Her attempt to use line-item vetoes to eliminate an entire branch of government and every higher education institution is outrageous.”
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the governor’s vetoes of higher education and legislative funding “are beyond the pale” and “unconstitutional.”
“Her action also eliminates the path to a brighter future for thousands of New Mexico children who want to go to college and gain a quality higher education,” Egolf said. He added that the governor “is clearly not serious about fixing our state’s budget problems or growing our economy” and is “turning her back on the bipartisan and responsible solution offered to her by the Legislature.”
What happens next isn’t clear. Lawmakers could meet to consider overriding the governor’s vetoes. While many Senate Republicans went along with Democrats to vote to override a veto of an education bill by Martinez, also a Republican, during the session, House Republicans refused to go along.
Discussions about a compromise could also take place. Martinez signaled that she’s willing to consider tax reform, but she’s likely to also want additional cuts that many Democrats have said they won’t approve. And Martinez clearly doesn’t plan to approve the tax increases proposed by Democrats.
The standoff puts higher education institutions in the challenging position of not being able to plan for a fiscal year that begins in less than four months. Last week, the New Mexico State University Board of Regents put off voting on a proposed tuition increase because of uncertainty about state funding.
Following Martinez’s vetoes, NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers expressed dismay about his institution and others being “caught up in a political strategy.”
“Clearly, higher education in the state must be funded and we hope both sides will work expeditiously to resolve their differences,” Carruthers wrote in a message to the NMSU community.
With falling oil and gas prices crippling the state’s budget, the Senate worked in a bipartisan way to approve a budget and tax increases to help fund it. The House also gave approval to the bills, though without GOP support. The legislation to raise new revenues, House Bill 202, included take hikes on gas and diesel, hospitals and vehicle purchases. It also would have raised the cost of permits for heavy trucks and started taxing purchases made on the internet.
That tax bill, Martinez wrote in her veto message, “was purported to be an attempt at comprehensive tax reform, but is another failure to accomplish it.”
“From the beginning, I have said that I will not raise taxes, yet the Legislature continues to try to force tax increases on New Mexican families and small businesses,” Martinez wrote. “I have also said many times that I will consider truly comprehensive tax reform, reform that results in a simpler, more stable, and more predictable tax code. House Bill 202 does not do this.”
In a separate statement, Martinez referred to the state’s efforts to limp through the current fiscal year with a budget that’s projected to be barely in the black on June 30.
“Because of their inaction, state government is running low on money,” Martinez said about lawmakers. She reiterated that her administration has taken steps “to soften the blow,” including instituting a hiring freeze. She said she’s still considering furloughing state employees and shutting down some agencies to conserve cash.
“We are now faced with few options,” Martinez wrote.
“The Legislature has disappointed me in the past. But I cannot recall another time where I’ve ever felt that their reckless decisions had left New Mexico hanging in the balance,” she wrote.
Martinez said there “will be time” in the upcoming special session “to fix the higher education budget and the rest of the flawed budget that they sent to us.”
Wirth, on the other hand, said Martinez’s actions send “a clear signal to New Mexico families and national bond agencies that she is in denial about the serious financial problems facing our state.”
“This is no way to run a government,” Wirth said. “What people expect and deserve is the type of bipartisan collaboration we saw in the Senate during the session.”