Supreme Court tosses budget standoff back to legislators and governor

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A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

Heath Haussamen / NMPolitics.net

A statue outside the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.

The N.M. Supreme Court has rejected a petition from the Legislative Council that sought to overturn Gov. Susana Martinez’s vetoes of all funding for higher education and the Legislature.

The high court also cancelled a hearing that was scheduled for Monday in the case.

The Supreme Court agreed on Thursday with Martinez’s argument that there is still time for the governor and lawmakers to resolve the dispute over funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Martinez has called a special session of the Legislature for May 24 at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe to address the situation.

Because of that, the Legislative Council’s petition is “not ripe” for judicial review, the order from the Supreme Court states. All five justices concurred.

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A Martinez spokesman said the governor “appreciates” the high court’s ruling.

“As she contended, governors have the authority to veto budgets and budget items — and the proper way to resolve budget disputes is for the executive and Legislature to work together on a compromise that can both pass the Legislature and be signed by the governor,” spokesman Mike Lonergan said.

“This comes down to out-of-touch Santa Fe trial lawyers in legislative leadership who are suing the governor because they want to raise gas taxes, and she is the only one standing in their way,” Lonergan said. “Having been rebuffed by the Court, the governor hopes Democratic legislators will now come to the table and actually negotiate in good-faith.”

In a joint statement, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said they “respectfully disagree” with the high court’s decision.

“…the fact remains that the governor’s vetoes were irresponsible and have created unprecedented instability in our economy and in our households,” Egolf and Papen said. “The legislative leadership, as always, remains committed to finding a solution to the crisis the governor created. We will continue to propose solutions that focus on supporting our working families and our students.”

Policymakers are locked in a battle over making additional cuts and fund sweeps or raising taxes to address a budget shortfall. With bipartisan support in the Senate but only Democratic support in the House, the Legislature approved raising various taxes and fees earlier this year to generate $350 million in new revenue to help fund the state budget. Martinez vetoed the tax bill in addition to funding for the Legislature and higher education.

Martinez says she’s willing to bring back the tax on groceries if it’s part of comprehensive tax reform, but she also wants to pull millions from lawmakers’ retirement fund — which the state agency that manages that fund asserts is unconstitutional.

Lawmakers are unlikely to pass a tax on groceries or taking money from their own retirement fund. They have approved a tax on gasoline, among other things, that Martinez says she won’t support.

In other words, there’s no agreement — yet.

Meanwhile, Martinez’s vetoes have put the state’s 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 New Mexico have spoken out against the veto.

“The Council of University Presidents continues to hope that this matter will be resolved as expeditiously as possible,” New Mexico State University Chancellor Garrey Carruthers said after the Supreme Court issued Thursday’s order. “We’re hopeful that between now and the beginning of the special session, the governor and Legislature can reach an agreement.”

This breaking news article has been updated.

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