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Override attempts fail as special session begins

The a special session begins at the Roundhouse on Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — It took just 20 minutes for this week’s special session to erupt into a confrontation between lawmakers and the governor.

Democrats in the House and Senate launched simultaneous — and unsuccessful — attempts Wednesday to override Gov. Susana Martinez’s line-item vetoes and restore funding for New Mexico colleges and universities.

The failed effort underscored the combative nature of New Mexico’s budget impasse and signaled the dim prospects for a quick, bipartisan solution.

Democrats hold majorities in both legislative chambers. Martinez, a Republican, is in her second term.

Only one Republican lawmaker — Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, who represents a swing district in Albuquerque — supported the override effort.

“I felt it was the right thing to do,” Maestas Barnes told the Journal. “I think it’s important we restore this funding as soon as possible.”

But her Republican colleagues generally argued that it would be better to craft a new budget package altogether. A successful override, they said, threatened to push the budget out of balance unless tax increases are also enacted.

“There’s another way to do this other than overriding the governor’s veto,” Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said.

The motion failed 26-15 in the Senate, failing to pick up a single Republican vote. It would have needed 28 votes to reach the two-thirds required for passage.

The override attempt picked up just the one Republican vote in the House, failing 39-29. It would have needed 46 votes to succeed.

The override failure strengthens the Republican governor’s position a bit in budget negotiations. The Senate and House are now work to craft a new budget package through legislation — meaning Martinez can again use her veto pen if she doesn’t like what they send her.

“It’s disappointing that the legislative leadership seems more focused on playing politics than working together to develop bipartisan solutions,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said in a written statement.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he was disappointed that most House Republicans opposed the veto override attempt.

“I don’t really understand why they would defend the type of line-item vetoes that were before the body,” Egolf told reporters.

But House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, said the override bid’s failure gives lawmakers the opportunity to revisit funding levels for higher education, and possibly tack on more dollars for financial aid programs.

“We can produce a better budget,” Gentry said.

Democrats, in turn, said an override would be a quick, clear way to demonstrate support for higher education institutions in New Mexico. They said the governor’s veto had led to incredible uncertainty over the financial future for universities and colleges.

“This is not just a political game,” Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said. “This is real life.”

Martinez called the special session earlier this month. In addition to restoring vetoed funding, the governor also included an overhaul of the state’s tax code and confirmation of her regent nominees to the session’s agenda, though Democrats don’t sound inclined to take up the entire to-do list.