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Judge: Suit over governor’s vetoes may proceed

SANTA FE – A lawsuit filed by top New Mexico legislators that challenges the legality of Gov. Susana Martinez’s vetoes of 10 bills will proceed, but it could take months to resolve.

In determining the case should move forward, state District Judge Sarah Singleton set an Aug. 11 hearing in the case and ordered Governor’s Office attorneys to file a written response next month.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth

Three top-ranking Democratic lawmakers attended Friday’s court hearing, and one of them, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, told reporters after the hearing that it was a “first step” in the case.

“We need to get this issue resolved,” Wirth said.

The lawsuit argues that the 10 bills in question – all approved during the 60-day session that ended in March – should be declared to be law despite Martinez’s vetoes, because the governor did not follow proper procedures. She either took too long to act on the bills or did not provide a sufficient explanation for the vetoes, the suit claims.

At stake are bills dealing with industrial hemp research, local government broadband expansion, drug testing for racehorses and allowing computer science to count toward math and science requirements for New Mexico high school students.

Martinez, the state’s two-term Republican governor, has insisted the vetoes were lawfully done and criticized Democratic legislative leaders for spearheading the lawsuit.

“As we’ve said all along, this is yet another example of out-of-touch Santa Fe trial lawyers wasting time and taxpayer money going to court when they don’t get what they want,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said Friday.

However, Wirth insisted the court challenge is not politically motivated. It was authorized by the Legislative Council, a group of top lawmakers that includes both Democratic and Republican members.

“This would apply to the executive, regardless of party,” he said after Friday’s hearing. “This is about separation of powers.”

Since Martinez vetoed the bills, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver has declined to chapter them into law. If successful, the lawsuit would compel that action, a needed step for the bills to take effect.

Albuquerque attorney Paul Kennedy, who is representing the governor in the case, asked the judge for at least 30 days to file a written response to the Legislature’s lawsuit, saying the case has significant “factual and legal complexity.”

Singleton, who is also presiding over a high-profile education funding case, ultimately granted the request but questioned the need for depositions and other types of pretrial evidence-gathering.

Rep. Brian Egolf

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, expressed concern that additional delays could put off the potential implementation of the vetoed bills, including the computer science proposal. That bill passed both the House and Senate during this year’s session with just four “no” votes.

“To me, the urgent ones are the ones that are going to effect the schools and the kids,” Egolf said.

Legislators also filed a separate court challenge against Martinez in April over the governor’s line-item vetoes on a $6.1 billion budget bill. The state Supreme Court ultimately declined to weigh in on that case.

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