Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham rejected legislation Wednesday that would have boosted the pay of New Mexico judges by 33% and authorized $50 million for a grab-bag of extra state spending – her first vetoes of the year.
Facing a noon deadline to act, she blocked seven bills altogether from becoming law, or about 11% of what was passed in this year’s 30-day session.
The vetoes deeply angered lawmakers. The chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee late Wednesday called for the Legislature to call itself back into session through an emergency procedure and override the veto of the $50 million spending package.
The clash centered on Lujan Grisham’s rejection of legislation that had cleared both chambers without a dissenting vote. The supplemental appropriations bill called for about $25.2 million in one-time spending and another $25.2 million in ongoing spending for a host of purposes picked by individual lawmakers.
But Lujan Grisham said the legislation, Senate Bill 48, circumvented the normal budget and capital outlay process used for large spending bills, and she noted that some of the projects set to receive funding wouldn’t get enough to actually complete them.
“This is unacceptable,” Lujan Grisham said.
As for the hefty judicial raises, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham said New Mexico judges and justices are already in line to receive 17% raises, and that “a drastic additional change in compensation” on top of that deserves more scrutiny in a longer legislative session.
Lawmakers quickly objected to the vetoes.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said judicial pay raises are necessary to recruit and retain judges, especially lawyers with civil expertise who make substantially more in private practice.
The proposal, Senate Bill 2, called for bringing the pay of Supreme Court justices into line with the salary of federal magistrates, or about $205,500 this year, a 33% increase. Lower-court judges would have seen corresponding increases.
Compensation for the judiciary, he said, is often overlooked in executive budget proposals.
“We had the money,” Muñoz said. “Every executive has tortured the judicial branch. We know we need good judges. We know we have to pay the right way.”
Judges and justices are still set to receive hefty raises, even without the approval of Senate Bill 2. As it stands now, before the 17% goes into effect, justices make about $154,000 a year and district judges get $138,000.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the governor was glad to deliver the 17% raises to the judiciary, but that a more drastic change “merits additional discussion and consideration during a longer legislative session.”
The supplemental spending legislation vetoed Wednesday would have authorized state funding – mostly in small chunks – for a host of projects favored by legislators.
Examples include funding for student speech and debate clubs; a school police officer in Aztec; meals for home-bound residents; an Indigenous Wisdom Curriculum project; and medical equipment for a San Juan County hospital.
Muñoz and Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, urged lawmakers Wednesday to convene an extraordinary session to override the veto. It would take approval from three-fifths of each chamber for the Legislature to call itself into session, a procedure employed successfully only once, in 2002.
“The veto of this legislation,” Baca said, “is a shameless attempt to beat the legislative branch into submission and again eat away at our appropriating authority. The Junior Bill contained funding for law enforcement, senior centers, the courts and other critical needs throughout the state.”
Muñoz called the veto “inexplicable” and said convening another session would allow lawmakers to address the quick rise in gasoline prices amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. They could take up a suspension of the state gas tax, he said, in addition to veto overrides.
In her message, Lujan Grisham said she hoped the veto would be a catalyst for changing the practice of supplemental spending bills. They are generally proposed when times are good and give each lawmaker a certain amount of funding to allocate.
The governor said she wasn’t convinced the $50 million “upholds principles of fiscal responsibility or, on the whole, represents a wise investment at present.”
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said she was confused and disappointed by the governor’s veto but that it was too early to discuss a veto override, which would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
“Many of those were needed projects for local communities that were identified by legislators,” said Lundstrom, who is the chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.
Lujan Grisham and the Democratic majorities in the Legislature have clashed periodically over spending authority and priorities.
In 2021, for example, the state Supreme Court sided with legislators over who had spending authority over federal pandemic funds.
Overall, Lujan Grisham this year continued to use her veto power more sparingly than her predecessors.
She has vetoed 5% to 11% of the bills approved by legislators during regular sessions in her tenure since 2019, for a total rejection rate of 9%.
Her predecessor, Republican Susana Martinez, vetoed about 28% of the bills she received in regular sessions, and Democrat Bill Richardson rejected about 15%.
Dan Boyd of the Journal Capitol Bureau contributed to this article.