SANTA FE – When it comes to the governor’s veto of legislation, the pocket is as powerful as the pen.
A lawmaker intent on altering that, however, is proposing a New Mexico constitutional change doing away with the so-called pocket veto.
A pocket veto is what happens when the governor doesn’t sign, or veto, a bill by the deadline of 20 days after the annual legislative session: The bill dies, without any explanation.
That’s unlike a regular veto, in which the governor sends a written message to the Legislature explaining her opposition.
The change is proposed by freshman Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who has introduced the constitutional amendment ahead of the 30-day session that begins Jan. 21.
“Allowing the executive to kill something by nonaction is too much power to be vested in that branch of government,” the lawmaker said.
And, he added, “the governor should have to tell people why. Why are you vetoing a bill the majority of the people’s elected representatives thought was a good idea?”
The proposed constitutional change would require the governor to either approve or veto legislation within the 20-day deadline that applies to all bills passed in the last three days of a session.
“The governor shall provide an explanation for each veto,” the amendment also says.
Constitutional amendments don’t go to the governor for approval; instead, they must be ratified by voters in a statewide election.
New Mexico is one of about a dozen states that allow pocket vetoes. In the others, the bills become law unless they’re vetoed.
New Mexico’s governors have taken varying approaches to the pocket veto, some using it sparingly and others with more gusto.
Legislative history on the subject is incomplete, but the record may belong to Gov. Edwin L. Mechem, a Republican who pocket-vetoed 93 bills in 1958.
Although Republican Gov. Gary Johnson was dubbed “Governor No” for vetoing nearly one-third of the bills lawmakers sent him over eight years, just a handful of those more than 700 vetoes were pocket vetoes.
On the other hand, Johnson’s successor, Democrat Bill Richardson, signed the lion’s share of bills legislators sent him. But a lot of his vetoes were pocket vetoes – peaking at 79 of his total 91 vetoes for the 2007 session.
Under the current governor, Republican Susana Martinez, pocket vetoes accounted for 63 of her overall 98 vetoes in the 2011 regular session; none of four vetoes in the 2011 special session; two of 13 vetoes in 2012; and 34 of 70 in 2013.
Sometimes, pocket vetoes are used when duplicate or conflicting bills have passed: The governor will sign one of them, and let the other die. Sometimes, governors threaten to pocket-veto because they don’t receive the final, cleaned-up version of bills until so close to the 20-day deadline that they claim their staff doesn’t have time to analyze them.
But many times, there’s no clue why legislation bites the dust.
This year, Martinez pocket-vetoed a bill – which had passed the Senate and House unanimously – that would have allowed the state to develop an alternative to the GED exam, a high school equivalency test.
The governor “can just pocket it, and no one really knows why,” Candelaria said.
The legislator says he found it helpful after the 2013 session when Martinez explained in a veto message why she axed his education technology bill; he’s bringing the proposal back in 2014 with a different approach the lawmaker hopes will be more palatable to the governor.
But requiring the governor to explain every veto may not necessarily mean it would be helpful or informative. Mechem reportedly sent this veto message when he rejected a lawmaker’s bill in 1961: “Does nothing.”