Dems Question Some Line-Item Vetoes

SANTA FE — Democratic legislators think Gov. Susana Martinez overstepped her constitutional bounds by using line-item vetoes to change dollar amounts in the state budget.

House Democrats met Wednesday evening to discuss options, which could include mounting a court challenge, said Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela, D-Santa Fe.

Although several vetoes could be challenged, specifically in question is the governor’s authority to lower, but not fully eliminate, an appropriation in the $5.4 billion budget approved by the Legislature during the 60-day session that ended March 19.

Martinez, the state’s first-term Republican governor, isn’t backing down.

“This issue was thoroughly researched, and we are confident that the governor has the authority to reduce spending through line-item veto,” Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell said.

While signing the budget into law last week, Martinez struck out a single numeral in an appropriation for oversight of the state’s regional housing authorities, effectively lowering the funding level from $150,000 to $50,000.

“I do not believe she has the authority under our Constitution to do that,” said Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen. He said he doesn’t recall such use of line-item power during his 18-year legislative career.

Sanchez said only the Legislature has the ability to appropriate money under the state’s Constitution, adding, “Striking and changing a number, I don’t believe she has the authority to do that.”

Disputes between the two branches of government over constitutional authority and appropriations date back at least to 1974, when some of Gov. Bruce King’s vetoes were the subject of a largely successful court challenge by a Republican state senator, Bill Sego of Albuquerque.

More recently, lawmakers bristled at Gov. Bill Richardson’s use of line-item vetoes on legislative spending cuts in 2009, calling them a “constitutional coup.”

Martinez’s administration appears to be basing its actions — and the foundation for its authority — on a 1988 New Mexico Supreme Court decision.

In that case, the Supreme Court upheld a number of line-item vetoes in the budget by Republican Gov. Garrey Carruthers. The vetoes were challenged by Democratic lawmakers Max Collof Santa Fe and Ben Altamiranoof Silver City.

Martinez’s Friday line-item veto — one of more than 50 such vetoes she made in the budget bill — was explained by the governor in a message to the Legislature.

“I agree that regional housing authority oversight is a necessary expenditure,” Martinez wrote. “My disagreement is with the amount appropriated for this purpose. I have disapproved of the excessive part of the appropriation.”

Apart from lawmaker questions, others are looking into whether the governor can effectively dismantle a state commission created by lawmakers by unilaterally striking its state funding.

Martinez used a line-item veto to eliminate the entire $450,000 in proposed general fund spending for the Commission on the Status of Women, which its administrators say will be effectively dissolved due to the action.

Former commission Executive Director Mary Molina Mescall told the Journal last week that she planned to look into the legality of Martinez’s veto.

“We just can’t go down without a fight,” she said.

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