Special legislative sessions could become more common after the New Mexico Supreme Court said Thursday that the governor must cancel out entire sections of the state budget if she wants to veto specific funding known to be included but not itemized.
The new interpretation of the governor’s line-item veto power was issued by the Supreme Court six months after the court ruled that Gov. Susana Martinez improperly vetoed a 5 percent pay raise for state judges provided by the Legislature in February.
The court’s order, issued orally in June, partly overruled the governor’s veto of the pay raises and directed the state to provide to judges the 5 percent salary increase – even though it was never specifically outlined in the judicial appropriations bill. In fact, Martinez did veto specific salary increase language that was in the legislation.
The written opinion issued Thursday establishes the Supreme Court’s ruling as a legal precedent.
The court suggested that lawmakers did this on purpose.
“We will not speculate about the Legislature’s motive for choosing this particular method of providing the 5 percent raise,” the court opinion said. “A clear effect of that choice, however, was to make the raise more challenging for the governor to veto if she found it objectionable; she had to veto the entire appropriation.”
The Supreme Court noted the Legislature had the right to appropriate the pay raise for judges regardless of whether the appropriation made it impossible for the governor to veto without calling the Legislature back into a special session – an option the court said she had.
The Governor’s Office on Thursday downplayed the significance of the high court opinion.
“This means absolutely nothing,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said in an email. “There is no question the executive has a role in setting agency budgets, including salaries for all state employees.”
The court ruled that to properly veto the judicial pay raises Martinez opposed, the governor was required to veto the entire appropriation for all judicial salaries and benefits.
“The governor had to veto the ‘whole’ appropriation where the Legislature placed it,” the Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Richard Bosson, said. “The appropriation (for full judicial salaries and benefits) represented the only ‘language’ for the governor to veto if she disapproved of the 5 percent raise.”
A separate section of the budget included language referring to a pay raise for judges, which is what Martinez vetoed. But the court said the language in that section related only to a basic and separate 3 percent raise for judges and most other state employees. The court said the governor’s veto of that section did not affect the 5 percent raise that was allowed to go forward.
The court in its opinion noted that Martinez had the option of calling the Legislature back for a special session to reconsider judicial pay if she had vetoed all judicial salaries, including the extra 5 percent pay raise.
The Legislature typically passes the state budget in the final hours of its sessions. That means vetoes by the governor that eliminate significant portions of the budget – such as judicial salaries – would require lawmakers to return to the Capitol for a special session to reconsider the disputed spending.
Several lawmakers interviewed Thursday – both Republican and Democratic – said it was unclear how the decision might affect future budget drafting decisions.