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Gov.: Change ‘Archaic’ Travel Rule

Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Should New Mexico’s governor retain all the authority of the state’s chief executive when traveling outside our borders?

Gov. Susana Martinez says yes.

Martinez, who took office in January, is floating the idea of changing a long-standing provision in the state Constitution that calls on the lieutenant governor to serve as acting governor any time the governor leaves New Mexico.

What the Constitution says
The New Mexico Constitution, in Article V, Section 7, details what happens when the governor travels outside New Mexico’s borders:
“In case the governor is absent from the state, or is for any reason unable to perform his duties, the lieutenant governor shall act as governor, with all the powers, duties and emoluments of that office until such disability be removed.
In case there is no lieutenant governor, or in case he is for any reason unable to perform the duties of governor, then the secretary of state shall perform the duties of governor, and, in case there is no secretary of state, then the president pro tempore of the Senate, or in case there is no president pro tempore of the Senate, or he is for any reason unable to perform the duties of governor, then the speaker of the House shall succeed to the office of governor, or act as governor as hereinbefore provided.”

“I just think it’s archaic,” Martinez told the Journal. “The president doesn’t stop being president when he goes to any other part of the world.”

Martinez grew up in El Paso, which is only about five miles from the New Mexico border, and regularly visits her father and other family members who still live there.

Modern technology, including laptops and cellphones, largely obviates concerns about a governor being out of touch and should allow the state’s first-in-command to remain governor even when she leaves the state, Martinez said.

“If I go to Texas, I’m not the governor anymore,” she said, using the word “silly” to describe the current constitutional provision. “My family lives in El Paso.”

A constitutional amendment undoing the succession-of-powers provision would require majority approval of both chambers of the Legislature as well as ratification by voters statewide. And the earliest such a statewide vote could take place would likely be November 2012.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, suggested the proposed amendment would face long odds in the Legislature.

“That’s the Constitution, and she knew what was in it when she ran,” Jennings said of the first-term Republican governor. “I think that would be a hard sell.”

New Mexico political protocol has usually assumed the governor calls to alert the Lieutenant Governor’s Office when the governor will travel outside the state.

But that call, and the transfer of power, has sometimes been skipped.

Gov. Bill Richardson, for instance, attended the Kentucky Derby in May 2008 without notifying Lt. Gov. Diane Denish about his travel plans. Denish later said it wasn’t the first time she had been left out of the loop.

Martinez’s office said this week that job creation, public safety and public education reform will be the governor’s top priorities for the legislative session that begins Jan. 17.

Martinez spokesman Scott Darnell also provided several arguments as to why approving a constitutional amendment would make sense.

“If the Legislature were to pass an amendment that appropriately brings the Constitution up to date, she would support it,” Darnell said. “When the governor visits her father in El Paso, for example, it doesn’t seem reasonable that simply upon leaving the state, she would no longer formally continue to serve as the governor.

“Another example – when the governor engaged in the Border Governors Conference in Mexico (in late September), she was certainly able to serve in her full capacity.”

The office of Lt. Gov. John Sanchez, who serves as acting governor when Martinez is out of the state, declined to comment on Martinez’s constitutional amendment idea.

Sanchez has taken official action this year when serving as the state’s acting governor. For example, he signed a piece of legislation into law – a bill appropriating money to extend a supplemental food stamp program – on Sept. 29 while Martinez was attending the border governors event in Mexico.

Jennings raised the possibility that friction between Martinez and Sanchez, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., might be part of the reason the governor has proposed the change.

The Governor’s Office said that’s not the case.

“Not at all,” Darnell said. “It’s simply a part of the Constitution that needs to be brought up to date.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal