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Threat of vetoes may lead legislators to seek constitutional changes

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – There’s at least one roadblock that could bar high-profile bills backed by New Mexico Democratic lawmakers – including raising the minimum wage and legalizing recreational marijuana use – from hitting the state’s books next year.

That’s Gov. Susana Martinez, who still has two more years in office and could block some of the measures with her veto pen.

That Roundhouse dynamic – after Democrats reclaimed the state House in last month’s general election and expanded their majority in the Senate – could lead to efforts to push some of the initiatives through the Legislature via changes to the state Constitution. That’s because, unlike regular bills, the governor does not have to sign off on constitutional amendments for them to take effect.

They do have to be approved by New Mexico voters, however.

A Governor’s Office spokesman earlier this week urged majority Democrats not to pursue the amendment strategy for issues that could be addressed in state law.

“(Gov. Martinez) trusts that the Legislature will continue to respect the legislative process and leave constitutional amendments for those issues that truly require a constitutional change,” said her spokesman, Michael Lonergan. “It is shortsighted and irresponsible to amend the Constitution simply as an end-around to the legislative process.”

While legislators are free to propose any type of legislation as a constitutional amendment, several Democrats who will hold top-ranking positions when the Legislature convenes next year also say changing the constitution shouldn’t be treated as simply an expedient alternative to changing state law.

“I think we should be hesitant about legislating through constitutional amendment,” said Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who was recently elected floor leader by fellow Senate Democrats. “Having said that, there are times they make sense.”

Amendments

Several lawmakers have said they are considering the constitutional amendment route, and a top-ranking lawmaker says he expects to see proposed amendments on minimum wage and other hot-button issues.

For instance, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said he plans to once again introduce a constitutional amendment to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use – as eight states have already done – during the coming session.

Although a similar proposal fell at least three votes short on the Senate floor during this year’s legislative session, Ortiz y Pino said he thinks the proposal has a better chance of passing in 2017 after Democrats picked up a net of two additional seats in the Nov. 8 election. They are now on track to enter the 60-day session with a 26-16 advantage over Republicans in the Senate.

Ortiz y Pino acknowledged some fellow senators expressed misgivings about the attempt to enshrine marijuana legalization in the Constitution, but he said going that route would show the federal government that New Mexico voters support the concept.

Also, he said, the governor would likely veto the bill if it’s drafted in bill form.

“It it gets to her desk, she’ll probably veto it,” Ortiz y Pino told the Journal .

Martinez, a former prosecutor, has steadfastly opposed marijuana legalization and decriminalization efforts, and has expressed concern about the impact of drug use on young people.

Statewide vote

Changing the state Constitution is a multistep process. It first requires a majority vote of elected members in both the House and Senate – at least 36 votes in the 70-member House and 22 in the 42-member Senate – and then must be approved by voters statewide to take effect.

Because New Mexico just held an election, it’s likely that any constitutional amendments approved by legislators in the coming session would not go before voters until the next scheduled general election in November 2018.

There was only one constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot, a proposal to revamp New Mexico’s bail system for individuals charged with a crime. It passed by an overwhelming margin.

Meanwhile, some issues could be addressed only through constitutional amendment.

For instance, any change to distribution rates from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for expanded early childhood programs or other initiatives would have to be done by constitutional amendment. That’s because those rates are already set in the Constitution.

While recent attempts to increase annual distributions from the permanent fund for early childhood education have stalled at the state Capitol, a new attempt is expected to be launched in the coming session.

Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, who will be the next House majority leader after Democrats won back control of the chamber from Republicans, also expressed wariness of using constitutional amendments to address most policy fixes.

“The major policy bills you can’t put on constitutional amendments, and we all know that,” Stapleton told the Journal .

The 60-day legislative session begins on Jan. 17 and lawmakers can begin filing legislation later this month.

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