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Martinez vetoes funding for courts, legislative expenses

SANTA FE — A power struggle that could linger throughout the 60-day legislative session rippled through the Roundhouse on Friday, as Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed an appropriations bill that would have provided emergency funding for New Mexico courts and money to cover the session expenses.

The two-term Republican governor’s veto came just hours after the Democratic-controlled House passed the legislation on a party-line 37-32 vote and means lawmakers will have to start over next week on a new funding bill.

In the meantime, legislators will not receive their per diem and legislative staffers will not be paid.

New Mexico lawmakers do not receive a salary, but they do get a per diem — currently set at $164 — that’s intended to cover daily food and lodging expenses.

In her veto message, Martinez called the bill a “thinly veiled” attempt to increase funding for the Legislature, while using the cash-strapped courts as a cover.

“At a time when some legislators are talking about raising taxes on hardworking families, it is unacceptable to have one branch of government refusing to share the responsibility of reducing government spending,” the governor wrote.

In response, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, called the governor’s veto “reckless” and said it could have serious repercussions.

“As a result of her action, juries will not be funded, criminal cases will be dismissed, and some criminals will walk free,” Wirth said.

He also said the legislative branch had already absorbed cuts during the state budget crunch.

In all, the vetoed bill, Senate Bill 176, would have appropriated about $8.9 million for the expenses of the 60-day session that started last week — less than what was originally appropriated for the 2015 legislative session, but about $1.7 million more than was ultimately spent that year.

The bill also contained more than $900,000 in emergency funding for the courts, which would have been used to replenish a juror and interpreter fund, avoid furloughs at the state Supreme Court, and restore normal operating hours at the 12th Judicial District Court in Otero and Lincoln counties.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels told lawmakers last week that the state’s judicial system is in “crisis” and on the brink of failing to meet its constitutional requirements.

The bill vetoed Friday also included $200,000 to cover a budget shortfall at the Aging and Long-Term Services Department.

Typically, the “feed bill” for covering legislative session expenses is a standalone bill, but the Senate — with bipartisan backing — opted earlier this week to tack the emergency funding for courts and one state agency onto the legislation.

Majority House Democrats then moved the bill quickly, a move that left House Republicans fuming, as the House had previously approved its own separate version of a feed bill with no money for the courts.

“I think it’s a political ploy to get around the rules,” Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, said at one point during Friday’s debate, which stretched for nearly three hours.

But majority House Democrats defended the legislation, calling it vital for the legislative and judicial branches to keep functioning despite an ongoing revenue downturn that’s already prompted steep budget cuts.

“I think there’s a deliberate attempt to starve state government,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque. “If we can’t fund the judiciary, how are we going to fund roads?”