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Governor again vetoes emergency funds for courts

SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez touched off a political donnybrook Thursday by using her line-item veto authority to ax $800,000 in emergency funds for the New Mexico court system – for the second time in a week – from a bill covering legislative session expenses.

Gov. Susana Martinez

Gov. Susana Martinez

The governor signed off on the rest of the measure, House Bill 1, which appropriates $8.6 million to cover expenses of the 60-day legislative session that began last month. That means the roughly 450 session employees will likely get their paychecks today, something that had been in doubt until the bill was signed.

Breaking from tradition, lawmakers tacked on an additional $800,000 to the “feed bill” for courts, and that is what Martinez vetoed Thursday.

With the cash-strapped court system on track to halt jury trials starting next month due to a lack of funds, Martinez accused lawmakers of not thoroughly vetting court spending levels.

“I’ve said since Day One that in order to solve our budget challenges, every branch of government has to contribute by tightening its belt – that way our families don’t have to,” the two-term Republican governor said in a statement. “Unfortunately, this has fallen on deaf ears in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.”

She also vowed to call a meeting of the state Board of Finance to address the court system’s request for emergency funds, but that might not happen for several weeks.

In response, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, blasted the governor for vetoing the court funds for a second time.

“Without additional funding, our state will be far less safe because of the governor’s veto today,” Wirth said in a statement Thursday. “The coming chaos in our courts system can be placed squarely at the feet of this governor.”

Other Democratic lawmakers launched similar volleys, with Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, accusing the governor of a lack of leadership.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels told members of the Senate Finance Committee later Thursday that the judicial system will have to stop conducting jury trials on March 1 if emergency funding isn’t provided in the next four weeks.

He also said the state Supreme Court is preparing to furlough employees, and shut the court, on nine separate days between now and the end of June.

“Our state is in a constitutional crisis,” Daniels said. “This is not a situation that can be fixed with a Band-Aid.”

The chief justice said court officials are willing to make their case to the Board of Finance, which is controlled by the governor, but pointed out that the board considered a similar request in December and put off making a decision, saying it should be the Legislature’s job to fund the court system.

Daniels said he did not want to enter the political fray over the issue, but he disputed suggestions the court system is squandering funds.

“We’re saving money in every way we can,” Daniels said, alluding to recent reductions in hourly pay and mileage reimbursement rates for jurors.

Martinez last week vetoed lawmakers’ first proposed feed bill, prompting legislators to act quickly to pass an alternative bill that was delivered to her desk earlier this week.

The bill signed Thursday by the governor appropriates about $300,000 less for session expenses than the measure previously vetoed by the governor, but some House Republicans said legislative spending should have been reduced even more, given an ongoing budget crunch that’s prompted sweeping spending cuts.

“I’m not totally satisfied with the amount of cuts we did to the legislative budget,” Rep. Paul Bandy, R-Aztec, told reporters.

Meanwhile, the roughly 450 legislative session employees had been uncertain about whether they would receive paychecks today – the scheduled payday for all state workers – but the governor’s approval of the measure makes it appear likely they will.

A Department of Finance and Administration spokeswoman said payroll workers were writing checks by hand Thursday, with the intention of distributing them today.

The bill also paves the way for lawmakers to begin receiving their per diem payments.

Although New Mexico lawmakers do not receive a salary, they do receive a per diem – currently set at $164 per day – that’s intended to offset the cost of lodging and meals.

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