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Senate overrides Martinez veto for first time

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Senate voted decisively Tuesday to override Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s veto of a teacher sick leave bill, as tensions simmered at the Roundhouse amid high-stakes budget negotiations.

Sen. Craig Brandt , R-Rio Rancho, leads a veto override on the Senate Floor at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Sen. Craig Brandt , R-Rio Rancho, leads a veto override on the Senate Floor at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The 34-7 vote easily cleared the two-thirds threshold needed to override a gubernatorial veto. It also marked the first time either the House or Senate has voted to override a Martinez veto.

A Martinez spokesman described the vote as the “petty action of a bitter Senate,” suggesting senators were upset the governor had balked earlier in the day at signing off on a $350 million-plus tax package that’s awaiting final approval in the House.

Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, also a Republican, led the override effort. He acknowledged the effort was politically perilous, but said it wasn’t driven by political motivations.

“It was hard to do, but it was the right thing to do,” Brandt told reporters after Tuesday’s vote. “This was about making sure our teachers aren’t penalized for being out sick.”

He also urged House GOP members to follow the lead of Senate Republicans, saying, “We’ve completed half the journey – hopefully the House will do the other half.”

However, a prominent House Republican indicated later Tuesday that his caucus would likely not support any override push. With Democrats holding a 38-32 majority in the chamber, at least some Republican backing would be needed in order to reach the two-thirds minimum.

“If a motion to override the governor’s veto is made in the House, I am very confident that it will fail,” House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, told the Journal.

If the House does not join the Senate in voting to override the governor’s veto before the legislative session ends Saturday, the governor’s veto will stand.

Martinez last week vetoed House Bill 241, sponsored by Brandt and others, which would have allowed teachers to take all their contractual free time – 10 days annually in most school districts – without facing a deduction on their evaluations.

Under the current system, educators can be absent from the classroom for three days without penalty but lose points on the fourth unexcused day.

The second-term governor said in her veto message that she understood the desire to help teachers, but the proposal went too far. The attendance component of evaluations, she said, had resulted in a substantial drop in teacher absences, which saves money by decreasing spending on substitute teachers and helps students learn.

In the days following the veto, Brandt and teachers union representatives met with Public Education Department officials to try to strike a compromise.

But those talks ended without a deal, and Brandt, along with Senate leaders, ultimately decided to move forward with the veto override effort.

In the final Senate vote, seven Senate Republicans joined with Brandt in voting in favor of the veto override, while seven other Republicans cast “no” votes. All 26 Senate Democrats voted “yes,” while Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, was not present for the vote.

After the vote, Brandt told reporters he had faced pressure to abandon the veto override push – he wouldn’t say from whom – but said he felt compelled to see it through, even though it meant publicly challenging a governor from his own political party.

“I doubt if I’ll have very many bills signed in the next two years,” Brandt added, referring to the fact Martinez has nearly two years left in the four-year term she was elected to in 2014.

Meanwhile, teachers union leaders, who have long clashed with the Martinez administration over education policies, were quick to trumpet the Senate’s action.

“In a strongly bipartisan manner, New Mexico senators recognized HB 241 is good policy for our public educators, our schools, and our students,” said Stephanie Ly, the president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Mexico.