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Constitutional clash brews over governor’s vetoes

Gov. Susana Martinez

Gov. Susana Martinez

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – They called it “legislative bingo.”

The bill had picked up support from business groups, teacher unions, school districts and Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration – a diverse mix of interests often at odds in the Roundhouse.

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It was like hitting bingo, supporters joked. Each group testified in favor of allowing computer science to count toward the math requirement for New Mexico high school students.

Now that bill, along with a few other pieces of legislation, is at the center of a power struggle erupting in the Roundhouse as the session nears adjournment.

The governor and Senate don’t even agree on what bills have become law and which have been vetoed.

The dispute started this week when Martinez – without explanation – vetoed eight bills that had passed with broad bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature, sometimes without a single dissenting vote. Her administration had even testified in favor of the computer science proposal.

Martinez offered no reason for the surprise vetoes – until Thursday, when she told senators that she may keep rejecting bills until they fulfill their constitutional requirements to send her a budget and hold confirmation hearings on her appointees.

Then legislators fired back: Three of Martinez’s vetoes didn’t come in time, meaning the bills will become law whether she likes it or not, they said.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, told senators late Thursday that the governor simply hadn’t met her legal obligation to specify her objections to the bills within three days of receiving them. That was the opinion of lawyers who work for the Legislature as a whole, not one particular party, he said.

“Those bills, therefore, in the opinion for the counsel of the Legislature, became law without the governor’s signature,” Wirth said.

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Martinez called it ridiculous.

“This stunt exposes the arrogance of the good ol’ boy system that is the state Senate, where they think they can enact laws on their own,” Martinez spokesman Chris Sanchez said in a written statement. “The Senate appears determined to shut down the government, and that’s very disappointing.”

The governor met every legal requirement necessary to veto the legislation, her administration contends. The veto messages may have been short, but they were legally sufficient and provided to senators in time, according to her office.

Budget battle

The tussle is part of a broader power struggle over the state budget. A downturn in oil and gas prices has created a fiscal “crisis,” lawmakers say, and New Mexico has already endured damage to its credit rating.

Negotiations behind closed doors – between the governor and legislative leaders – have focused on whether to increase taxes; which tax “loopholes” can be eliminated to produce new revenue; and how much money should be kept in reserve.

The Senate has already approved a $6.1 billion spending plan and a $350 million package of tax increases, though the House has not yet agreed. Martinez, in turn, has vowed repeatedly to veto tax increases, but she has suggested she’s willing to support new revenue that results from fixing loopholes in the tax code.

The session ends at noon Saturday.

Vetoes

The governor’s eight unexplained vetoes, which came Tuesday and Wednesday, shook up the Roundhouse.

The lack of a clear explanation for the vetoes left legislators, lobbyists and others wondering about her motives. Did the governor have specific objections to the high school credits bill and other legislation, or was she sending a broader message?

Sen. Jacob Candelaria – an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the computer science bill – said the governor’s vetoing of unrelated legislation hurts students and other constituencies who took time to testify in favor of the bills.

“We don’t have time to play these kinds of games,” Candelaria said.

Martinez on Thursday provided her first explanation for the string of vetoes – at least as a whole.

In a one-page message to the Senate late Thursday, Martinez blasted Democrats in the House and Senate for failing – so far, at least – to send her a budget measure. And she expressed frustration over the Senate’s failure to consider eight of her appointments to boards of regents, including four to the University of New Mexico.

She still didn’t outline specific objections to any of the eight bills, other than to say they aren’t necessary for the health, safety and welfare of New Mexicans. And she made it clear more vetoes may be on the way.

“Until the Legislature sees fit to fulfill its constitutional obligations, including hearings (on regent nominees), I will continue to veto legislation that is not necessary for the well-being of this state and its citizens,” Martinez said.

‘Grave concern’

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they respect Martinez’s constitutional right to veto their bills. But some also said a specific explanation, even a short one, might help them identify flaws in their proposals, allowing for compromise, regardless of whether it’s legally required.

Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo, acknowledged there’s a perception that the governor is unhappy with the Senate over its veto override, which involved a bill on teachers’ sick leave. That happened earlier in the week, before the other vetoes on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sen. Pete Campos, a Las Vegas Democrat in his 27th year at the Legislature, said the unexplained vetoes were a source of “grave concern” for legislators.

“It’s a signal that deeper communication definitely needs to occur,” Campos said.

The state Constitution doesn’t directly address veto explanations. It simply says the governor shall return the vetoed bill to the Legislature “with his objections.”

The dispute, it appears, will linger long beyond the tumultuous end of this year’s legislative session.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.

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