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Legislators prepare to sue governor over vetoes

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s legislative leaders authorized their attorneys on Thursday to sue Gov. Susana Martinez over her veto of funding for state universities and the Legislature itself.

And they directed their staff to begin gathering signatures for an extraordinary session – a legislative session called by lawmakers themselves and open to any topic.

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It would take signatures from three-fifths of the Legislature to enter such a session, which has happened only once in New Mexico history, officials said.

Top Democrats in the Legislature have repeatedly questioned whether the Republican governor had authority to reject funding for an equal branch of government and for universities mentioned in the state Constitution.

Martinez, in turn, says that the removal of funding is only temporary and that it can be restored through a budget compromise acceptable to her administration and lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said he and his colleagues are pursuing every option to address the state’s budget crisis – whether it’s through litigation, an extraordinary session or a negotiated agreement with Martinez.

“Her action in unilaterally rejecting the bipartisan plan that was sent up there – and then trying to selectively veto pieces of the budget – has created a constitutional crisis,” Wirth told reporters.

A spokesman for Martinez accused lawmakers of refusing to negotiate and turning to the courts instead.

“This just demonstrates that the Senate is more interested in jamming through one of the largest tax increases in state history than coming together in a bipartisan way to find compromise,” spokesman Michael Lonergan said. “… This isn’t the way government works.”

Thursday’s vote and decision-making happened behind closed doors in a meeting of the Legislative Council, a group of lawmakers who oversee year-round operations of the Legislature as an institution and its nonpartisan staff.

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The move intensifies a political – and now legal – clash between Democrats who hold majorities in the Legislature and Martinez, a Republican in the middle of her second term.

They have been at odds for months over how to resolve a budget crisis triggered, in part, by flagging revenue from oil and gas operations in the state.

Democrats have a 9-7 edge on the Legislative Council, though it wasn’t clear whether Thursday’s decisions were unanimous, along party lines or some other combination.

A staff member simply announced the decisions in public, and lawmakers said they decided to refer all questions to staff or attorneys.

Wirth, however, agreed to answer some questions about his own involvement in budget talks. He and House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, met privately with Martinez late Thursday after the Legislative Council meeting.

To call an extraordinary session, at least 42 members of the 70-person House and 26 members of the 42-person Senate would have to sign on in support.

Democrats in the House hold a 38-32 majority over Republicans, so they’d need to pick up support from at least four Republicans to call an extraordinary session.

Democrats in the Senate hold a 26-16 edge, meaning they wouldn’t need any Republican support. But Wirth said he expected bipartisan support for an extraordinary session.

An extraordinary session is only called if both chambers agree.

‘Disappointed’

Martinez has said repeatedly that she plans to call legislators back into session herself this month to craft a budget that doesn’t include tax increases. Funding would be restored for universities and the Legislature through a budget compromise, her administration says.

“The governor remains disappointed that (lawmakers) continue to dig their heels into the sand and shirk their responsibility to do the good work of the people,” said Lonergan, the spokesman. “Regardless, the governor is going to continue to try to work together to find common ground and solve this budget crisis.”

Democrats say they have already sent Martinez a sensible budget that included at least some ideas suggested by her administration.

It passed with bipartisan support in the Senate and along party lines in the House.

Democratic lawmakers argue that the governor could have used her line-item veto authority to more narrowly craft a budget package she could support.

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said Thursday that the decision to pursue litigation is “necessary to ensure the state Constitution is upheld. As legislators, we take our oath to support the Constitution and the laws of the state seriously.”

A special session called by the governor is limited to topics she approves.

An extraordinary session is open to any topic. That could give lawmakers extra flexibility to pursue veto overrides or take up other priorities.

Financial pressure

The potential lawsuit and extraordinary session come as Martinez and lawmakers face incredible financial pressure. The state has already exhausted much of its cash reserves and endured a downgrade in its credit rating.

The budget dispute, however, cannot be solved entirely in court.

Martinez used her line-item veto authority to remove funding for higher education and the Legislature in a budget bill approved by lawmakers.

A separate budget bill, however, would have provided revenue to support the spending, including about $350 million in tax increases. Martinez vetoed that measure, too, so even if spending were restored by a court, the governor and lawmakers would still have to agree on a revenue package to support the budget.

Closed meeting

The Legislative Council includes the House speaker, Senate president pro tem and the floor leaders for each political party. Some rank-and-file members of each body are also members.

The group met privately – reporters and others were kicked out of the room – for about two hours Thursday at the Capitol.

The state Open Meetings Act allows government bodies to meet in closed session in certain circumstances, such as to discuss litigation.

After the closed session ended, Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, announced to the public what motions had passed. That portion of the meeting was open to the public.

He said the Legislative Council had passed a variety of motions directing:

• Attorneys for the Legislature to pursue litigation “regarding the constitutional validity of the governor’s attempted vetoes of funding for the legislative branch.”

The council passed similar motions for litigation on vetoes of funding for state educational institutions and other core functions of government.

• Attorneys to pursue litigation on 10 vetoes in which lawmakers say the governor failed to state specific objections to the bills.

Lawmakers say the state Constitution requires the governor to mention her objections, not just say she has vetoed a bill without offering a reason.

The Martinez administration disputes that there’s any legal question about the validity of the vetoes.

• Staff members to begin collecting signatures of legislators to call the Legislature into an extraordinary session.

That’s succeeded only once – in 2002, when lawmakers called themselves into session and voted to override then-Gov. Gary Johnson’s veto of a budget measure.

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