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Line-item vetoes often end up in court

SANTA FE – When it comes to line-item vetoes, New Mexico has a long history of turning to the courts to resolve disputes between governors and the Legislature.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez

GOV. MARTINEZ

The latest dust-up is expected to play out in the coming weeks, with lawmakers poised to ask the state Supreme Court to invalidate Gov. Susana Martinez’s line-item vetoes of $779 million in funding – earmarked for legislative branch agencies and higher education – from a budget bill approved during the 60-day session that ended last month.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, suggested the Legislature’s main legal argument will be that Martinez overstepped her authority by axing all funding for legislative agencies, colleges and universities.

“The line-item veto gives the governor a legislative tool, but she can’t use it in a way that takes away a separate, constitutionally created branch of government,” Wirth said in a recent interview.

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Martinez has insisted her vetoes were on solid legal footing as the state Constitution gives governors the authority to use line-item vetoes – or strike down some parts of appropriations bills.

“The governor absolutely has the authority,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said Thursday. “Lawmakers need to remember that we have more than one branch of government – it’s not just the Legislature that calls the shots.”

Previous court challenges between the Legislature and governors have provided some guidelines on the extent of line-item veto authority.

In 1974, some of then-Gov. Bruce King’s vetoes were the subject of a largely successful court challenge by a Republican state senator, Bill Sego of Albuquerque, who argued vetoes could not change the intent of legislation.

But the Supreme Court upheld a number of line-item vetoes by Republican Gov. Garrey Carruthers in 1988 after Democratic lawmakers Max Coll of Santa Fe and Ben Altamirano of Silver City filed a challenge.

Both of those cases could be pivotal in determining the outcome of this year’s looming court challenge, if the Supreme Court decides to take up the matter.

The Legislature has also previously challenged Martinez over line-item vetoes, as the Supreme Court struck down a 2011 attempt by the governor to change a dollar amount in the state’s budget bill.

However, this year’s case could test new waters, as several Capitol insiders say they don’t recall a governor ever signing a budget bill while axing all funding for a branch of government.

The Governor’s Office has insisted Martinez’s vetoes were aimed at bringing legislators back to the negotiating table, and that higher education and legislative funding will be part of a stand-alone appropriations bill passed before July.

However, that hasn’t stopped the Democratic-controlled Legislature from forging ahead with a court challenge. A petition is expected to be filed with the Supreme Court by legislative contract attorneys by as early as today, after top-ranking lawmakers authorized the lawsuit during a recent closed-door meeting.

“We feel pretty confident,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe. “The true scope of the vetoes is becoming clear.”

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