SANTA FE – A simmering budget dispute between Gov. Susana Martinez and the Democratic-controlled Legislature is headed to the state’s highest court.
Top-ranking legislators asked the state’s Supreme Court on Friday to invalidate some of Martinez’s line-item vetoes on a budget bill, arguing the Republican governor overstepped her authority by striking down funding – roughly $779 million in all – for legislative branch agencies and higher education.
“The governor’s political ideology is not above the law,” Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said in a statement.
The petition was filed by the Legislative Council, a group of leading lawmakers from both political parties. It accuses Martinez of trying to govern by “executive fiat” in axing funding from the budget bill passed by lawmakers during the 60-day session that ended last month.
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.
“They’re suing the governor because they want to raise taxes, and she’s the only one standing in their way,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said Friday. “It’s disappointing because it shows a refusal to compromise as this is nothing but an attempt to bully her by short-circuiting the legislative process before a special session.”
The court challenge is the latest saga in an ongoing showdown over the state’s budget. In addition to her line-item vetoes, Martinez struck down a $350 million package of proposed tax and fee increases that the Democratic-controlled Legislature had approved to help pay for government operations.
The governor is expected to call a special session on the budget in the coming weeks, but her administration and leading Democratic lawmakers have been unable to reach an agreement, and the Legislature’s lawsuit could now complicate matters.
Specifically, the court challenge alleges Martinez violated the state Constitution by vetoing all funding for legislative agencies, colleges and universities.
“The undue encroachment by one co-equal branch of government upon another, through the imposition of improvident vetoes which attempt to eviscerate the ability of the other branch to perform its essential functions, violates the essence of the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers,” the petition states.
Top-ranking lawmakers have criticized Martinez for the vetoes, which were enacted April 7, and authorized the lawsuit during a recent closed-door meeting.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the governor’s veto of nearly $750 million in proposed funding for higher education has threatened the state’s already sluggish economy and led to high stress levels for college students and their families.
“We have heard from families across the state who are saying they do not want the governor to use our education system as a political pawn,” Egolf said.
The Governor’s Office has insisted the 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 1, the start of the state’s new budget year.
But the vetoes have generated concern among university leaders, and could also affect other entities included in the higher education budget – including the New Mexico School for the Deaf, the University of New Mexico Heath Sciences Center and the UNM Carrie Tingley Hospital in Albuquerque – if the impasse is not resolved in the next two-plus months.
Meanwhile, Papen described the Legislature’s action as a necessary step.
“The stroke of a governor’s pen must never undermine the Constitution that creates the system of government which serves New Mexico families,” Papen said Friday. “Today’s action is important to check the power of the executive and protect against any overreach on behalf of those we represent.”
It’s unclear whether the five-member Supreme Court will decide to take up the matter, but a decision is expected to be made soon given the urgency of the situation.
It’s also unclear what impact the lawsuit might have on the timing of a special session. A Martinez spokesman said Friday there were no new developments on the issue, but that the governor still planned to call such a session “soon.”
If the Supreme Court ultimately sides with the Legislature and invalidates the vetoes, lawmakers would still have to come up with additional revenue to cover spending in what was originally a $6.1 billion budget bill.