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NM Supreme Court to hear arguments in budget veto dispute

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Supreme Court has opened the door to a lawsuit filed by top legislators against Gov. Susana Martinez that hinges on the governor’s use of line-item vetoes in a state budget bill.

The state’s highest court on Monday scheduled oral arguments in the case for May 15 and ordered the Martinez administration to file a written response by next week.

In the initial court challenge filed last week, top lawmakers asked the five-member Supreme Court to invalidate some of Martinez’s vetoes on the budget bill, arguing that the Republican governor overstepped her authority by axing all proposed funding – roughly $779 million – for legislative branch agencies, and public colleges and universities.

The Legislative Council, a group of leading legislators, specifically argued in its lawsuit that the governor’s vetoes violated the state Constitution’s separation-of-powers clause.

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

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen

Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen

In a Monday statement, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, praised the court’s action, saying, “This is a clear recognition from the Supreme Court that there are serious constitutional questions regarding Governor Martinez’s authority to eliminate funding for all higher education institutions and an entire branch of government.”

Papen also said she was encouraged that the Supreme Court had asked the New Mexico Council of University Presidents to submit a legal brief in the case.

The governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have been at odds for most of this year over the budget.

Some of the bills signed and vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez

Some of the bills signed and vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez

In addition to her line-item vetoes, Martinez struck down a $350 million package of tax and fee increases intended to help pay for government operations in the coming budget year, which starts July 1.

Martinez 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 complicate matters.

Meanwhile, Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan suggested Monday that Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and other top-ranking lawmakers had asked the Supreme Court to intervene to circumvent the governor.

“Sen. Wirth went to the courts because he wants New Mexicans to pay higher taxes – including on gas,” Lonergan said. “The governor doesn’t believe families should have to shoulder $350 million in tax hikes and she’s going to continue to block the Senate’s efforts to do so.”

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