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Governor asks NM Supreme Court to uphold vetoes

SANTA FE – Attorneys for Gov. Susana Martinez asked New Mexico’s highest court Friday to uphold her authority to eliminate funding for higher education and the Legislature itself.

But they also stressed that the veto of funding isn’t permanent: It can be restored in some form during a special legislative session, and no one is in danger of running out of money before then, her attorneys said.

University presidents across New Mexico also weighed in Friday. They told the Supreme Court that budget uncertainty is already harming recruitment and retention efforts for faculty and students in some fields.

“Some of the damage caused by the vetoes is irreparable; some students have already been discouraged,” the New Mexico Council of University Presidents said in a friend-of-the-court brief.

The brief was filed on its behalf by Kevin Washburn, a former law school dean at the University of New Mexico and former head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The legal filings came in response to a Friday deadline issued by the state Supreme Court, which is considering an emergency petition to invalidate Martinez’s line-item vetoes of funding for higher education and legislative agencies.

The lawsuit was filed last month by legislative leaders.

In a response filed Friday, attorneys for Martinez said the state constitution empowers the executive branch to reject all or parts of spending bills passed by the Legislature – and there’s no prohibition on using that power the way she did.

Furthermore, her attorneys said, the dispute isn’t “ripe” for a court decision yet. The governor already has called a special legislative session – the appropriate venue to craft a new spending plan for higher education and the Legislature, according to the filing, signed by private attorney Paul Kennedy.

“The governor never stated that she is abolishing the Legislature or any state educational institutions,” the governor’s response said. “Neither the legislative agencies nor the educational institutions have run out of funds, and there is still time to appropriate funds for the next fiscal year.”

The court, then, should wait to make a decision, the governor’s legal team said.

The New Mexico Council of University Presidents, meanwhile, didn’t take sides in how the budget impasse should be resolved but asked for a quick resolution.

The presidents said financial uncertainty has harmed staffing and recruitment at their institutions’ hospitals and health-care organizations, which, in turn, “has a very real impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable citizens of New Mexico.”

Some students say they fear their schools may close or wonder whether they would be better off finishing their degrees out of state, according to the brief.

Legislative leaders sued the governor last month, arguing that she doesn’t have authority to reject funding for an equal branch of government or for educational institutions established in the constitution. They accused her of trying to “effectively abolish” the legislative branch of government and higher education.

The state Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing May 15 for oral arguments.

The legal tussle comes as Martinez, a Republican, and the Legislature – where Democrats hold majorities in both chambers – remain at odds over a state budget crisis, triggered in part by a downturn in oil and gas prices.

State lawmakers passed a $6.1 billion budget package that includes about $350 million in tax increases – necessary, supporters said, to avoid damaging cuts to public schools and other state services.

Martinez responded by vetoing the entire tax-increase package and using her line-item veto authority to remove funding in the budget for higher education and the Legislature itself. She has since said she has a plan to fund higher education without tax increases.

The state should balance its budget, Martinez argues, without tax increases that will raise the cost of living on New Mexico families.

No matter who wins the lawsuit, Martinez and the Legislature will almost certainly have to negotiate a new budget agreement of some kind.

If lawmakers win – and the line-item vetoes are invalidated – the basic operating budget of the state would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million out of balance, according to one estimate by the director of the Legislative Finance Committee.

That’s because the tax increases – vetoed in a separate bill, which isn’t the subject of litigation – are necessary to pay for all the spending.

And if Martinez wins, the Legislature and governor would still have to agree on how to fund higher education and legislative agencies. The fiscal year starts July 1.

The governor has called a special session of the Legislature to consider the budget and taxes. The session starts May 24.