As a noon deadline approached Wednesday to act on bills the Legislature passed during the 30-day session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced she had signed into law a nearly $8.5 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year — the biggest ever for New Mexico state government.
Not much later, budget vetoes the governor unveiled gave way to controversy — and talk from some lawmakers of a return to Santa Fe for an extraordinary session to override at least one of the vetoes, setting up another possible showdown between legislators and Lujan Grisham over state finances.
The governor, a Democrat seeking reelection in November, used her veto authority to get rid of a piece of legislation commonly known as a “junior bill,” which would have appropriated $50 million for various projects lawmakers had a hand in choosing.
“Despite its nickname, SB 48 is anything but ‘junior’; it is littered with tens of millions of appropriations,” the governor wrote in an executive message to lawmakers. “Yet SB 48 circumvents the important budget and capital outlay process that forms the basis for other large appropriations bills.”
The governor also wrote she was “unconvinced” the distribution of more than $50 million in funds for various projects “upholds principles of fiscal responsibility” or represented a wise investment as a whole.
“For example, many of the projects listed in SB 48 are not fully funded — leaving open the possibility that money will be wasted on projects that will never be completed. This is unacceptable,” she wrote. “While I’m sure my veto today is disappointing to many, it is my sincere hope that it will serve as a catalyst for changing this process going forward to ensure that all such substantial expenditures are warranted and prudent.”
The response, particularly from Republicans, was immediate.
A statement issued by Senate Republicans deemed the veto “an obvious slight to the legislative branch of government.”
“The veto of this legislation is a shameless attempt to beat the legislative branch into submission and again eat away at our appropriating authority,” Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, said in a statement.
Baca, the minority leader, is among two senators who took the governor to court over control of federal coronavirus relief funds in a case before the state Supreme Court, a legal battle Lujan Grisham lost.
“The Junior Bill contained funding for law enforcement, senior centers, the courts, and other critical needs throughout the state,” Baca said. “I call on my colleagues in the Senate and House to convene the Legislature in extraordinary session for the purpose of overriding this unconscionable and irresponsible veto.”
Requests for comment from Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, which are both controlled by Democrats, went unanswered.
To convene an extraordinary session, 42 members of the House and 25 senators, or three-fifths of lawmakers from each chamber, need to sign on.
The other lawmaker involved in the legal case against the governor over federal funds wrote on Twitter that discussions of an extraordinary session have already begun.
“Several members have reached out sealing [sic] my support in last hour,” Sen. Jacob Candelaria, who switched his voter registration from Democrat to independent late last year, wrote in the tweet in the early afternoon.
Other lawmakers chimed in, too.
“It is very disappointing that the governor erased funding for important local programs, projects and facilities that communities throughout the state desperately need,” Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, wrote in a text message. “Though this political move is a blow to each individual legislator, who knows best the unique needs of their districts and constituents, it is absolutely detrimental to all the citizens of the great state of New Mexico.”
Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, tweeted the governor vetoed money to help feed local families.
“This year, I dedicated $130,000 to the local East Mountain Food Pantry to help those in need,” she tweeted. “@GovMLG VETOED all the capital outlay monies across NM.”
Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said in a telephone interview he supports an extraordinary session, not only to override the governor’s vetoes but to suspend the state gas tax in light of rising prices at the pump.
“The cost to go to work is getting extraordinary,” he said, adding rural New Mexicans who have to drive farther are getting hit hardest.
“I haven’t lived through gas prices this high,” Muñoz said. “If you look at the state employee pay raises that we gave, that’s not even going to make a dent in what it’s going to cost for gas. We have the ability in New Mexico and we have the money right now to give our citizens some relief.”
Buoyed by a boom in oil and gas and revenue increases, the budget will increase state spending by 14 percent, or about $1 billion, and provide raises for teachers, state police officers and other government employees.
The budget also increases the pay for starting teachers to $50,000 and makes other investments, including in public safety and social support services.
Lujan Grisham said the budget makes “transformative investments,” noting its inclusion of a tuition-free program and a new fund to hire public safety officers.
“We are taking full advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to strategically and meaningfully build upon our progress to lift up every New Mexico family,” she said.
While the governor let the budget passed by the Legislature largely intact, she used her line-item veto powers to strike portions of the bill “that attempt impermissibly to create substantive law” or “enact general policy,” as well as those that “impermissibly intrude into the executive managerial function,” she wrote in an executive message.
“I object to provisions in the Act that unduly restrict appropriations to specified types of expenditures,” she wrote. “These restrictions on agency functions exceed the Legislature’s proper, constitutionally defined role, unduly constraining the Executive’s ability to effectively administer programs to meet the State’s needs, in violation of the distribution of powers established [under] the New Mexico Constitution.”
In several instances, the governor wrote the vetoed language “infringes upon the executive managerial function.”
The governor also vetoed House Bill 134, which would have reinstituted the Sports Authority Division of the Tourism Department and given the secretary of tourism the authority to appoint the sports advisory committee.
In an executive message tied to the veto of House Bill 134, Lujan Grisham said the Legislature had “disappointingly” failed to provide funding to operate the division.
A bill to give state Supreme Court justices and other judges 33 percent raises is among the pieces of legislation that died without the governor’s signature. The so-called pocket veto doesn’t require Lujan Grisham to explain why Senate Bill 2 didn’t merit her signature, but the budget already includes funding for 17 percent raises for the judiciary.
Muñoz called the governor’s pocket veto on judicial raises “kind of a shocker.”
“We had an opportunity, along with a crime package, to fix a lot of the stuff in New Mexico,” he said, adding attorneys would rather go into private practice than become judges because of the pay.
In addition to Senate Bill 2, the governor also did not sign three House bills, including a proposal to increase salaries for elected county officials by 15 percent after the next general election, and a bill sponsored by Muñoz to require truckers with freight trailers to drive in the right-hand lane of Interstate 40.
“Billboards are gonna go up,” Muñoz said, declining to elaborate.