New Mexico lawmakers have been working in earnest to revise a $50 million appropriations bill ahead of Tuesday’s special session with the hope of appeasing Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who vetoed the legislation last month.
Legislators closely involved in making changes to the so-called junior bill say they’re mostly minor but address shortcomings identified by the Governor’s Office.
“It hasn’t changed much,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, the Senate’s point man on the revisions. “I mean, the priorities haven’t changed much, just the language of where the money is going is changing.”
The language is more specific, but the list of projects identified in the original bill remains unchanged, he said.
Lujan Grisham’s veto of Senate Bill 48, which had been unanimously approved by both chambers of the Legislature during the 30-day session that ended Feb. 17, left lawmakers on both sides of the aisle reeling. The junior bill contained money for legislators to take home to their districts for projects of their choosing. When the governor axed the bill, some lawmakers said they were left with egg on their face when they couldn’t deliver on promises made to their constituents.
Republicans immediately called for an extraordinary session to override the governor, a Democrat seeking a second term in November. Democrats signaled they, too, were willing to pursue an override, setting up a potential political showdown with the party’s standard-bearer in an election year.
An extraordinary session was looking likely, but Democrats, who hold majority control of both chambers, made a new deal with the governor.
“If we’d fix these things, she’d call a special session,” Muñoz said. “But when you have a bill — I don’t care what bill it is — that passes the Legislature with no negative votes, it’s a pretty strong message to [legislators].”
In her veto message, the governor wrote the bill circumvented the usual budget and capital outlay process and that some projects weren’t fully funded. She also wrote she wasn’t convinced distributing more than $50 million in funds for various projects “upholds principles of fiscal responsibility” or represented a wise investment as a whole.
Half the money in the junior bill was for one-time spending; the other half was recurring spending.
Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, wrote in an email the governor asked the Legislature to ensure projects are appropriately budgeted as recurring or nonrecurring.
“The governor has also asked the Legislature to address aspects of the bill that include appropriating funds to the correct agency and resolving line items that risked running afoul of the anti-donation clause,” she wrote.
“What’s more, the governor has been abundantly clear about her expectation that legislators will publish information delineating what funds were allocated by each legislator,” Sackett added. “Legislative advocates have pointed out the lack of transparency concerning ‘junior bill’ appropriations for years.”
Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, who was also involved in making the revisions, said the revamped bill will be “very similar” to the original legislation.
“We’ve been working with the House and the Governor’s Office to address areas that were found to be problematic, like changing some allocations from nonrecurring to recurring or vice versa, or reassigning an appropriation from one department to another so funds can get to where they need to go more efficiently,” she wrote in a text message.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca of Belen, who called the revisions “relatively small,” questioned the governor’s motives in vetoing the bill since he said she had signed similar legislation in the past.
“It was done exactly the same way,” he said, referring to the junior bill legislators passed. “Came through the pipeline this year again, no complaints from the fourth floor [the Governor’s Office]. And then, to our stunning surprise following the session, it gets vetoed — and not line-item vetoed, mind you. It gets vetoed across the board.”
Baca said what other lawmakers have hinted at privately: They suspect Lujan Grisham vetoed the bill out of spite after some of her legislative priorities failed to pass during the regular 30-day session. Lawmakers also said there are still hard feelings after they challenged the governor’s appropriating authority over federal coronavirus relief funds last year and won the case when the state Supreme Court ruled in their favor.
“It was a vindictive move in the first place to veto the junior bill,” Baca said. “But, you know, at the end of the day, I’m going to go back in [to the Capitol] next week on Tuesday, and I look forward to working with all my colleagues over there to correct the issues and get this bill passed so we can get those much-needed funds to our communities across the state.”
Baca, however, accused Lujan Grisham of calling a special session to “save face” and described the move as “election year politics.”
“Let’s just face it,” Baca said. “It was a poor political calculation on [Lujan Grisham’s] part to cancel such an important bill, and she’s literally just calling this special session to prevent the extraordinary session from taking place, which would have been a black eye to her in an election year.”
Chris Nordstrum, a spokesman for Senate Democratic leaders, said “it was a bit of a shock” for lawmakers when the governor vetoed the junior bill.
“It just was so out of the blue, and [there was] an immediate reaction to rectify it,” he said.
Nordstrum said lawmakers had three options: let the veto go unchallenged, call an extraordinary session to override the governor or meet in special session, which Nordstrum called the avenue “that ended up getting worked out.”
“There’s been just a ton of coordination with the House, the Senate and the Governor’s Office to understand the problems that led to the vetoing of [the junior bill] so that in the special [session] those problems can be fixed, and it wouldn’t be an issue,” he said.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called talks on the junior bill ahead of the session “very productive.”
“We are feeling confident that we are now on track to advance the critical community projects funded by the Junior Bill — from Meals on Wheels in Albuquerque to services for survivors of domestic violence in Valencia County and adult literacy programs in Las Cruces,” Egolf said in a statement.
Muñoz said lawmakers hope the governor will sign the revised bill but have no guarantees.
“We can only clean up so much and come to agreement,” he said. “She still has the power of the veto.”
The bill will include a transparency piece still in the works, Muñoz said.
Duhigg said the transparency piece likely will mirror capital outlay appropriations, which are posted online and listed by sponsor.
“Given the level of collaboration that has taken place, I expect the bill will have a smooth journey through the process,” she wrote.