Legislature sues Martinez in budget dispute

Gov. Susana Martinez speaks Monday outside the New Mexico National Guard Armory near Española. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

The New Mexico Legislature, controlled by Democrats, made good on its threats and filed a lawsuit Friday against Republican Gov. Susana Martinez for vetoing the entire budgets of the legislative branch and the higher education system, which includes hospitals, research labs and agricultural programs.

The 20-page petition asks the state Supreme Court to overturn the governor’s line-item vetoes and restore funding to the Legislature, and colleges and universities — as well as to hospitals and other programs covered in the higher education budget.

“The governor’s actions violate the New Mexico Constitution’s principles of separation of powers and the checks and balances on which our system of representative democracy has been based since 1911,” the suit says, adding that the veto of the legislative funds was an “attempt to eviscerate the ability of the [Legislature] to perform its essential functions.”

The suit also says the state constitution prohibits the “wholesale de-funding” of “constitutionally enabled and statutorily-authorized institutions of higher education.”

A spokesman for Martinez said the suit was an attempt to “bully” the governor.

While the lawsuit was expected — the Legislative Council voted last week to pursue such an action — the move marks an escalation in the heated conflict between Martinez and lawmakers over the $6.1 billion budget bill passed by the Legislature in March. In addition to the line-item budget vetoes, which totaled nearly $3 billion, Martinez vetoed a $350 million tax and revenue bill necessary to balance the budget.

If the court doesn’t act or the two sides don’t come to an agreement before July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, the cuts to higher education and the Legislature will go into effect.

“The governor’s unconstitutional vetoes of all funding for our colleges and universities have added unneeded stress to students who attend these schools and families who hope to send their children to college in New Mexico,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said in a written statement Friday. “Her vetoes also threaten our prosperity because our colleges help drive our economy.”

In a separate statement, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said, “Today’s action is important to check the power of the executive and protect against any overreach on behalf of those we represent. The Governor’s political ideology is not above the law.”

A spokesman for Martinez said in a written statement that lawmakers filed the suit because they are determined to raise taxes and the governor is standing in their way. “It’s disappointing,” Michael Lonergan said, “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.”

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya told The Associated Press that he doesn’t think the Supreme Court could reinstate the vetoed spending without creating a budget deficit — which would be in violation of state law. “I question whether the courts would get involved. They may punt,” Montoya said.

Martinez has said she’ll call a special session of the Legislature as soon as Democrats and Republicans can agree to a budget plan that doesn’t require tax and fee increases. Meanwhile, legislative Democrats have been pushing to call the Legislature into an extraordinary session, which would allow lawmakers, not the governor, to set the agenda. However, it’s not clear if they have the support of the required three-fifths of the House to call such a session.

The president of the state League of Women Voters, Meredith Machen, said in an email Friday, referring to the lawsuit, “It’s a drastic but justifiable action for the Legislative Council to sue the governor for those vetoes. … The League deplores the waste of time, effort, and money it will cost to hold special or extraordinary legislative sessions and to defend lawsuits. Precious public dollars should be used to strengthen our economy and serve NM’s families, not for resolving an unnecessary constitutional crisis.”

Despite the wide gap between her and the Legislature, Martinez said early this week that she believes the higher education funding issue will be resolved before July 1. “We’re not going to not fund higher education,” she told reporters Monday. “That is extremely important to the Legislature and to me.”

In addition to the suit filed Friday, the Legislature is expected to sue Martinez to determine whether 10 bills she vetoed during the session should become law without her signature because she failed to fulfill a requirement to provide an explanation for rejecting the measures. Two of those bills deal with legalizing research on industrial hemp.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.