I, for one, was not surprised that the state Supreme Court would decline to overturn Gov. Susana Martinez’s vetoes of all funding for higher education and the entire budget for the Legislature until after a special session. I had a feeling that the court would tell both sides to let the legislative process run its course before making us referee.
What did surprise me was the fact the high court made this decision late last week before their scheduled hearing on the case, which had been scheduled for Monday.
I guess it’s a blessing to taxpayers that the court spared us a few hours of legal fees for all sides involved.
The bad news is that this could mean that the looming special session, scheduled for May 24, could turn into an even more frustrating fluster cluck than anyone initially imagined. Unless both sides get serious real soon.
After weeks of stalemate and furious finger-pointing, things are back to square one. I’m sure the Democrats — and probably more than a few Republicans — were hoping the supremes would provide some adult supervision in this never-ending food fight.
But the Great Black (Robe) Hope went poof last week. It’s now up to the lawmakers and the governor to come up with some sort of agreement. And do it before the end of next month. The new fiscal year starts July 1.
If they don’t, the already struggling state universities and colleges — as well as the hospitals, research programs, agriculture extension offices and other programs under their wings — will grind to a halt.
Vetoing the entire legislative budget was a drastic and questionable move in itself. But Martinez making the universities and colleges a pawn in this political game was beyond baffling.
The amicus brief filed earlier this month by the New Mexico Council of University Presidents in the case that was before the Supreme Court was an eye-opening explanation of the bleak and severe problems Martinez’s vetoes had caused the schools.
There, the university presidents’ lawyer, Kevin Washburn, a former dean of The University of New Mexico School of Law and a former assistant secretary of Indian Affairs under President Barack Obama, wrote that “the corrosive uncertainty is beginning to cause long-term damage to New Mexico’s higher education institutions.”
Washburn’s filing said, “The vetoes have wreaked havoc on the ability of higher education institutions and their students to engage in rational planning for the fall semester, hurt faculty recruitment efforts, and jeopardized accreditation and financing. The vetoes also jeopardize public health because they eliminated more than $18 million intended for hospitals associated with universities.”
But it looks like it might be a good thing for colleges in other states. “Current [New Mexico] faculty are being targeted and actively recruited by competing academic centers that are aware of the veto and are capitalizing on the perceived instability and uncertainty in New Mexico,” Washburn wrote.
So the clock is ticking on the governor and the Legislature to undo this mess.
But by the end of last week, things weren’t off to a good start. Reactions to the Supreme Court’s decision to punt were as rancorous as they were predictable.
“This comes down to out-of-touch Santa Fe trial lawyers in legislative leadership who are suing the governor because they want to raise gas taxes, and she is the only one standing in their way,” a spokesman for the governor said.
In a joint statement, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, shot back: “… the fact remains that the governor’s vetoes were irresponsible and have created unprecedented instability in our economy and in our households. The legislative leadership, as always, remains committed to finding a solution to the crisis the governor created.”
Call me an optimist or call me an idiot, but somehow I think the two sides will be able to reach some kind of compromise by the time the special session starts. But they had better start seriously talking pretty darn soon, or I’ll have to change my prescription for my rose-colored glasses.