Veto That Veto
Criminal justice reform may still be in the cards for New Mexico
Overriding a governor's veto is no easy task. In fact, it's only been accomplished twice in New Mexico since 1970.
But legislators will likely attempt to do just that for a bill that aims to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders in jail. "We've got nothing to lose," says Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas (D), a lawyer who represents a chunk of Albuquerque’s Westside. He says he's going to push hard for an override on the measure that calls for treatment instead of jail time during the next 30-day regular session, which starts in January.
Though there's a special session slated to begin on Tuesday, Sept. 6, all the issues addressed will have to be related to the guv's agenda. Gov. Martinez announced earlier this month that the special session will focus on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, and redrawing the boundaries for legislative and congressional districts.
Maestas says his bill, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Richard C. Martinez, would have saved the state $18 million a year. New Mexico spends about $30,000 a year on a male inmate and close to $35,000 for a female inmate, according to a fiscal impact report. Nonresidential treatment options, on the other hand, can cost around $4,000.
The measure cleared the House and the Senate with good margins but was snuffed out by Martinez in April. In her veto message, she expressed concerns that there was no oversight to ensure an offender completed the program successfully. She also said that since after finishing the program an offender's records would be sealed, that person could lie about drug history during background checks. Finally, she said the measure didn't provide extra money for treatment and called the bill an "unfunded mandate."
Maestas counters that under his measure, it would be the responsibility of the offender to pay for the treatment.
He says the real problem is that before being governor, Martinez spent her career putting criminals behind bars. "I don't think she can take her prosecutor hat off and put on her policy hat." Criminal justice reform is polling favorably, Maestas says, and on any other topic, politicians follow the polls.
It takes a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override a veto, but any legislator on the floor can initiate the process. Even though the measure was able to pass both chambers in 2011, state Republicans might not vote in favor of an override next year. That two-thirds majority could be hard to come by. In the House, there are 36 Democrats, 33 Republicans and 1 independent. On the Senate side, there are 27 Democrats and 15 Republicans.
According to the Legislature's records, Martinez vetoed a relatively large number of bills in 2011 when compared with previous 60-day sessions. She killed about 35 percent of the measures that came across her desk.