The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week that Gov. Susana Martinez illegally vetoed 10 different bills last year. The ruling ends a year-long legal battle between legislators and the governor, clearing the way for the bills to go into effect.
Last year, Martinez made headlines by vetoing 145 bills—52 percent of what was approved by the Legislature—during the 2017 legislative session. This followed a tense 60-day session which saw disputes between the governor and lawmakers over the state budget, in which Martinez repeatedly threatened to call a special session.
Immediately following the conclusion of the session, Martinez rejected the Legislature's proposed state budget, criticizing them for increasing taxes. She then used her line item veto authority to cut $774.8 million from the plan, removing all funding for the legislative branch as well as the entire higher education budget. Martinez also vetoed a $350 million tax package, calling it “reckless” and “irresponsible” according to New Mexico In Depth. The proposed tax hikes were a response to a state deficit of around $69 million, caused in part by a downturn in the oil and gas sector. The governor announced in May 2017 that a special session would be convened to allow the Legislature to develop a budget that didn't involve any tax hikes.
The Legislature responded to the line item vetoes by filing a lawsuit against Martinez, accusing her of overstepping her bounds and violating the state constitution. It also accused her of cutting higher education funding because the Senate refused to confirm her choices for University of New Mexico regents.
Martinez called for the state Supreme Court to stay out of budgetary negotiations, and the court subsequently rejected the Legislature's request, saying the case was “not ripe for review” in its order.
During the special session, funding was restored to higher education and the Legislature, but Democratic lawmakers continued to condemn the governor's actions as disruptive political maneuvering.
Legislators were not finished battling Martinez, however. The timing of the 145 vetoes led some lawmakers to question if they had been politically motivated responses to the contention between themselves and the governor.
A new suit was filed against Martinez—this one listing numerous Democratic legislators as plaintiffs—claiming that 10 of the bills were vetoed in violation of the state constitution. According to the suit, the governor failed to give her reasons behind the vetoes within the time period allotted by law. Lawmakers said that failure made it difficult to decide whether to attempt to override the vetoes or rewrite the bills and submit them again.
In September, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver chaptered the bills into law, but they were granted a stay by the Supreme Court in January until the case had been concluded, meaning they could not become law without the approval of the state's highest court.
During last week's hearing, Martinez' attorney Paul Kennedy reportedly argued that the governor had communicated her objections over the bills, although they were conveyed in an executive message sent to lawmakers instead of attached to the individual bills. The message in question said she was vetoing the various bills because legislators had not passed a budget or approved all of her appointees, according to Taos News.
According to the state's constitution: “If he approves, he shall sign it, and deposit it with the secretary of state; otherwise, he shall return it to the house in which it originated, with his objections.” Kennedy argued that physically attaching an explanation was unnecessary.
The Albuquerque Journal reports that the Supreme Court justices came to a ruling after just over an hour of deliberation. They agreed with the lower court's ruling that the governor had violated stipulations in the constitution. Supreme Court Chief Justice Judith Nakamura told the court that the reasons for a veto must be declared at the time of the veto, clarifying the requirements of the constitution.
In a statement, the governor's spokesperson, Emilee Cantrell said the ruling was disappointing but not unexpected. “Today’s ruling shows one can pick and choose when it comes to following the constitution,” Cantrell said, “There is no dispute these bills were vetoed and yet partisan legislators along with submissive judges can circumvent an entire branch of government.”
Following the hearing, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth told reporters, “The constitution means something, and this now sets a very important precedent. I don’t think you’ll ever see a governor make this mistake again.”
The ruling means that the 10 bills have officially become law:
House Bill 126 gives the New Mexico Higher Education Department the authority to cover some school expenses for medical students who were enrolled in a state graduate program in return for practicing in a local designated underserved area.
House Bill 144 allows industrial hemp research to be conducted at the state's universities. It also establishes a state fund for this research.
Senate Bill 6 authorizes the Department of Agriculture to issue licenses to grow industrial hemp for research purposes and provide police training for recognizing hemp plants.
Senate Bill 24 allows local governments to develop high-speed internet infrastructure by amending the Infrastructure Development Zone Act.
Senate Bill 64 eliminates the time period when schools can access the Public School Capital Outlay Fund for fixing education technology infrastructure.
Senate Bill 67 requires the county treasurer in a county where a tax increment development district has been created be notified of its creation along with the county assessor and county clerk.
Senate Bill 134 allows high school computer science courses to count toward fulfilling math or science credits.
Senate Bill 184 amends horse racing laws. It removes certain exceptions to conduct that require the denial or revocation of an occupational license related to horse racing, replaces the official chemist with an equine health and testing advisor, clarifies rules about handling testing specimens and offering compensation for the health and testing advisor from the state Racehorse Testing Fund.
Senate Bill 222 raises the threshold of being exempt from the “local public body” designation from an annual revenue of $10,000 to $50,000 for political subdivisions of the state.
Senate Bill 356 requires the county treasurer in a county where a public improvement district has been created be notified of its creation.