Published: 5:30 pm, Fri. Apr. 14th, 2017Updated: 5:29 pm
New Mexico lawmakers authorized plans to sue Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to block vetoes that would defund state universities and colleges along with the legislative branch of government, amid an unrelenting standoff Thursday over how to shore up state finances.
The Legislative Council of leading state lawmakers directed attorneys to quickly pursue litigation on several fronts, including challenges to any vetoes that affect core functions of state government.
Senate President Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces said lawmakers were turning to the judiciary to preserve a “strong system of checks and balances.”
“The Legislative Council has made the decision to officially begin the legal process necessary to ensure the state constitution is upheld,” she said in a statement.
Martinez has rejected an array of tax increases in response to wilting state revenues, and last week struck from the state budget $745 million in funding to state institutions of higher education and the Legislature’s operating budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Leading Democrats and many Republican lawmakers are backing tax hikes that would increase the cost of gasoline or online purchases to avoid further cuts to public school funding or reserves.
Martinez held budget talks in her offices Thursday with Majority Leader Peter Wirth and House Speaker Brian Egolf, both Democrats, without apparent progress toward an agreement.
Wirth said the governor repeated ideas for solving a budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year that were already roundly rejected by lawmakers. They included tapping more funds from school district reserves and reducing state pension contributions.
“I continued to ask, as I repeatedly have asked, ‘What is the executive’s plan?’” Wirth said. “The answer appears, as it was in the session, to take more money from schools, from cash balances.”
Wirth said the governor continues to push for broad tax reforms that lawmakers have shunned as complex and highly controversial.
“We have to be real careful that we don’t say we’re doing tax reform and have it turn out to be a shift of the tax burden from one group to another with no real lowering the rates,” Wirth said.
The governor’s office had no immediate comment on the outcome of the meeting after expressing optimism earlier in the day.
Of the likely litigation, Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan accused lawmakers being more interested in tax increases than coming together in bipartisan way to compromise.
The Legislature also initiated efforts to call an extraordinary session of the Legislature by collecting lawmakers’ signatures, a move that could upstage the governor’s plans for a special session on issues of her choice.
New Mexico has struggled to stabilize funding to public schools, courts and other critical government services after depleting nearly all general fund reserves and making repeated cuts to agency spending and cash balances.
Wirth said the governor’s major budget vetoes have created a constitutional crisis. New Mexico legislative staff and researchers at the National Council of State Legislatures have been unable to find similar instances in which funding was vetoed for the legislative branch of government.
Martinez also vetoed a bill from the Democrat-led Legislature that would have raised $350 million to slightly bolster government spending, rebuild reserves and pay for road improvements. She has called the proposed tax increases on gasoline, vehicle sales and other transactions reckless and sought further government belt-tightening.
An extraordinary session requires signatures from three-fifths of lawmakers and would need some support from Republican House members who have shown support for the governor’s tax plans.
Plans to take Martinez to court and pursue litigation were discussed behind closed doors in an executive session of 14 members of the Legislative Council, a panel overseeing legislative affairs after the close of the regular 2017 legislative session in March. Approved motions were announced without vote tallies from lawmakers on the council.
Beyond budget issues, the Legislature laid plans to sue the governor over 10 vetoes during that included no initial explanatory message, saying it was denied any opportunity to address concerns through the legislative process.