Politics

Legislators criticized for closed-door vote on vetoes

Martinez spokesman calls meeting height of hypocrisy; Legislators draw criticism for closed-door meeting on vetos

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Both Gov. Susana Martinez and a leading open-government group blasted New Mexico legislators Friday (April 14) for voting behind closed doors this week when they decided to mount a legal challenge to the governor's vetoes of various bills, including her decision to kill funding for higher education, the Legislature and possibly other essential services.

A spokesman for the Legislature's administrative staff says nothing in state law requires legislators to engage in such deliberations in public.

However, Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan asserted in an email, "Whether they followed the law or not, the public deserves to know how their elected officials voted."

Lonergan singled out Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, saying the secret proceedings are frustrating because Wirth "likes to get up on his high horse when it comes to transparency, but when it involves him or his colleagues, suddenly it doesn't apply to them. Not only is it disappointing, but it is the very height of hypocrisy. There is no reason this shouldn't have been an open meeting."

The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government's executive director, Peter St. Cyr, also criticized the lack of transparency, saying, "The decision to sue the governor is a significant action and legislators should not cast their votes in a secret conclave. It's a problem when New Mexicans are excluded from observing the democratic process and leaves them asking questions about how their interests are being represented behind closed doors."

Wirth couldn't be reached for comment Friday evening.

The decision to go to court over the vetoes, which sets up a potential clash between branches of state government over constitutional and other issues, could cost taxpayers tens if not hundreds of thousand dollars. However, so far no one is threatening to take action against the Legislative Council, a committee of legislative leaders that oversees the administration of the legislative branch.

Thursday's votes represent the latest front in the continuing budget war between Republican Martinez and the Democrat-controlled Legislature -- especially the state Senate -- that has been escalating over the past several months as the state has faced harsh choices due to declining revenues and shrinking reserves.

Earlier this week, Raúl Burciaga, executive director of the Legislative Council Service, said nothing in the state's Open Meetings Act prohibits legislators from voting during an executive session. Burciaga also pointed to a legal precedent. In 1994 the state Court of Appeals ruled in a case involving the Luna County Commission that the Open Meetings Act "does not require that a decision regarding litigation be made in an open meeting."

The Legislative Council met behind closed doors for about two hours Thursday to discuss suing the governor for vetoing the entire higher education budget, as well as all funds for the Legislature in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

During the closed-door session the council voted to begin legal proceedings related to those vetoes as well as Martinez's actions on 10 separate bills she rejected during the session. Some lawmakers contend those bills should become law without her signature because she failed to fulfill a requirement to provide an explanation for rejecting the measures.

The body also voted to begin gathering signatures from lawmakers in support of the Legislature calling an "extraordinary" session to deal with the budget. Three-fifths of both the House and the Senate would have to sign a petition in order for the Legislature to convene. Only once before has the New Mexico Legislature called such a session. That was in 2002 when then-Gov. Gary Johnson vetoed the entire state budget.

After Thursday's votes, reporters and other members of the public were allowed back into the committee room at the Capitol where Burciaga read the six motions on which the council had voted and said that each motion had passed. But he didn't say who had voted for which motion or even disclose the vote totals.

Wirth on Thursday told reporters that he had voted for all the motions, but he refused to discuss anyone else's votes. Asked whether any Republican had voted for any of the motions, Wirth declined to answer.

Legislators taking a New Mexico governor to court over vetoes is not new. The results have been mixed.

In 2011, Martinez's first year as governor, the state Supreme Court overturned two of her vetoes.

In one of those cases, the high court ruled that Martinez's line-item veto of a $128 million business tax increase to shore up New Mexico's unemployment compensation fund was unconstitutional because without that revenue the rest of the bill was "unworkable."

Also that year, Martinez had altered an appropriation for oversight of the state's regional housing authorities by crossing out a single numeral, changing the appropriation from $150,000 to $50,000. The court said Martinez could have vetoed the entire $150,000 but didn't have authority to change the number.

In 1988, some Democrats in the Legislature sued then-Gov. Garrey Carruthers, a Republican, over several line-item vetoes in the state budget bill. However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Carruthers.

In 1979, six state senators sued then-Gov. Bruce King over vetoing a so-called "right-to-work" bill that would have prohibited mandatory union fees. The senators said King had sent the wrong copy of the bill to the Senate. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the governor.

But five years earlier, the high court ruled against King in his first term as governor in a case involving line-item vetoes. King had tried to move funds to other areas of spending, which the court determined was not constitutional.

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

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