Bill to protect tax revenue from lab gets vetoed by gov.

Martinez: Measure to ensure nonprofit LANL operator pays GRT poorly-crafted

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Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed legislation Wednesday that would have ensured state and local governments would not lose tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue if a nonprofit university takes over operations of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Senate Bill 17 might have been one of the more wonkish bills of the 30-day legislative session that ended last month, but its backers argued the measure could be key to funding government services in Los Alamos and other parts of Northern New Mexico after management of the national laboratory changes hands later this year.

The bill, which passed both chambers of the Legislature on bipartisan votes, was just one of several Martinez vetoed or signed Wednesday, the deadline for her to act on bills passed during the session.

Martinez was poised last year to claim from one of her predecessors, Gary Johnson, the mantle of "Governor No" for her liberal use of the veto pen. But this year, with the session focusing primarily on the state budget and a slate of bipartisan legislation, there was not nearly as much for the outgoing governor to nix.

Martinez signed a bill that will allow consolidation of nonpartisan local elections, such as for school boards, hospital districts and, potentially, some town governments. The governor signed, too, a bill that will change the state's lottery scholarship program to provide college students with a flat amount of funding rather than a percentage of their in-state tuition.

Proponents of the scholarship measure, including university leaders and some student groups, had argued it would help control rising tuition costs at state schools.

Legislation Martinez left unsigned Wednesday was automatically vetoed, including a measure providing tax credits for households and small businesses that install solar panels.

Los Alamos

With several universities eyeing the contract to manage Los Alamos National Laboratory, concerns emerged among policymakers that local governments stand to lose a vital source of tax revenue.

The Los Alamos lab is now managed by a consortium that includes the University of California and the for-profit company Bechtel, as well as other corporations. Because the consortium includes for-profit firms, it is required to pay the state's gross receipts tax.

But nonprofit organizations are not required to pay the tax, which could lead to Los Alamos County and the state losing tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue if a university is awarded the lab contract.

In vetoing SB 17, Martinez wrote that it was "poorly-crafted tax policy."

She argued the loss would be less than expected because subcontractors working at the lab likely would be taxed.

And requiring a nonprofit to pay a tax that it currently is not required to pay could cost the state jobs and put New Mexico at a competitive disadvantage, she wrote.

The governor also suggested lawmakers should have ended the tax exemption for nonprofits altogether rather than creating legislation that only affected contractors at the lab and similar facilities.

Ultimately, Martinez raised a recurring grievance of lawmakers and the governor alike: that the Legislature had not passed a broader overhaul of the state's tax code.

"It's just a very sorry excuse for devastating a local government," said Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Democrat from Questa who co-sponsored the bill.

Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat from Los Alamos, said the veto left her community "in limbo."

Public safety

Fail to pay a fine for not maintaining working windshield wipers, and the state can suspend your driver's license.

That practice could have ended under a bipartisan public safety bill approved during the session.

But Martinez, in signing the bill, used her veto pen to keep that policy in law.

She argued that ending the ability to suspend driver's licenses in some cases would hamper the ability to enforce state laws.

Criminal justice reform advocates have argued, however, that the practice disproportionately punishes the poor, who are less able to pay monetary fines and may have limited means of transportation.

The governor's line-item veto raised an interesting, if arcane, question about her authority.

Typically, the governor cannot use veto power to change the meaning of a bill and can only line-item veto a piece of legislation -- or strike part of it -- when the measure involves spending.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, which had supported the crime bill, suggested lawmakers consider whether to sue over the partial veto.

"We were pleased to see the governor finally sign a public safety bill that contained smart criminal justice reform," Executive Director Peter Simonson said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the governor struck some of the most important components of this bipartisan legislation, and in doing so, we have very serious concerns that she may have violated the New Mexico Constitution."

The bill had won backing from an unlikely coalition.

Designed to advance a few ideas on public safety from the left and right, it will toughen penalties for violent felons caught with a firearm while ensuring many nonviolent, minor offenses, such as cruising, are no longer punishable with jail time. The bill also appropriates several thousand dollars to provide bonuses for senior police officers, expands behavioral health services for jail inmates and stiffens the rules for drunken drivers seeking to have an ignition interlock device removed from their vehicles.

Elections

Vote early and vote less often. That is the idea behind a bill the governor signed Wednesday that will consolidate local elections, such as school board and hospital district races, on a single day in the November of odd-numbered years.

Town governments may opt in, too, cutting down on what is now a seemingly never-ending cycle of elections for all manner of local boards.

Backers, including Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, argue the move will ensure more voters participate in decision-making that can affect their schools, environment and taxes.

"Consolidating nonpartisan local elections reduces confusion and election fatigue for voters, and will lead to increased voter participation in local elections," Toulouse Oliver said in a statement.

Solar energy

Legislation the governor did not sign by the deadline Wednesday died by what is known as a pocket veto, or an automatic veto.

That was the case with a proposal to renew tax credits for homes and small businesses to install solar panels.

Martinez has been cool to such proposals in the past.

Backers had argued the measure was key to supporting the solar energy industry, especially as the federal government adopts tariffs on imported solar panels that are expected to raise the price of such technology for the average consumer.

Some solar energy companies backing Senate Bill 79, sponsored by Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, warned that Martinez's pocket veto of the measure might force them to lay off staff.

Infrastructure

Martinez signed off on this year's round of capital outlay spending, which totaled nearly $180 million in funds for projects around the state. But she scolded legislators for some spending.

She vetoed a long list of expenses, ranging from $50,000 for a bust of a Hispanic Civil War hero to $275,000 for docks on a lake near Dexter and $73,000 for a sound system at The University of New Mexico's baseball facilities.

Martinez also nixed language that would have allowed for some funding to be used for playgrounds at nearly two dozen sites around the state. That action drew criticism from Rep. Matthew McQueen.

"The Governor goes on a veto rampage against children's playgrounds. Why?" tweeted McQueen, a Democrat from Galisteo. "Construction of playgrounds creates work as much as any other capital construction project, even if in smaller units, and has lasting benefits for the health and wellbeing of our kids."

Contact Andrew Oxford at

505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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