A state Senate committee Monday night approved $1.6 million in funding for the courts, enough to pay for jury trials through June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Still, it was unclear whether the legislation represented a temporary or a permanent step back from the brink of a breakdown for the judicial system. The committee action was another pull in a political tug-of-war between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez over funding for the courts. The game is being played out against a backdrop of a state budget crunch across all of government. In recent weeks, Martinez has twice vetoed money to avoid a halt to jury trials and potential dismissal of criminal charges against defendants.
The state House of Representatives rushed Monday evening to approve emergency funding so that New Mexico’s court system would have enough money to pay jurors and interpreters for at least the next two months. The 68-0 vote sends the funding bill to the Senate with the clock ticking on what Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels said could be a breakdown of New Mexico’s justice system. He said the state will be forced to end jury trials March 1 for lack of money. House members approved the bill just days after Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed emergency court funding when Democrats added it to a different bill. Judges and court administrators aren’t the only ones feeling the pain of New Mexico’s cash shortage.
The New Mexico Legislature has been diverting money from a public election fund for years, contrary to the wording of the law that established the fund. Some have blamed the budget situation for the recent necessity for an emergency grant to replenish the fund, but the situation dates back years. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Brad Winter sent letters to candidates who opted for public financing to inform them that their public financing would be reduced, citing the “current economic climate” and a negative budget. New Mexico’s limited public finance law—it only applies to Public Regulation Commission and judicial candidates—allows for a reduction in disbursements if there is a shortfall. While the economy may have been to blame for a negative overall budget, a closer look revealed that the New Mexico legislature used funds designated for public financing to pad general election funds—and Gov. Susana Martinez approved this.