January 30, 2017

Lawmakers approve new bill to fund session

Laura Paskus

Three days after Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed funding for the Legislature, lawmakers on Monday approved another measure to pay for the 60-day session and provide emergency cash to pay jurors in the state’s court system.

Martinez’s veto demonstrated how even a routine bill that usually passes unanimously at the beginning of each legislative session could become mired in partisan politics this year.

Unclear is whether Martinez will sign the latest bill. If she does, it would hearten employees at the Capitol who are expecting a paycheck at the end of this week.

But the Senate stripped funding from the bill to pay for the Legislature’s year-round operations, meaning it also unclear whether cuts might still be in store for the offices responsible for analyzing bills, tracking state finances and serving as a watchdog on government.

The Senate approved the latest bill with bipartisan support, favoring it 35-5. The House concurred with a voice vote that seemed to go along party lines.

The measure provides about $8.6 million for the cost of the 60-day session, cutting 4 percent from each legislative chamber. It’s about $300,000 less than the bill the governor vetoed. She has three days to act on the new proposal.

Martinez last week castigated Democrats for approving a bill to finance the session without the cuts proposed by Republicans and accepted unanimously by the House of Representatives earlier this month.

House Republicans said the Legislature should reduce its budget as it also slashes spending around state government. But the Senate did not take up the House bill. Instead, it approved a separate bill that did not include cuts, though it would have funded the Legislature at a lower level than in 2015, the last 60-day session.

Martinez described the addition of funding for the state’s courts and adult protective services to the Senate bill as “cynical and disturbing,” suggesting the judiciary was adequately financed.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, countered that the governor’s veto message was political rhetoric.

“We can throw a match on it or step back and let it roll like water off a duck’s back,” Smith said as the Senate took up the revised bill on Monday.

Staffers said the pay period ended Friday and they expect to be paid at the end of this week. That gave the Legislature until midweek to find a solution, according to Senate staff.

New Mexico legislators are the only ones in America who do not receive a base salary. Their stipend for expenses while on official business is $164 a day.

Debate was far more subdued on Monday than last week. Republicans still opposed adding emergency funding for the courts to a bill intended to pay for the legislative session. But Democrats said it was the fastest way to ensure that the justice system has money to pay jurors, though they dropped a proposal that passed last week to include funds to prevent furloughs in the state supreme court and fill a shortfall in the adult protective services program.

A few Democrats in the Senate argued that the bill would still allow for House staffers to keep raises they received under the former Republican majority.

“It’s unfortunate that through this dialogue there are some positions getting increases while everyone else is taking a haircut,” said Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales.

House Republicans said the Senate’s insistence on passing a funding bill that adjusted the House’s spending and ignored its recommendations trampled the chamber’s very purpose.

“I do believe that going forward we need to assert our authority as a body and as a co-equal branch of the Legislature,” said House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.