February 2, 2017

Governor signs part of bill to pay for legislative session

Andy Lyman

Gov. Susana Martinez delivering the 2017 State of the State Address.

Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday signed an $8.6 million bill to fund the legislative session and provide about 460 employees at the state Capitol with their paychecks this week.

But Martinez also vetoed a portion of the bill that would have supplied emergency funding for the court system, prompting Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Daniels to say there will be no money for jury trials beginning March 1.

“We’re facing requests to dismiss serious criminal cases because we have not been able to provide speedy trials as our constitution requires,” he said.

Martinez’s stinging message to lawmakers explaining her line-item veto on court funding demonstrates how partisan mudslinging has stalled even basic governance during this 60-day session. The funding bill for the legislative session typically is approved and signed as a routine matter, but New Mexico’s financial crisis means this session is anything but ordinary.

Top Democrats criticized the governor’s veto as reckless and irresponsible.

“The coming chaos in our courts system can be placed squarely at the feet of this governor,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in a statement that was unusually harsh for a lawmaker known for being mild-mannered.

Republican Martinez’s veto was just the latest round in her fight with Democratic legislators.

Democrats had added $800,000 to pay for jury trials to a separate bill for funding the Legislature that lawmakers approved last week. But Martinez vetoed that bill entirely, castigating Democrats for leaving out reductions proposed by House Republicans and depicting them as protecting their own budget while making cuts in other areas of state government.

The governor also accused Democrats of using funding for the courts as subterfuge to pass the bill, arguing the judiciary should follow standard practice by seeking additional money through the state’s annual budget.

The latest measure cuts 4 percent from each legislative chamber. It provides about $300,000 less than the bill the governor vetoed. And it leaves out entirely the funding for year-round staff, such as economists and policy analysts, whose salaries will have to be added to another piece of legislation.

Martinez said Thursday that Democrats did not go far enough. But in a message to lawmakers, the governor said she did not want to jeopardize the pay legislative staff employees are expecting this week.

“Despite the lack of leadership and the blatant attempts to mask legislative spending, staff in the legislature deserve to get paid — not used in political games,” she wrote.

The governor said she will call a meeting of the Board of Finance to consider the judiciary’s request for funding to pay jurors and interpreters but members turned down Daniels when he asked for money during a meeting in December.

Martinez, who sits on the board, suggested during the meeting that the courts should cut pay for jurors. And the board said the Legislature should find the money to address the judiciary’s request.

Daniels has said the court system needs about $1.6 million to pay for jurors and interpreters through the end of the fiscal year in June. He said the budget shortage has created a constitutional crisis, and the $800,000 in emergency funding would have provided a stopgap so trials could continue.

Without any additional funding, Daniels said Thursday, “We will have to shut down jury trials despite all those words in the constitution” that guarantee them to criminal defendants and in certain civil cases. Daniels said jury trials would cease next month unless there’s an infusion of money.

Jurors in New Mexico are paid $6.25 an hour, less than minimum wage. Courts already have reduced mileage reimbursements for jurors who drive to court.

Speaking to the Senate Finance Committee about one hour after the governor vetoed the funding, Daniels said it felt like Groundhog Day, referring both to the date as well as a 1993 movie in which a TV weatherman lives the same day over and over.

“We’re not embarrassed. We’ll go back again,” Daniels said of the governor’s directive to seek funding from the Board of Finance.

The board is scheduled to meet Feb. 21.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewboxford.