February 6, 2017

Lawmakers approve money for courts

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. Lawmakers began the 60-day session by taking up a series of bills to balance the budget for the fiscal year that ends in June. Legislators raided the savings accounts of school districts and fire departments lost their up-front funding for major purchases or other expenses.

The bill approved Monday would provide $593,000 to pay jurors, interpreters and expenses for witnesses. That’s less than the $800,000 previously approved by the Legislature, but court administrators say it is enough to carry the justice system through mid-April.

At that point, the courts could receive extra money that the Legislature includes in the state’s annual budget. Lawmakers hope to approve the budget within the month. And judges are counting on them providing even more money to fill a shortage in the court fund that they expect to total $1.6 million.

“Time will be tight but we can make it,” Daniels said of the stopgap measure. “This is not the complete solution.”

Sponsored by Reps. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, and Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, the bill also includes $83,000 to cover a shortfall for payroll at the Supreme Court. Without the money, the court would have to furlough its staff for about nine days before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, Daniels said.

The House’s overwhelming vote on Monday was a stark contrast to the partisan clash that erupted last week when legislators authorized court funding as part of a bill to pay for the legislative session.

House Republicans said court funding should have been considered as separate legislation. Then Martinez killed the court funding in a line-item veto and denounced Democrats for packaging court funding with the bill to finance the session. In a message to lawmakers, Martinez also said she would schedule a meeting of the state Board of Finance to consider the courts’ request for emergency funding and would “work with them to find recurring savings.”

The Board of Finance has called an emergency meeting for Wednesday. But it turned Daniels down when he requested money for the same fund during a meeting in December. Board members told him to ask the Legislature instead.

Daniels said Monday he did not care which entity provided the funding, so long as the courts got it one way or another.

“I don’t care if they give it to me in a tin can,” he said.

But the chief justice added that he believed it would be most appropriate for the Legislature to take on the issue at this point.

Though the funding bill is sponsored by Republicans and its passage through the House comes with support from budget officials in Martinez’s administration, some Democrats still wondered whether the governor will sign it.

“What assurances do we have that this will actually get signed this time?” Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, asked during the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

Gentry replied: “It’s my understanding this figure was acceptable.”

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