February 14, 2017

Panel approves money for jury trials

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. But last week, the Board of Finance, which is chaired by Martinez, approved $600,000 in funding for juries.

The $600,000, however, is only enough to pay for jury trials through mid-April, according to officials with the judiciary, who say another $1 million is needed to cover juries from mid-April through June.

If the judiciary were to eventually receive the $1.6 million, it would have to pay back the $600,000 approved by the Board of Finance, which expressed concern about tapping its pot of emergency reserves if the Legislature were to also approve funding.

House Minority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the administration is still vetting the judiciary’s request for funding. He asked senators to hold off on proposing a big infusion of cash until the governor’s staff agreed on a number.

Gentry is co-sponsoring the legislation, House Bill 261, to fund the courts but had written it to provide $800,000, a version of the bill that has already been approved by the House.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to double the amount in the bill, to $1.6 million.

Last week, the governor’s top budget official would not say under questioning before the House Appropriations and Finance Committee how much money she believes the courts will require to pay for trials through the end of June.

But with the court system having presented its request months ago, some senators argued Monday evening before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the committee should act quickly as the first half of the legislative session nears its end.

Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, pushed to change Gentry’s bill to meet the court system’s entire shortfall, describing the courts as having been bandied about.

“The only thing the chief justice (Charles Daniels) hasn’t done is go to Chimayo on his knees,” he said, referring to the Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Northern New Mexico.

The funding legislation heads next to the Senate Finance Committee.

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