February 22, 2017

Emergency funding bill for New Mexico courts heads to governor

After weeks of wrangling over emergency funds for New Mexico courts, the Legislature is sending the governor a bill that would provide $1.6 million to cover expenses for the next few months.

The House of Representatives on Tuesday concurred with the Senate’s version of House Bill 261, which, if signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, will pay for jury trials and other costs for courts around the state for the rest of the budget year, which ends on June 30.

The House initially passed a bill appropriating only $800,000, which would cover the cost of jury trials. However, the Senate doubled that amount to cover the judicial branch’s entire shortfall.

House Republican Leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, asked House members to accept the Senate’s changes. Without dissent, the House voted to do so.

Funding the courts has been the subject of a political tug-of-war between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Martinez, unfolding against a backdrop of a state budget crunch. Since the legislative session began last month, Martinez twice has vetoed money intended to avoid a halt to jury trials and potential dismissal of criminal charges against defendants.

But in early February, the state Board of Finance, which is chaired by the governor, approved $600,000 in funding for juries. That money will have to be paid back if Martinez signs HB 261.

Earlier this month, Martinez’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.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics