March 15, 2017

Unexplained vetoes rile lawmakers

Gov. Susana Martinez

Gov. Susana Martinez on Wednesday vetoed six bills that cleared the Legislature with overwhelming support, rankling lawmakers who complained that she never explained any of her decisions.

Martinez’s own tone was equally sharp when she called a Senate override of one of her vetoes a stunt, even though that challenge to her was initiated by a fellow Republican.

But when it came to issuing veto messages, Martinez didn’t give legislators any idea of why she rejected bills ranging from an uncontroversial proposal that would have given local governments a new option to pay for expanding broadband networks to arcane changes in horse-racing regulations. Spokesmen for the governor did not respond Wednesday to repeated requests for comment.

Related: Senate votes to override Martinez veto on teacher absences bill

The day before Martinez spiked the six bills, the Senate voted 34-7 across party lines to override her veto of a bill to let teachers use more sick days without being downgraded on their performance evaluation. The Senate’s action was the first time either legislative body had overturned a veto by Martinez in her six-plus years in office.

Some lawmakers saw Martinez’s vetoes as retaliation for the override.

“I think I started a landslide,” said Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, who led the override.

Brandt was unapologetic, saying his decision was a way to fight for teachers and to exercise of the Senate’s constitutional powers.

“It was not meant as a slap in the face” to Martinez, he said.

Until recently, Martinez typically had supplied written messages that explained her reasons for vetoing bills. In some instances, her messages were detailed.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said Martinez’s new practice of vetoing bills without any explanation leaves legislators without a sense of what they could do to satisfy her criticisms or concerns. Cervantes also wondered aloud if Martinez was focusing on the merits of legislation or something more personal.

Related: Gov. vetoes computer science bill

Martinez has clashed with the Democrat-controlled Senate throughout her time as governor. Though she and fellow Republicans succeeded last year in unseating her archenemy, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, Democrats actually increased their majority in the Senate and regained control of the House of Representatives.

Bad feelings between legislators and Martinez seemed to reach a new high Wednesday, and this time Brandt and other members of her own party were not on the sidelines.

The friction began in the first stages of the 60-day legislative session, when Martinez vetoed funding for the Legislature. She accused Democratic senators of failing to sufficiently cut their own budget while exacting cuts across state government.

The governor and her staff since have castigated Senate Democrats as slow to hold hearings for a long list of her appointees awaiting confirmation. In a direct challenge to the Senate’s role as a check and balance on her authority, Martinez tried to withdraw most of her appointees awaiting confirmation hearings while keeping them in their posts. Senators have continued with confirmation hearings and votes, on Wednesday approving three of her choices for the Western New Mexico University Board of Regents.

Now Martinez also is battling with Republicans as the session draws to a close.

Brandt on Tuesday led the Senate’s override of her veto of the bill that would have allowed teachers up to 10 sick days each year without being penalized. It is unclear if the House will follow suit, but the Senate’s action irked Martinez. Aides were quick to accuse the Senate of pulling a political stunt.

Martinez wrote on her Facebook page the override occurred because senators want a food tax that she won’t accept, a claim that is not true. Senators have not pushed for a tax on food, and the budget they approved never contained any such provision.

The string of unexplained vetoes by Martinez started Tuesday and escalated the next day.

Perhaps most surprising was her veto of Senate Bill 24, which backers said could boost efforts to crate jobs with expanded broadband access.

“After hearing the news that New Mexico has the highest unemployment in the nation, it’s hard to imagine why Gov. Martinez would stand in the way of our cities’ and counties’ efforts to bring high-speed internet that would attract needed jobs and support local small businesses,” Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said Wednesday in a statement.

The broadband bill, which Padilla co-sponsored with Rep. Jim Smith, R-Sandia Park, had received bipartisan support. It passed the House 62-0 and the Senate 37-1.

The measure would have expanded the scope of special tax districts that communities can form to fund brick-and-mortar projects such as roads and electricity systems. Under the bill, they could have used their tax revenue to build broadband networks, too.

The idea was uncontroversial, and the bill’s backers said it would be a step toward improving internet speed and drawing businesses that demand high bandwidth. Supporters pointed to data from organizations such as the internet service company Akamai, which found New Mexico’s average internet speeds are among the slowest in the nation.

Martinez also vetoed the following bills, all of which passed the Legislature overwhelmingly:

  • Senate Bill 64, sponsored by Albuquerque Democrat Mimi Stewart, to continue a state program that provides funding for technology upgrades in public schools.
  • A bill changing the criteria for scholarships awarded to medical students who promise to practice in underserved areas. House Bill 126 would have allowed graduates of private colleges to have the same chance at scholarships as graduates of public universities. Sponsored by Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, the bill would also have given preference to students from schools in New Mexico.
  • An arcane measure, Senate Bill 356, sponsored by Santa Fe Democrat Nancy Rodriguez, dealing with the paperwork filed by special tax districts.
  • Senate Bill 184, an update to the rules for horse-racing licenses. The sponsor, Democratic Sen. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, across the years had helped Martinez with certain causes. Papen, for instance, was one of five Democrats who voted to confirm Hanna Skandera as public education secretary, putting her over the top.
  • Senate Bill 222, sponsored by Cerrillos Democrat Liz Stefanics. It changed the definition of “political subdivision,” cutting the number of entities under the oversight of a watchdog office in the Department of Finance and Administration.

And on Tuesday, the governor vetoed without explanation a bill that would have allowed high school students to count computer science classes toward the course credits they need to graduate. It passed by a wide margin and with the support of business groups. The governor also vetoed a minor change in the process for creating special tax districts.

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