March 21, 2017

Status of some bills still in limbo while special session looms

Andy Lyman

Susana Martinez during the 2016 State of the State Address.

A handful of bills passed by both the state Senate and House of Representatives continue to sit in limbo. Normally, those bills would be signed or vetoed by the governor. Instead, their fate likely lies with the judicial branch.

The head of the Legislative Council Service (LCS), the nonpartisan administrative arm of the state Legislature, said he and his staff suggested to lawmakers and the secretary of state that some vetoed bills should actually be chaptered. Chaptering, or printing, the bills is typically the first step to writing them into state statute.

LCS Director Raúl Burciaga told NM Political Report the process began when staff and legislators challenged the legality of some of Gov. Susana Martinez’s vetoes during the recently adjourned legislative session.

“We were asked by a number of legislators to look at that,” Burciaga said.

According to state law, LCS is bound to confidentiality for much of its work, so Burciaga would not say exactly who brought the concerns to his office. But he did say they came from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

The LCS, Burciaga said, consulted with their private legal counsel, who then  determined that Martinez did not give adequate or timely explanations for why she vetoed six bills in one day.

The LCS then recommended that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver chapter those six bills.

In an earlier statement, a Secretary of State spokesman said the office will not issue chapter numbers until directed to do so by a judge.

It’s unclear who might start the legal proceedings.

Spokesmen for Martinez did not respond to an email from NM Political Report inquiring whether her office would take action. But a Martinez spokesman did tell the Santa Fe New Mexican Martinez’s vetoes are valid and therefore the bills are not law.

Burciaga said his office researched previous vetoes and could not find a comparable situation in New Mexico. He added that this legislative session was “a little unusual” as the Legislature passed more bills earlier in the session than usual.

Something similar has happened in other states.

In 1992, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the governor at the time did not issue an adequate explanation for a number of vetoes, making his action invalid. In that case the Colorado legislature took the first legal step to challenge the governor’s vetoes.

Special Session Questions

Meanwhile, some key lawmakers said they still haven’t heard from Martinez’s office about the specifics of a possible special session.

Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said he last heard from Martinez’s office about an hour before the legislative session ended last Saturday.

“I was approached by the administration, one of her staff members,” Smith said. “Wanting to get together and talk tax legislation.”

Smith said he hasn’t heard from Martinez’s office since then, but added that the governor may be jumping the gun on announcing her intention for a special session.

“The bills aren’t even up to her [desk] yet,” Smith said Tuesday morning.

Of a possible special session, Smith said “it needs to not happen.”

He added that the Legislature included enough revenues in the budget they passed, which included a solvency package to balance the state’s revenue shortfall.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, told NM Political Report he wasn’t ready to speculate or offer opinions on the merits of a special session.

“It depends on what’s signed and what isn’t,” Ingle said.

Ingle cited some of the revenues in the proposed budget as a possible linchpin to keep legislators  from reporting back to Santa Fe.

“If those are signed, we may not need a special session,” Ingle said.

If a special session does happen, Ingle and Smith agreed the best plan of action is for lawmakers and the governor to agree on a new budget before Martinez calls lawmakers back.

Smith said the longer special sessions he’s witnessed lacked one thing.

“There was no meeting of the minds beforehand,” Smith said.

Ingle said if an agreement is made before the governor calls special session, “[The Legislature] could be in and out in two hours.”