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.
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.
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.