The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a 3-2 decision that the state Legislature can hold a special session without allowing in-person attendance from the public.
The decision was a result of a petition filed on behalf of a long list of state lawmakers by Albuquerque-based attorney Blair Dunn. The petitioners argued that this week’s special legislative session should be physically open to the public, not just online. With the backdrop of the current COVID-19 pandemic, legislative leadership announced earlier this month that the state capitol building would be closed to the public, with some exceptions for members of the press.
The high court issued a written order, but no written opinion. Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, the only Republican on the court sided with Justices Barbara Vigil and Michael Vigil. Justices Shannon Bacon and David Thomson dissented.
Gov. Susana Martinez met with legislative leaders Friday morning to discuss a budget fix ahead of the upcoming special session scheduled to start next Wednesday. Martinez’s spokesman, in a statement, called the meeting “productive” and said the governor is confident her office would come to an agreement on funding the coming fiscal year, “including funding for higher education.”
“The Governor reiterated that she will not support standalone tax increases, but is hopeful that we will be able to find a bipartisan path forward on tax reform,” spokesman Michael Lonergan said. The statement potentially leaves room for tax increases as a part of a comprehensive tax overhaul similar to what state Rep. Jason Harper, R-Rio Rancho, spearheaded during the recent general legislative session. Martinez last week told the Santa Fe New Mexican that she would support reinstating the food tax as part of such a reform—a marked contrast from even just two months ago when she vowed to “definitely veto every tax increase on my desk.”
State House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, however, told NM Political Report that “there is still tremendous uncertainty about what sort of tax reform proposal is going to be offered during the [special] session.”
Egolf described the meeting with Martinez as “a first crack” at agreeing to a budget solution. “It wasn’t really a horse trading kind of thing,” Egolf said.
Gov. Susana Martinez officially issued the proclamation for a special session, less than 24 hours before legislators are scheduled to gather to discuss a solution to the state’s large budget deficit and other issues Martinez placed on the call. In addition to filling the budget deficit, Martinez will allow legislators to discuss legislation to reinstate the death penalty for certain crimes, expand the state’s three strike law and life imprisonment for intentional child abuse resulting in the death of a child. Legislators can only discuss items Martinez puts on the call during a special session. The special session is necessary to deal with a nearly $600 million budget deficit from this year and a recently-completed budget year. Legislators and the governor are required by the state constitution to balance the budget each year.
There isn’t a date for the special session yet, but one non-profit that says increasing an alcohol excise tax increase can help solve the budget deficit is stepping up efforts to get it on the session’s agenda. Dr. Peter DeBenedittis, director of Alcohol Taxes Save Lives and Money, hand-delivered a letter to the governor’s office in Santa Fe asking that she put the proposal on the agenda for a special session. A special session is necessary to deal with a budget deficit nearing $500 million. Spokesmen for Gov. Susana Martinez’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment. Her public information officers typically do not respond to requests for comment from NM Political Report.
Gov. Susana Martinez will call the Legislature into a special session, likely next month, to deal with the state’s massive budget problems.
The Associated Press reported the news Thursday, the first time the governor put any sort of time frame on the session. She told the wire service the special session would likely take place next month. Martinez and others say they prefer a short special session—likely one that takes just hours—to save on the costs. This means the discussions on how to deal with the budget deficit will largely take place behind the scenes, without public input or transparency. At issue is that New Mexico’s revenue plummeted along with the prices of oil and gas, which New Mexico depends on to balance the budget.
There’s still no word on if or when Gov. Susana Martinez will call a special session to address the state’s money shortfall, but one nonprofit group wants lawmakers to consider a tax increase on alcohol sales as a way to increase state revenues. Peter DeBenedittis, director of the group Alcohol Taxes Save Lives & Money said he’s been speaking with lawmakers as he tries to increase taxes on alcohol sales in order to supplement public substance abuse treatment programs. While DeBenedittis said he has been working with lawmakers for a while, he wants to gain support from the general public now. “Were just trying to start the conversation publicly,” DeBenedittis said of the campaign. Key players in the legislature said in recent weeks there is a need to shore up the state budget before the next regular session in January. DeBenedittis said the state can save serious money by holding those who abuse alcohol accountable for treatment costs.
One group that advocates for transparency in government doesn’t like the talk about legislators and the executive branch crafting a budget ahead of a potential special session. At least, not if it takes back room talks to make the deal go through. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government says the process of building a deal on the state budget should be done transparently. Legislators and Gov. Susana Martinez cite the cost of a special session, tens of thousands of dollars per day, as a reason to have a deal in place before legislators meet. “FOG is sympathetic to the cost of a special session, but these critical budgetary decisions cannot be made behind closed doors,” Gregory P. Williams, president of the FOG Board of Directors, said in a statement.
Reports indicate that Gov. Susana Martinez is considering calling the Legislature into a special session to deal with what looks like a large shortfall in the state’s budget. The news comes nearly a week after Senate Finance Committee Chair John Arthur Smith said a special session would be needed. Smith made the comments during a legislative interim committee. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Martinez has been “working for weeks with executive agencies and a key legislative committee” on how to deal with the shortfall. Smith, a Democrat from Deming, said he spoke to Martinez’s staff about the need for a special session.
Democratic lawmakers felt the brunt of Gov. Susana Martinez’s 42 capital outlay project vetoes, with 27 of those projects sponsored solely by Democrats. But Martinez did veto some GOP projects, including three Albuquerque projects advocated by House Majority Leader Nate Gentry. A key aspect of the capital outlay appropriation process involves lawmakers recommending local projects on behalf of their constituents. Only a fraction of the projects make it into the bill, when legislators must choose how to allocate their share of the bond money. The $294 million bill included $84 million for lawmaker projects, divided equally between the House and Senate, then divided equally between the lawmakers in each body.
Gov. Susana Martinez signed capital outlay legislation that funded nearly $300 million for infrastructure and other projects on Wednesday, though she did make some cuts. In all, Martinez used her line-item veto authority to cut 41 programs from counties around the state and one statewide project. Martinez vetoed around $1.1 million in funding. She explained her decision-making process, somewhat, in her executive message on the bill where she outlined the vetoes:
In deciding whether to sign or veto projects, I balanced various features of each project (given the information to which I had access) against a set of criteria that should guide the use of capital outlay funds. Let me be clear: every project in this legislation likely has merit.