March 9 was a deadline for Gov. Susana Martinez. That was her last day to either sign into law measures passed in the recently adjourned legislative session or kill them off with a veto.
According to nmpoliticalreport.com, 101 bills were passed during the session that ended a month ago. Among the meatier measures to make it to the governor’s desk for her signature:
• A $6.4 billion state budget, trimmed down because of a serious drop in oil and gas tax revenues.
• Compromise legislation that creates a bifurcated approach to the issuing of state driver’s licenses, which finally puts the state in compliance with REAL ID standards.
• Three bills providing nearly $385 million in capital project funding around the state—most, but not all, of which was approved by the stroke of a gubernatorial pen. (We’ll get back to that one shortly.)
I think those were the three most significant accomplishments for the session, but of course, a lot of other bills didn’t make it this session. Anti-crime bills and job-creating proposals, in particular, fell by the wayside, leading to a lot of partisan crossfire that will surely resurface in this year’s legislative races around the state.
A lot of bills are introduced in an election year not for passage but for campaign fodder. It’s the nature of the political beast, and this year, we’re staring at a monster in the making.
Then there were the gubernatorial vetoes. Two in particular especially drew the ire of state Democrats. One was Senate Bill 36, which would have required the state health department to publish a report at the end of each year on how many New Mexicans with disabilities are waiting for services.
That seems simple and straightforward, and it sailed through both the House and Senate, before Martinez vetoed it. She said that since the health department is already able to provide this information, “mandating yet another annual report in state law is unnecessary.”
But according to a news release from Senate Democrats, the waiting list for people with developmental disabilities has grown 44 percent under the Martinez administration, and the report would help bring the problem to light among lawmakers and the public. The veto was “insensitive,” the release said.
Another veto the Democrats blasted was regarding SB 210, which would have created a fund to pay for Spanish-English interpreters in court. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mimi Stewart, said the fund is needed to ensure that “everyone, regardless of language spoken, has equal access to the courts,” but Martinez nixed the bill, saying such funds should continue to come out of the Administrative Office of the Courts general operating budget.
In the end, it was the governor’s line-item vetoes that really stirred things up. As Martinez signed three bills to fund capital projects around the state, she also slashed, line by line, more than 150 projects, while lashing out at lawmakers for the way they approach such spending.
In all, she cut about $20 million in proposed funding, from projects as large as $8 million, for a new health education building at the University of New Mexico’s Rio Rancho campus, and as small as a $5,000 request for band instruments at Robertson High School in Las Vegas.
Her executive message was scathingly critical of the lawmakers’ process of selecting its capital expenditures.
“During this session, legislators grossly increased their pork barrel spending, chose to spend the money in a number of irresponsible ways, concealed their individual appropriation decisions from the public, slipped unapproved and un-vetted projects into the capital bills, rejected reform of any sort to the capital outlay process, and ignored a problem that is going to lead to even less money being available for infrastructure projects in the future,” Martinez said in her message.
Two things about Martinez’ scathing criticism: One is, she’s right. The current process for selecting capital projects for funding is about as pork barrel as it can be, but a lot of lawmakers aren’t the least bit inclined to change it. They’d rather stick with a politically tainted process than run the risk of bringing home a little less bacon next time around.
And two: Martinez’s diatribe against the current process being used is setting the stage for another round, in next year’s legislative session. Expect the issue to resurface at that time, with an even louder call for reform.
Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.