SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Legislature sued Republican Gov. Susana Martinez on Friday over budget vetoes that would effectively eliminate the legislative branch of government by cutting off its funding amid an escalating clash over how to resolve the state's financial crisis.
The move by the Democratic-controlled Legislature was an extraordinary step in a drawn-out feud over budget shortfalls that already have triggered cuts to public school athletic programs, layoffs at state museums and shortages of public defenders. Without a compromise, New Mexico runs the risk of closing down its Statehouse and crippling university teaching and research programs for agriculture, medicine and oil exploration, along with specialty schools for the blind and deaf.
The Legislature on Friday petitioned the New Mexico Supreme Court to rescind Martinez's line-item vetoes on spending that it says would "effectively abolish" state institutions of higher education and upset the balance of powers between branches of government outlined in the state's constitution.
In mid-March, lawmakers sent Martinez a $6.1 billion budget package that would slightly boost spending and includes several tax increases — something she firmly opposes. She responded this month, issuing line-item vetoes that defunded the Legislature and cut $745 million in annual general fund spending to state universities, community colleges and specialty schools.
She wants lawmakers to reconvene to endorse a new budget with similar spending levels that avoid tax increases by reducing state contributions to worker pensions, eliminating spending on infrastructure and wiping away decades of tax breaks that benefit nonprofits and special business interests.
Thomas Hnasko, a contract attorney for the Legislature who worked on the lawsuit, said the governor's unprecedented vetoes conflict with constitutional provisions establishing the Legislature and other state institutions.
"She can't defund the Legislature, any more than the Legislature can defund the executive or the judicial branch of government," he said. "There hasn't been this type of overreach that has been reported in the case law."
The lawsuit says the governor's actions violate "principles of separation of powers and the checks and balances on which our system of representative democracy has been based since 1911."
Martinez believes the line-item budget vetoes are within her responsibility to approve a balanced budget, and clarified this week that she has every intention of funding state universities once lawmakers return to the state capital.
"It's not just the Legislature that calls the shots," said Michael Lonergan, a spokesman for Martinez, in an email. "She was forced to set aside higher education funding because the Legislature failed to pass a balanced budget that doesn't raise taxes on New Mexicans."
A face-to-face meeting last week between the governor and two top Democrats — the House speaker and Senate majority leader — yielded no compromises. Democratic lawmakers say they still are waiting on Martinez to outline her recipe for a balanced budget in more detail, while pursuing every available legal option.
"We have to get a decision (from the court) on whether or not it is constitutionally permissible for one branch of government to abolish another," said Rep. Brian Egolf, the House speaker. "We feel good that the Constitution is on our side."
The Legislature can override vetoes with a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber. Republicans, who make up the minority in the House, appear reluctant to support any override.
In drawn-out budget standoffs in other states, courts have been called on to determine what core functions of government have to be financed, said Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
She was unable to find instances in which an entire legislative budget was vetoed. An attempt in Illinois by then-Gov. Pat Quinn to completely withhold legislator pay in 2013 was struck down in the courts as unconstitutional. This year, lawmakers in Montana rejected an amendatory veto that attempted to reduce legislative expenses.
In all, the New Mexico vetoes would halt $2.9 billion in spending on higher education by also de-authorizing expenditures of federal grants and money from the state's main $15 billion sovereign wealth fund. Martinez cut out the Legislature's $18 million annual operating budget that goes toward year-round staff that help write legislation and evaluate the performance of most state agencies.
During a 60-day legislative session concluding in March, lawmakers balked at many cost-saving suggestions from the governor. Leading Democrats and Republicans are at odds on how to proceed with a tax code overhaul that might shore up state revenues by doing away with hundreds of tax credits, deductions and exemptions. Martinez vetoed a proposal to gradually phase out tax breaks and create a new rainy-day reserve fund and wants a more aggressive approach.
The higher-education vetoes have sent shock waves through the state university system, igniting fears that prospective students may enroll elsewhere for the fall and concerns about retaining talented faculty.