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Martinez testing her powers

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Governor's moves stretch limits of state Constitution

By Hal Rhodes

Perhaps it is inexperience. Or perhaps she’s simply insensitive to the give and take required in a system of state government where the authority to govern is apportioned between three separate branches of government, legislative, executive and judicial.
Whatever it is, New Mexico’s neophyte Gov. Susana Martinez’s use of the line-item veto to accomplish legislative ends she sought but failed to achieve at the 2011 legislature has key state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle talking about hauling her into court for exceeding her authority under the state Constitution.
There have been a number of instances where her veto practices have struck seasoned observers as constitutionally dubious.
Her line-item veto of a $450,000 legislative appropriation for the Commission on the Status of Women, for example, raised as many questions as it did eyebrows. What was she thinking? Where was she getting her advice?
Martinez had asked the Legislature to abolish that commission. Lawmakers declined to do so, however, whereupon she decided to extinguish the agency on her own initiative by peremptorily vetoing the legislature’s appropriation funding it.
Critics were having none of it, however. Unless statutes establishing an agency like the Commission are legislatively rescinded, they contended, a governor has no authority unilaterally to abolish it by denying the legislatively appropriated funding necessary to sustain its operations.
And it doesn’t end there. Perhaps the most controversial Martinez line-item veto centered on the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority (MFA), the agency with oversight responsibilities for regional housing authorities in the state.
This year the legislature appropriated $150,000 for the MFA. But when the budget came to her desk, Martinez neither vetoed it nor signed it. Instead she basically rewrote the legislation to make it more to her liking.
It’s extraordinary. During the process of drafting a state budget at the 60-day session, lawmakers set the final appropriation for the MFA at $150,000, which is what went to Martinez for approval or for a line-item veto, up or down.
But Martinez apparently didn’t like the either sign-it-or-veto-it option vested in her under the state Constitution, so she gave herself another choice by essentially line-item vetoing the number “l” that preceded the numbers “50,000,” thereby writing her own MFA appropriation of $50,000.
Thus did she almost certainly exceed her authority under the state constitution she swore to uphold on taking office only a few months earlier.
Simply put, under the New Mexico Constitution, the authority to appropriate the money necessary for the operations of state government is vested in the legislature, not the governor. The power of the purse rests with the legislature.
Small wonder top legislators from both parties were demonstrably undone when word of Martinez’s unique embellishment of the line-item veto hit the front pages. But give her credit creativity, however misplaced. To date no one has found any record of a New Mexico governor prior to Martinez ever having tried such a stunt.
And if allowed to stand, it could become “a very dangerous precedent,” said Stuart Ingle, the Senate Republican leader from Portales, of the governor’s efforts to change a legislative appropriation by line-item veto fiat.
Last week when this reporter asked Senate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, a Roswell Democrat, whether Martinez’s veto will be challenged in court, he didn’t miss a beat: “I  imagine. How do you not!?”
Lest it be usurped by the governor, Jennings went on to say, “The legislature almost has to challenge it, because the Legislature has to protect its constitutional authority.”
Newly installed governors often stumble. Susana Martinez, it turns out, is no exception.  
© 2011 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES