Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
It wasn’t the bill-killing massacre of last year.
But Gov. Susana Martinez used her veto authority liberally Wednesday, striking down parts of a broad bipartisan crime package and rejecting the entirety of a bill aimed at allowing the state to continue taxing whoever operates Los Alamos National Laboratory, even if a not-for-profit group wins the contract.
Some of the debate may linger well beyond Wednesday, the deadline for signing bills passed in the closing days of the legislative session.
Lawmakers are already reviewing whether Martinez overstepped her authority by vetoing parts of the bipartisan crime bill, which passed both chambers by enormous margins.
In any case, her veto pen wasn’t in danger of running out of ink this year.
Altogether, she vetoed 31 of the 111 bills passed in this year’s legislative session, a rejection rate of 28 percent. She approved all or parts of the other 80 bills.
It was a different story a year ago, when Martinez vetoed more than half the bills passed by lawmakers, even bills that passed without any dissenting votes.
Martinez said Wednesday that much of the Legislature’s work this year was acceptable, though she believes lawmakers didn’t go far enough to address crime.
“I think we could have done more,” she told reporters Wednesday.
New Mexico had the nation’s highest property crime rate and second-highest violent crime rate, after Alaska, in 2016, the last year for which FBI data are available.
Anti-crime bill trimmed
House Bill 19 – the legislation Martinez vetoed parts of – emerged this year as one of the main anti-crime proposals in the Legislature. Democrats and Republicans alike agreed to roll some of their ideas into the bill.
The measure includes tougher penalties for violent felons caught with a firearm, in addition to efforts to help people who cycle in and out of jail as they struggle with mental illness or substance abuse.
It also calls for retention bonuses for veteran police officers.
All those provisions were approved by Martinez on Wednesday.
But in a message to lawmakers, the governor said she was vetoing parts of the proposal that focused on reducing the penalties for some minor offenses.
She objected to a section of the bill that would have reduced penalties for people who fail to show up in court to resolve a citation and a provision that would have prevented the state from suspending someone’s license for failure to pay a penalty assessment.
Martinez accused lawmakers of sticking to the “status quo” on crime.
“I am extremely disappointed that in response to a statewide crisis of violent crime, the Legislature responded by passing a bill that is more concerned with decreasing penalties and eliminating valuable enforcement mechanisms than addressing the significant problems the people elected them to resolve,” Martinez said in an executive message to legislators.
Supporters said the reduced penalties were aimed at allowing prosecutors to focus on more serious crimes.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, has pushed repeatedly for reduced penalties as a way to ease the burden on the legal system.
“Jail is for people we’re scared of, not the people we’re mad at,” Maestas said Wednesday in a written statement. “… When a police officer spends two hours arresting someone for failure to pay fines, that is two hours that officer is not protecting our communities from violent crime.”
Veto dispute over bill
In addition to arguments over the merits of the crime bill, there’s also a question of whether Martinez had authority to issue a partial veto.
The state Constitution empowers Martinez to veto parts of “any bill appropriating money.” It’s generally known as line-item veto authority.
For any other bill, she must approve or reject the legislation in its entirety.
The crime legislation includes a provision allowing cities and local governments to apply for funding to provide $15,000 bonuses to veteran officers approaching retirement as an incentive to stay on. The state would provide half the money.
That triggers Martinez’s line-item veto power, according to her administration.
“The fact that it provides funds for police officers demonstrates she has that authority,” Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, in turn, argues that the bill doesn’t contain an appropriation, meaning she can’t veto just part of the bill.
“We urge our state legislative leaders to study this matter closely and take any action necessary to protect their authority and the separation of powers required by our state Constitution,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico.
Martinez had about 40 bills left to consider this week as Wednesday’s deadline approached.
She didn’t act at all on 22 bills by the deadline, meaning they died by a “pocket veto.” Those are part of 31 vetoes she issued overall.
Among the Wednesday actions, the governor:
• Signed House Bill 98 to consolidate most nonpartisan elections into one day in November.
Albuquerque would be forced to move its October election either back to November – a move that would require dropping a voter-approved photo ID requirement – or to March, when most New Mexico cities have their elections.
• Vetoed Senate Bill 17, which sought to ensure New Mexico could keep levying a tax on contractors that run the state’s national laboratories.
The current operating contract for Los Alamos National Laboratory expires in September, and three university systems are among the groups bidding for a new contract.
That means New Mexico might lose out on $25 million more in annual tax revenue, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill, because not-for-profit groups don’t currently pay gross receipts tax.
Martinez said the Legislature should have passed legislation overhauling New Mexico’s tax system as a whole to make it more fair, instead of taking a “piecemeal” approach.