Politics Zeroes Out New Mexico’s Higher Education Budget

SANTA FE, N.M. (CN) — In a continuing political struggle, the bipartisan New Mexico Legislative Council has sued Gov. Susana Martinez, claiming the Republican governor’s line-item vetoes of the entire budget for the Legislature and higher education is unconstitutional.

The request for original writ of mandamus in the New Mexico Supreme Court claims Martinez is seeking “to eviscerate the ability of the other branch [of government] to perform its essential functions.”

Martinez’s defunding of all higher education in New Mexico is payback for the state Senate’s refusal to approve her candidates for regents of the University of New Mexico, the Legislative Council says in the April 21 filing.

Martinez said in an executive message when signed the state’s appropriation bill that the Legislature “refused to bear their fair share of the burden” of budget cuts, increasing its own budget while refusing to appropriate it specifically and by category.

As for vetoing the funding for the state’s universities, Martinez said, “the funding for our higher education institutions and the confirmation of well-qualified regents can be addressed in the upcoming special session.”

Martinez’s spokesman Michael Lonergan called the lawsuit “an attempt to bully” the governor.  “They’re suing the governor because they want to raise taxes, and she’s the only one standing in their way,” Lonergan said.

But in an affidavit accompanying the lawsuit, David Abbey, director of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, said the Legislature’s budget for higher education was only about $51,000 more than Martinez recommended, an increase of less than 0.007 percent.

And a letter from the New Mexico Council of University Presidents states that the cuts to higher education constitute 44 percent of the cuts in the entire budget, while higher education accounts for only 12.8 percent of state spending.

The Legislative Council says the vetoes were an unconstitutional attempt to disable the Legislature and eliminate one branch of government entirely.

“Governor Martinez’s attempt to eliminate the funding for, and the ability of, a co-equal branch of government to perform their essential functions constitutes a violation of separation of powers,” the complaint states.

It asks the supreme court to invalidate the vetoes and to restore funding to the Legislature and state universities.

The Legislative Council is represented by Thomas Hnasko with Hinkle Shanor in Santa Fe.

Martinez’s spokesman Lonergan called the lawsuit “disappointing, because it shows a refusal to compromise, as this is nothing but an attempt to bully her by short-circuiting the legislative process before a special session.”

No date has been set for the expected special session.

Martinez has until May 5 to file a response, and the New Mexico Council of University Presidents is invited to file an amicus curiae brief.

The state supreme court will hear oral arguments on May 15.

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