There has been considerable interest from a few Democratic legislators regarding “line-item” or partial vetoes by Gov. Susana Martinez to bills appropriating money during the last legislative session. In one case, the governor vetoed a $128 million tax increase on New Mexico businesses. In the other, she trimmed $100,000 from a housing oversight program. These Democratic legislators have filed lawsuits to restore the spending and enact higher taxes they approved. Their claim is false that the vetoes are unconstitutional and unprecedented, and their trip to the Supreme Court could make it more expensive to hire workers in New Mexico.
The $128 million unemployment compensation tax hike was included in a bill that appropriates money from the unemployment compensation fund for benefit payments. As with any appropriations bill, the governor holds constitutional authority to disapprove any provision she finds is not in New Mexico’s best interest.
Equally important, Martin-ez’s unemployment compensation tax veto closely resembles a 2010 veto by Gov. Bill Richardson of the so-called “tortilla tax.” In each case, the state’s chief executive rejected a tax that was deemed unnecessary and burdensome in bills that appropriated money for particular purposes.
Democratic legislators who are now suing to raise taxes on businesses were quiet as mice when Richardson vetoed a similar tax increase.
The other partial veto making news is Martinez’s decision to strike part of a $150,000 appropriation for regional housing authority oversight. The governor cut it to $50,000.
This veto was consistent with recognized purposes of the partial veto authority, including prevention of hasty and ill-conceived legislation. The Legislature tried to boost funding for regional housing oversight by 420 percent for the next fiscal year. With state agencies, state employees and taxpayers asked to “do more with less,” no aspect of the state budget deserves a 420 percent increase. The governor’s partial veto eliminated the excessive, ill-conceived part of the appropriation.
The New Mexico Constitution gives the governor authority to veto “part or parts, item or items, of any bill appropriating money.” Clearly, $100,000 is a part of $150,000 under the ordinary meaning of the word “part.” The remaining $50,000 will be expended for the purpose enacted by the Legislature. Once again, the governor’s action was not unprecedented. Three times, former New Mexico governors of both political parties have disapproved of numeric parts of an appropriation.
This veto and other partial vetoes by Martinez boosted the state’s depressed reserves, ensuring New Mexico can respond to disasters and other emergencies. Given the drought and serious wildfire season we face, her vetoes proved prudent, allowing the state to effectively meet the financial burden that firefighting places on local communities.
Finally, critics haven’t acknowledged the constitutional fact that the Legislature always has the last word. If lawmakers disagree with the governor’s vetoes, they can override them. Unfortunately, a few Democratic legislators would prefer to run to court to challenge these vetoes rather than put the 420 percent spending increase or $128 million tax increase to an up-or-down override vote.
The partial veto authority is a cornerstone of our constitutional system of checks and balances and Martinez demonstrated her commitment to instilling badly needed fiscal discipline to state finances. But make no mistake, the governor is more than willing to defend in court her authority to protect New Mexico taxpayers from excessive government spending and job-killing tax increases.
Richard E. May is the New Mexico secretary of finance and administration.