N.M. Supreme Court to hear state budget dispute

The New Mexico Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit by the state legislature that accuses Republican Gov. Susana Martinez of overstepping her authority by vetoing funding to the state legislature and all state universities and colleges.

Martinez was ordered to respond to a petition from the Democratic-led legislature that says her line-item vetoes would “effectively abolish” state institutions of higher education and upset the balance of powers between branches of government outlined in the state’s constitution.

Oral arguments were scheduled May 15 at the Supreme Court in the extraordinary legal challenge that springs from an escalating feud over how to resolve the state’s financial crisis.

Political hardball

Lawmakers sent Martinez a $6.1 billion budget package in March that would slightly boost spending and includes several tax increases designed to shore up wobbly state finances.

This month, Martinez rejected the tax hikes and issued line-item vetoes that defunded the legislature and cut $745 million in annual general fund spending to state universities, community colleges and specialty schools.

The governor plans to call lawmakers back to Santa Fe for a special session to resolve the budget issues. She has suggested shoring up state finances with further government belt tightening, including reduced government contributions for employee pensions and suspending spending on infrastructure, while lawmakers from both parties have stressed the need for new long-term sources of state revenue.

The legislature has the authority to override the governor with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers, but Republicans in the House in particular appear unlikely to offer support.

Affecting enrollments?

Faltering state tax revenues are linked to a downturn in the oil sector, economic malaise and the nation’s highest rate of unemployment. The situation already has triggered cuts to public school athletic programs, layoffs at state museums and shortages of public defenders

In its two-page order, the Supreme Court also sought briefings from a council of six state university presidents about the governor’s line-item vetoes of higher education funding.

Those university presidents have voiced concerns that the budget stalemate may be frightening off prospective students and eventually could drive up borrowing costs for capital projects and affect academic accreditation.

A possible 7.5 percent tuition increase is under consideration this week at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in anticipation of further state spending cuts.

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