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Vetoed New Mexico Bill Now Revised With Transparency Provision

A revised version of a $50 million spending bill has once again received approval from the state’s Legislature and will move to the governor’s desk for approval. The bill includes funding for police vehicles, courtroom upgrades and more.

(TNS) — A redo of a $50 million spending bill that had sparked a feud between lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last month received unanimous approval from the Legislature during Tuesday's fast-moving special session.

The revised appropriations bill, commonly known as the junior bill, is headed to the governor's desk with some language changes and a transparency provision — as well as lingering bad feelings from lawmakers.

They rejected a last-minute, $1 million addition to the bill proposed by the governor for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter train.

Senate Bill 1 includes funding for hundreds of initiatives in legislators' districts, from police vehicle purchases and courtroom technology upgrades to meals for senior citizens and civil legal services for immigrants.

"This really does help communities," said Sen. George Muñoz, D- Gallup, who sponsored the legislation. "It really does make a difference in people's lives."

In addition to more specific wording for some of the allocations, the new bill calls for the Legislative Council Service to publish a searchable list of the appropriations online, including the name of each legislator who requested the funds, within 30 days.

The House and Senate unanimously approved the spending bill during the regular 30-day session that ended Feb. 17. The governor later vetoed it, arguing it circumvented the usual budget process and also lacked transparency. The move incensed lawmakers, who were on the brink of calling an extraordinary session to override the governor's veto.

Democrats, who hold majority control of both chambers, instead worked out an agreement with Lujan Grisham in which she called a special session to address what she saw as problems in the spending bill. The move averted a possible political fight — potentially with members of her own party — as she campaigns for a second term.

Still, the veto and resulting revisions remained a sore spot for some legislators.

Muñoz, who sponsored the original bill, maintained the projects were "very well vetted throughout the process" and selected by legislators who know the needs of their districts. He also said he "didn't ever see a transparency issue" with the bill.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, an Albuquerque independent, asked Muñoz why the governor rejected the entire bill as opposed to exercising her line-item veto authority on portions of the bill she found objectionable.

"You'd have to ask the executive that question," Muñoz told him, offering a phone number to call.

Candelaria, a critic of Lujan Grisham, quipped that his phone is "on a block" on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse, which houses the Governor's Office.

"Even reading the executive message, we have no clear understanding of why the governor felt necessary to veto the entire bill lock, stock and barrel instead of taking a surgical approach," he said. "I'll propose to the body, at least for me, the jury's in, and that was a politically vindictive decision."

Some lawmakers have speculated both publicly and privately that Lujan Grisham vetoed the bill out of spite after some of her legislative priorities during the regular 30-day session failed to pass. Legislators also say there are still bad feelings after they challenged her appropriating authority over federal coronavirus relief funds last year and won the case at the state Supreme Court.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said in a statement after the session the governor "made an erroneous and vindictive veto of funds for children, veterans, and seniors."

"Though the Governor and her team will sell this backtrack as a victory, this is a quintessential example of a failed administration driven by politics instead of good governance," he added.

Sen. Crystal Diamond, R- Elephant Butte, questioned whether the revisions in the spending bill, which have been described as minor, were even necessary.

"If it's feeling a little bit like déjà vu for those of us watching, it's because we're looking at the same programs and the same projects that we just passed, you know, six weeks ago," Diamond said during a Senate Finance Committee meeting Tuesday.

Diamond agreed projects and programs in the junior bill were identified by lawmakers who understand their districts best.

She said lawmakers would have addressed concerns raised by the governor in her veto message during the regular session if they had known she would cite them to "unnecessarily" reject the legislation.

"When we talk about not properly vetting programs or projects in here, the irony is when we come here as a committee, the only addition to this bill that we're looking at was a $1 million addition to a Rail Runner ... and it can't be explained to this committee what the money is for or where that wording came from," Diamond said.

The $1 million appropriation, meant to temporarily reduce Rail Runner ticket fares and expand schedules, was a surprise addition by the governor.

"I only heard about this in the last, maybe, 36 hours," said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque.

The governor asked the Legislature to appropriate the funding "in order to provide an affordable option to commuters as gas prices remain high," Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's press secretary, wrote in an email.

The Senate Finance Committee stripped the $1 million appropriation from the revised spending bill. An effort by Candelaria to restore the funding when the bill was up for consideration by the full Senate failed on a vote of 34-4.

The governor was disappointed by the removal of the Rail Runner appropriation, Sackett wrote, but "the governor's office will continue to work with Rail Runner operators to identify a way to reduce fares and support commuters."

She later lauded the Legislature's approval of the revised bill.

"As you know, legislative advocates have pointed out the lack of transparency concerning junior bill appropriations for years," she wrote, "and it is the governor's action that has finally resulted in real change to the process."

(c)2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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