COMMENTARY: Vetoes handed out by Governor Susana Martinez at the end of the 2016 session of the Legislature were fewer than in years past, but they singled out the most vulnerable in our state for harsher treatment than ever before.
In previous years there might have been dozens of bills that fell under the governor’s veto ax. But this year we are talking about Native Americans in the poorest communities, small farmers in rural communities, the developmentally disabled, non-English speakers, and students from low- and middle-income families who were the target. Let’s look at her vetoes.
In Spanish we say, “Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres.” Or “Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are.” The reverse of the phrase is instructive as well, “tell me who you do not walk with, and I can tell you who you are.” What kind of legislation drew her ire, and with whom will Gov. Martinez not walk?
First and foremost are the residents of Indian Country, especially those on the Navajo Reservation and Zuni Pueblo. Governor line-item vetoes in the capital outlay bill eliminated millions of dollars for projects slated for McKinley and Cibola counties. Vetoed Native American projects, approved unanimously by the Legislature, included such needed items as a backup generator for Zuni Pueblo’s main well, and studies to repair several old and damaged bridges. There was $75,000 to build a senior center for the remote Red Red Navajo Chapter, $30,000 to build a water well in the Baahaali Chapter, and $50,000 for improvements to utility lines in the Red Lake Chapter. The list goes on.
Gov. Martinez vetoed more than 20 Native American projects. The individual sums involved were not great, and none of the projects were luxuries. They were part of her package of capital outlay vetoes totaling $8.2 million, or 5 percent of all the infrastructure projects contained in HB 219. The governor explained her actions in a critical, nine-page letter deriding the projects for these impoverished communities as “local pork,” “squandering [of] funds” and “irresponsible.”
Small and family farmers in rural northern New Mexico were the next group to feel the veto pen. She eliminated 90 percent of the critical funding approved by the Legislature for repairs and improvements to 25 acequias, almost $1 million in total. These projects too were relatively small in cost, but they deliver significant benefits for large numbers of families in proud but struggling communities.
Imagine, the first acequias in New Mexico were constructed in the mid-Sixteenth century by the newly arrived Spaniards together with Native residents. Many of them are still in use today. They are still economically important for many agricultural villages, because they are key to irrigation and water storage for agriculture. It seems at times like the things we take the most pride in – our acequias, for example, and our traditions and history – are under constant attack by this governor.
Students who are the children of families of modest means, yet who dream and strive to reach the middle class themselves, were another target of the veto. Bipartisan legislation to shore up declining revenues of the Lottery Scholarship fund was too much for the governor. That fund enables thousands of students to attend college. SB 79 would have required unclaimed lottery prizes to be transferred to the scholarship fund, adding up to $3 million more each year for student scholarships.
The decline of state lottery sales has reduced funds available for student tuition scholarships, and this measure would have alleviated the shortfall. Now our students and their families will have to pay more in tuition costs in the next school year. Some may not be able to attend college at all as a result.
The developmentally disabled and their families were another target of Gov. Martinez when she vetoed modest legislation that would have required the state to publish a brief report at the end of each year. It simply would have identified how many New Mexicans are on a waiting list for crucial services, often ten years or more. SB 36 was passed in both the Senate and the House without a single dissenting vote, and incurred no cost to the state. The Legislature needed the bill in order to get a full view of the scope of a serious problem and to find budget opportunities to get solutions.
For the second time in as many years, the governor vetoed an uncontroversial measure to improve court interpreter services in New Mexico. That veto put into focus her past efforts as a district attorney to keep Spanish-speakers from serving on juries. SB 210 would have set up a new fund to be administered by the courts for paying court translators and related expenses, but had no fiscal impact on the state.
It drew the governor’s veto despite passing without any opposition whatsoever. Unique among all states, the Constitution of New Mexico protects people who speak and read either English or Spanish.
Now we know. No anda con nosotros.
Michael Sanchez, a Democrat from Belen, is the majority leader in the New Mexico Senate.