Vetos could cost New Mexico tribes funding

This March 18 photo shows New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at a news conference about the coronavirus on the floor of the state House in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee, File)

The Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham used her veto pen to prevent the Legislature from earmarking $318 million in federal virus relief funding for local governments

Cedar Attanasio
Associated Press/Report for America 

SANTA FE, N.M. — Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham used her line-item veto power to preserve executive control over hundreds of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funding, a move that could mean the loss of additional financial assistance for some Native American communities.

Lujan Grisham used her veto pen to scratch out entire paragraphs of the budget to prevent the Legislature from earmarking $318 million in federal virus relief funding for local governments.

State lawmakers during the special legislative session had prioritized the Native American communities by setting aside $23 million for tribal governments and another $15 million specifically for counties in the northwest with large Indigenous populations. That was in addition to allocating the funds statewide based on population numbers.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the administration is working on a formula to ensure distribution is equitable.

Some local leaders are hoping to be consulted before a decision is made.

"There's going to be a lot of people who will want a voice in that final disposition," said Carlsbad Mayor Sam Cobb. "We're going to keep working with the governor's office and keep dialogue open."

The governor also used her veto power to restore $30 million in lawmaker-approved cuts to ensure money still flows to signature initiatives in education and early childhood development.

The line-item veto allows the governor to essentially edit a bill by striking out words or numbers, as long as nothing is added. The tactic avoids an outright veto, which would send the bill back to the Legislature where it could be overridden.

House Speaker Brian Egolf barely mentioned the vetoes in a recent video address. Instead, he celebrated the Legislature's work to maintain funding for government programs despite an anticipated 25% loss in revenue due to COVID-19.

"In spite of that big downturn in revenue we're going to see an overall increase in education spending, a little more than 3%," Egolf said, pointing to prudent spending in the past that allowed the state to build a rainy day fund.

The governor's vetoes restored $10 million to the Public Education Department and $5 million to the newly-created Early Childhood Education and Care Department. Legislators had tried to use federal relief money for the expenditures rather than state general funds.

Another veto restored $5 in tuition subsidies for attendees of two-year colleges.

Not all of the vetoes dealt with federal money.

Lawmakers had tried to cut $8 million from the public education reform fund to save money for the next budget year. Lujan Grisham vetoed the savings, restoring funds so the education agency can develop culturally specific learning materials.

Lujan Grisham issued the veto days after a judge quashed her motion to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that the state offers insufficient education for underserved groups, including English language learners and Native American children. The $8 million could be used to address some aspects of the lawsuit, known by the last names of plaintiffs, mothers Louise Martinez and Wilhelmina Yazzie.

The governor also crossed out key words in the bill that would have constrained the Public Education Department's control over some $80 million in federal funds.

That pot of money is meant to fund education in many of the same underserved communities represented in the lawsuit. Historically, 75% of the funding has been distributed by the state to other districts.

"That formula is old and in my mind outdated and needs to be reworked," said Democratic Rep. Derrick Lente, whose district includes Indigenous and Hispanic students covered by the lawsuit.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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