3-15 Governor Commits a "Ministerial Oversight"
By JAY MILLER
SANTA FE -- In a recent column, I noted that it is unclear whether the governor's deadline for signing and vetoing bills is at noon or midnight of the 20th day following the end of a legislative session.
To be safe, I said, governors take care to get all action wrapped up by noon, because anything later than that is vulnerable to court challenge if it is the least bit controversial.
It has been many years since the subject has arisen. It is seldom even mentioned. But this year some loose ends were left hanging that had to be corrected later in the day. And it appears there will be a court challenge.
At issue is $75 million for three pending water rights settlements in northern New Mexico. Gov. Bill Richardson issued an executive message explaining his reasons for vetoing the allocations, but he didn't get them crossed out in the big money bill that he signed.
To correct this "ministerial oversight," the governor issued a "certificate of reconciliation." Not only is Richardson plowing new ground, he's coming up with terms that even those of us who have been on the scene for over 40 years have never encountered.
In terms we have heard before, Rep. Dan Foley, of Roswell, says he'll go to the state Supreme Court to challenge Richardson's rookie mistake that amounted to absolute, total incompetence.
Foley doesn't represent northern New Mexico, so doesn't seem to have much stake in the issue. But the subject may not be as important as clarifying whether the governor's actions were legal. Foley has made a name for himself working to insure that Richardson toes the line.
A 1967 attorney general's opinion states that although legislative days run from noon to noon, calendar days are used for computing time after lawmakers adjourn their session.
A favorite saying about attorney general opinions is that often they aren't even good guesses. This opinion evidently wasn't written for political reasons. It was issued by Democrat Boston Witt during the administration of Republican David Cargo.
The bottom line is that attorney general opinions don't carry the force of law. Only a suit, such as Rep. Foley's, can clarify this conflict of interpretations.
The timing of Richardson's reconciliation of his mistake isn't all that is at issue in this situation, however. If he had vetoed the entire spending bill, the timing would not have mattered, since bills not vetoed by the deadline, die anyway, by a process popularly known as a pocket veto.
But Gov. Richardson was vetoing line items out of a bill he already had signed. There is a legitimate question as to whether that is possible. Richardson says it is possible because the intent was clear. Foley says it isn't because the bill went into effect as soon as the governor signed it.
Gov. Richardson also slipped up on two smaller vetoes, which he corrected with his "certificate of reconciliation." The vetoes were of museum appropriations in Santa Fe. These were crossed out, but in his veto message he cited the wrong line numbers.
Foley plans to challenge those too and is seeking other lawmakers to throw in with him. Unfortunately for him, the vetoed projects were all in Democrat districts of northern New Mexico. He may have a shot with Sen. John Grubesic, of Santa Fe, who has been at odds with the governor for over a year.
So was this total incompetence, as Rep. Foley charges? When a guy is busy vetoing $269 million worth of line items out of various appropriation bills, it's easy to get messed up as the deadline approaches.
It is ironic, however, that Gov. Richardson was upset that the Legislature didn't send him more legislation to act on before the deadline.
One piece he wanted badly was a $250 million road bill that the Senate dallied around and didn't pass. Had Richardson received it, he would have had to veto additional money somewhere, with no additional time to do it.
JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org