Legislative Actions

Analysis: MLG Veto Puts GOP In the Driver’s Seat

Veto could be vindictive. It could be a response to record-high gas prices and the future of diminished oil and gas revenues in the state. Either way, it presents an opportunity for GOP.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham kicked sand in the eyes of fellow Democrats this week with her veto of $50 million in pet projects unanimously approved during the recent legislative session.

As Democrats voice their outrage over the veto, and brainstorm whether to call an historic “extraordinary session” to overturn the veto, Republicans have been smart to capitalize on the political infighting. A Democrat governor vetoing any spending bill is rare, and it’s rarer still that members of her own party would come out in an election year to criticize their leader for her decision.

But Conservatives can milk the political infighting AND maintain their small government principles by sitting this one out, partially.

The state constitution requires a three-fifths majority to call another legislative session. Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, but they would need support from Republicans to return to the Roundhouse.

The political fallout would make national news, causing potentially significant damage to the governor in the lead up to the November election. But calling for another session on the merits of democracy doesn’t mean voting for even more taxpayer spending in a budget that is already a 14% increase over last year. Republicans would be smart to play both sides.

Not to give Grisham credit for fiscal conservatism — it’s very likely that her veto is a vindictive slap back at the lawmakers who killed her priorities on hydrogen, new voting laws, and a gas tax — but there’s reason to doubt that pissing off sitting legislators in your own party during an election year was an intentional political calculation. 

While Grisham has stepped in a good many political bear traps — from her infamous “crotch-grabbing” incident to buying expensive jewelry when all other “non-essential” businesses were closed to the public to spending taxpayer dollars on wagyu beef, tuna steaks, and liquor — she’s not a political neophyte by any measure. Her comms team blankets social media with her “achievements” (aka spending of taxpayer dollars), and she smartly volunteered to be a substitute teacher during the recent teacher shortage from COVID.

But the world has changed significantly in the month since the legislature met, and timing matters.

A week after the 30-day session ended, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing already high gas prices to spike to the highest levels in the history of the United States. As the oil industry responds to increasing hostility — in policy as well as rhetoric from Washington — cutting government spending on community pet projects may not be bad policy…or politics.

New Mexico is the third largest oil producer in the country. The tax revenue New Mexico takes from the industry provides a major portion of state spending. As the industry signals it will not increase production or boost long-term investments in new infrastructure — and who can blame them, honestly —Grisham’s spending veto is as likely motivated by fear of the effects of plummeting future revenue as it is a power-flex against lawmakers for not getting what she wanted from them in the last legislative session.

But that too is beside the point. 

Democrats need Republican support in order to call another legislative session to override the governor’s veto. If they don’t, there won’t be one. Republicans hold all the power here.

A legislative session to challenge the governor provides fodder for criticizing the incumbent in an election year that is proving increasingly hostile to Democrats. On the other hand, the issue at hand it’s a spending cut.

Which is to say there is a political play here, and there is an opportunity to take a principled stance. 

Republicans can join Democrats to override her veto, creating a couple weeks of politically damaging headlines about the Democrat Party’s rift with the governor, or come out in support of the governor’s spending cut on the grounds that the $360,000 to $600,000 in taxpayer money afforded to each House and Senate district (respectively) is an unnecessary nail in the coffin for a state that is very likely to see a sharp reduction next year in the very oil and gas revenue that makes this profligate spending possible. 

If Republicans were smart, they would do both: damage the governor by playing up her own party’s disapproval of her use of the veto pen while sticking to their small-government principles. 

To achieve both ends, Republicans should join Democrats in calling for another legislative session — on the grounds that the Roundhouse represents the will of the people — then vote against the increased spending — on the grounds that more spending is fiscally irresponsible at a time when all signs point to a depressed oil market and therefore a contraction in future revenue needed to fund state operations. 

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