FARMINGTON — At least eight counties are considering filing a lawsuit against Gov. Susana Martinez to challenge one of her line-item vetoes in Senate Bill 268.
"We strongly disagree with her actions," County Manager Kim Carpenter said. "We do not think it's constitutional what she's done."
The bill, passed in the recent legislative session, created the Safety Net Care Pool, which requires counties to pay one-twelfth of 1 percent of their gross receipt taxes to the fund. San Juan County's payment is about $3 million.
The bill and its passage has been controversial.
The safety net fund is designed to finance hospitals' uncompensated health care claims. But how much money — if any — San Juan Regional Medical Center will receive is uncertain.
Carpenter said state lawmakers voted to pass the bill understanding that a built-in sunset clause would require counties contribute money to the safety net pool for only three years. But Martinez's line-item veto struck out the clause, mandating counties pay in perpetuity.
The bill allows counties to impose three tax increments to help raise money for the safety net pool. But Carpenter said he is also frustrated because the governor left in another clause that eliminates the tax after three years.
Martinez's spokesman Mike Lonergan said in an emailed statement last week that counties helped develop the safety net pool, which he referred to as a "collaborative compromise."
"Without this fund and the program it will support," he wrote, "many of the services provided by these hospitals would have been severely compromised or ended altogether, which would clearly have been unacceptable."
The response did not address specific questions about Martinez's line-item veto. Efforts on Wednesday and Thursday to reach Lonergan for follow-up questions were unsuccessful.
County and state officials have said a lawsuit is the only way to determine whether the governor had the authority to line-item veto the sunset clause.
Carpenter said the New Mexico Association of Counties has hired an attorney to investigate the possibility of a lawsuit. Efforts to reach Steve Kopelman, state association of counties executive director, were unsuccessful.
Carpenter said the counties considering legal action may petition the New Mexico Supreme Court to provide them "information," but he declined to specify what kind of information the counties are seeking and referred questions to Lea County Manager Mike Gallagher.
Efforts on Thursday to reach Gallagher were unsuccessful.
When reached by phone on Wednesday, Gallagher confirmed Lea County is considering the lawsuit but has not yet committed. Asked when the county will decide, he said its commission will meet at the end of the month.
"We just have to confirm that the governor has the discretion to veto a three-year sunset clause," he said on Wednesday.