New Mexico lawmakers sue Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham over federal COVID-19 relief money
Democratic state senator faults part-time Legislature: 'Quite frankly it's broken'
Two New Mexico lawmakers, a Democrat and a Republican, are asking the state Supreme Court to block Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham from allocating any more federal COVID-19 recovery dollars without legislative approval.
"...the Governor has exercised the Legislature's appropriations authority unlawfully with respect to (American Rescue Plan Act) funds, and ... the Governor will continue to do so unless enjoined by this court," state Sens. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque and Greg Baca, R-Belen, argue in an emergency petition filed over the weekend.
Baca is the Senate Minority Floor Leader, while Candelaria sits on the Senate Finance Committee.
The dispute goes back to this year's general appropriations bill, which included appropriations from New Mexico's $1.7 billion share of the $350 billion federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Lujan Grisham used her line item veto authority to block legislative appropriations of the federal money, stating in an April message to the House of Representatives that the allocations "impermissibly intrude into the executive managerial function" and constrained "the Executive’s ability to effectively administer programs to meet the State’s needs."
The New Mexico Constitution states, "Except interest or other payments on the public debt, money shall be paid out of the treasury only upon appropriations made by the legislature."
The difference, according to the governor's office, is when it comes to federal appropriations.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett stated: "The New Mexico Supreme Court has made clear the state Legislature may appropriate state, not federal, funds. We have no further comment on the petition."
The finance committee's chairman, Democratic Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup, was not part of the court petition but has publicly recommended seeking the court's opinion on the question.
"The statute is pretty clear that any funds that come into the state shall be deposited in the state general fund …and it will be appropriated by the legislative body," he told the Las Cruces Sun-News.
Under recent administrations, however, extending back at least as far back as Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, Muñoz said the state's executive branch had been transferring such funds to an account from which they have made appropriations instead.
"We need an answer to the question so we don't keep these little fights going," he said, arguing that legislators are in touch with their constituencies and local needs, "so why shouldn't the Legislature appropriate that money?"
Republican lawmakers have repeatedly accused the governor of executive overreach over COVID-19 public health orders as well as spending related to the pandemic. An attempt to call an extraordinary session this summer to address both issues fell short of the supermajority required for lawmakers to call themselves back to the state Capitol, where the governor's fellow Democrats hold majorities in both chambers.
The petition is not seeking a return of the federal dollars already spent, but asks the state's high court to prohibit Lujan Grisham or state Treasurer Tim Eichenberg from dipping into the fund any further without legislative appropriations.
Candelaria remarked that New Mexico's part-time, unsalaried legislature is part of the problem.
"The New Mexico Legislature is a weak institution," he wrote in an email to the Sun-News, "and quite frankly it’s broken and is not able to produce the quality of public policy the state needs, nor is it able to effectively challenge the unconstitutional overreach of the executive in this administration or in the prior administration."
The comment makes reference to the previous governor, Republican Susana Martinez, who held office from 2011 to 2019.
Lujan Grisham was elected in 2018 and is currently running for a second four-year term.