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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has authorized over $35 million in emergency spending for protective equipment, testing supplies and other material as New Mexico battles the coronavirus pandemic.
But some of the spending may soon come under legislative scrutiny.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, is asking legislative leaders to examine whether the governor has exceeded her authority by not seeking legislative approval. He plans to raise the question at the next meeting of the Legislative Council, a panel of top-ranking lawmakers.
The Lujan Grisham administration, in turn, said the spending is allowed by law and part of her legal duty to protect New Mexicans in an emergency.
Meanwhile, the staff director of the Legislative Finance Committee, a bipartisan group of lawmakers who meet between sessions, is warning the Lujan Grisham administration against tapping into emergency federal aid – totaling over $1 billion – without a broader fiscal plan to ensure it’s spent effectively.
The financial scrutiny comes as Lujan Grisham and lawmakers prepare for a special session next month dedicated to adjusting the state budget to reflect an expected $1.8 to $2.4 billion hit to state revenue in the upcoming fiscal year. A combination of falling oil prices and economic disruption is squeezing New Mexico’s finances.
‘I hope they spend it responsibly’
In a series of executive orders since March 11 – when she declared a public health emergency – Lujan Grisham has cited state laws that allow her to respond quickly to unforeseen disasters. She has generally approved money in batches of $750,000 at a time, but one order alone authorized $20 million in spending for personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing supplies.
Townsend contends Lujan Grisham is limited by law to a total of $750,000 altogether in emergency spending. Otherwise, he said, the state Constitution empowers the Legislature to decide state appropriations.
In an interview, Townsend said the governor is “sidestepping” an equal branch of government.
“It’s irresponsible,” he said, “and it’s disrespectful to the people”
Lujan Grisham’s office says she is following the law. Her executive orders have cited statutes governing emergency management and disaster relief.
The laws “enable the governor to act quickly to provide aid or relief during emergencies, allowing the office to designate unappropriated monies from the general fund for an emergency,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said in a written statement.
The administration, she said, isn’t limited to just $750,000.
“The emergency appropriations provision,” Sackett said, “gives the governor authority to appropriate larger amounts if the situation warrants it. Under the All Hazards Emergency Management Act, the governor has the duty to provide resources and services necessary to avoid or minimize harm in the event of an emergency – exactly what she has been doing.”
How much pushback the Democratic governor will face on emergency appropriations isn’t clear.
Democrats hold substantial majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, though they often clash on budget and tax matters.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said the executive orders appear to be aimed at the coronavirus, not other subjects.
“I will concede that it’s a health issue,” Smith said Friday. “I hope they spend it responsibly.”
No ‘overall plan’
One of the state laws cited in Lujan Grisham’s executive orders says that if a governor declares an emergency, $750,000 in state money is automatically appropriated. But it isn’t clear whether that’s the only amount available.
The law says that, upon an emergency declaration, there is appropriated $750,000 “for each eligible and qualified applicant or so much thereof as the governor may from time to time designate from the surplus unappropriated money in the general fund, if any, at the time of the declaration of such emergency or emergencies.”
In any case, the governor has cited that law and others in a series of executive orders over the past two months. She has authorized emergency funding of:
• About $1 million for the National Guard to provide humanitarian assistance.
• $30 million for the Department of Health to purchase personal protective equipment, testing supplies and other material. One of the orders said the first $20 million had been used to purchase hundreds of thousands of pieces of protective equipment, but that an extra $10 million was needed in case of a spike in virus infections.
• $1.5 million to the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to coordinate relief efforts, and provide emergency medical aid and other services.
• $3 million to a variety of state agencies to help children, families, older adults and people with disabilities, in addition to broader relief efforts.
The executive orders don’t typically identify a funding source for the spending, though the disaster relief law mentions that unappropriated money from the general fund can be drawn on.
Sackett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said that at least some of the roughly $1 billion in federal virus aid had been transferred to the Department of Health for “pandemic-relief purposes such as PPE and testing purchases and staff costsâ€‹.”
A top staff member for the Legislative Finance Committee, meanwhile, said in a letter to state finance officials that it’s critical the legislative and executive branches work together to ensure sound fiscal planning for the handling of over $1 billion in federal coronavirus aid.
“I am concerned there is not an overall plan for spending this money before it is spent, let alone excluding the Legislature from carrying out its appropriation duties,” LFC Director David Abbey said.
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