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Legislators to scrutinize governor’s spending

The House gallery was mostly empty during a special legislative session last month. The Capitol was closed because of the pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bipartisan council of New Mexico legislators agreed Tuesday to investigate whether Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham exceeded her authority by authorizing well over $30 million in emergency spending to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a meeting by videoconference, the Legislative Council voted without opposition to direct its attorneys to review whether the emergency spending interferes with the Legislature’s power to appropriate state funds.

The lawmakers also plan to ask Lujan Grisham, a Democrat in her first term, to outline what authority she is relying on for the emergency orders.

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, proposed the motion, but it picked up bipartisan support and passed without dissent.

“This has been a concern – whether the Legislature is going to protect and provide the appropriate checks and balances to appropriations that occur,” Townsend told his colleagues.

At issue is whether the governor is limited to $750,000 when she authorizes emergency spending in an executive order. Most of her orders are set for that amount, and it’s consistent with what previous executives have done, legislative staff said.

But Lujan Grisham has also authorized at least two orders well beyond that – one for $20 million, the other for $10 million – to support the purchase of thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment, testing supplies and other medical equipment.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the state’s All Hazards Emergency Management Act allows the governor to respond quickly to minimize harm during an emergency by drawing on unappropriated state funds.

“If Legislative Council would prefer a different mechanism for responding to life-and-death emergencies under the laws they write,” Sackett said, “they are empowered to make one.”

Quick action by the governor, she said, allowed New Mexico to stay ahead of COVID-19 better than other states.

But Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike raised questions Tuesday about whether the executive branch has properly reported its spending to the Legislature. They also expressed concern about authorizing more than $750,000 at a time.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the governor may have approved spending approaching $40 million altogether.

“Quite frankly,” he said, “we need to be drawing a line in the sand on this.”

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the House budget-writing committee, said she was troubled to hear about a lack of communication from the executive branch to staff members of the Legislative Finance Committee.

“I have a lot of heartburn,” she said, “that we have to do research to get information as opposed to it being shared with LFC.”

The Legislative Council includes the speaker of the House, Senate president pro tem, the floor leaders of each party and others. It generally meets between sessions to handle legislative business and oversee staff.

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