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Governor: Pandemic spending justified

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has defended her administration’s emergency pandemic spending in response to a legislative inquiry, saying she was puzzled by lawmakers’ interest in a “pedantic matter” during a public health crisis.

In a letter sent this week, the first-term Democratic governor also said previous governors had authorized the spending of large dollar amounts to address natural disasters without legislative approval.

A bipartisan group of top legislators last month launched an inquiry into whether Lujan Grisham exceeded her authority by authorizing more than $30 million in emergency spending via executive order to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

They also asked the governor to explain her legal authority for such actions, citing a constitutional provision that gives the Legislature the authority over the state’s purse strings.

In her response sent this week, the governor said there’s no limit in state law to how much money she can spend in response to emergency situations.

She acknowledged a state statute generally limits the amount of spending per executive order to no more than $750,000, but said the law allows that limit to be exceeded in certain situations.

In any case, the governor said the distinction was a largely technical one.

“A higher number of executive orders does not increase the Legislature’s oversight or control of these funds, it does not change the purposes for which these funds can be used, and it does not meaningfully constrain the total amount of funds distributed or used for disaster relief or response by the agency,” Lujan Grisham wrote in her letter.

She also cited several executive orders by her predecessor, Republican ex-Gov. Susana Martinez, that authorized emergency funds in excess of $750,000, including two 2014 orders issued in response to widespread flooding around New Mexico.

While most of this year’s emergency spending authorized by Lujan Grisham abided by the $750,000 limit, she also issued two orders exceeding the amount – one for up to $20 million in March, the other for up to $10 million in April.

Those orders were intended to pay for thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment, testing supplies and other medical equipment.

However, only about $1.1 million of the $30 million authorized in the two orders had been spent as of Wednesday, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who was defeated in the June primary election, said he still had concerns after reading the governor’s response.

“I’ve been up there long enough to know that technicalities turn into an abandonment of legislative authority,” Smith told the Journal.

In addition, House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said excluding lawmakers from significant spending decisions was a dangerous precedent.

“I was a little taken aback (after reading her letter) that following the rules was something she thought was trivial,” Townsend said in an interview.

He also said lawmakers could consider legislation to limit a governor’s emergency powers during the 60-day session that begins in January.

A GOP-backed bill that would have required legislative approval for an emergency public health order to be extended beyond 30 days was proposed during a June special session, but was never debated since Lujan Grisham did not add it to the session’s agenda.

A separate bill that sought to expand the governor’s emergency powers – including the authority to temporarily authorize liquor delivery and curbside pickup – also stalled during the special session.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Wednesday he would support working with the governor to update the state’s emergency response laws during the upcoming session.

But he also said he appreciated Lujan Grisham’s quick action to free up state funds after the coronavirus pandemic started in mid-March.

“As far as I’m concerned, the matter is concluded,” Egolf said. “I think it’s time to move on and focus on more important issues.”

The Legislative Council is scheduled to meet next week to discuss the issue. The council is also awaiting an outside review of the governor’s emergency spending actions.

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