Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A legislative inquiry into more than $30 million in emergency pandemic spending authorized by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will continue, but top lawmakers are holding off on filing a court challenge against the governor – at least for now.
During a Wednesday meeting, outside attorneys for a bipartisan legislative committee said they did not agree with Lujan Grisham’s claim that her emergency spending authorization was allowable under state law.
But they also cautioned that filing a lawsuit might be premature, and there would be no guarantee the state Supreme Court would decide to take up such a case.
The meeting of the Legislative Council also featured barbs over the emergency spending, with House Republicans accusing Democratic leaders of shirking their duties and top Democrats accusing GOP lawmakers of trying to score “political points” in an election year.
“I think there should be great caution going forward, given what I believe are political and partisan motivations,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said during the meeting.
He described the emergency spending as necessary and said “thousands” more New Mexicans might be dead – the state’s COVID-19 death toll is at 695 – if not for the Lujan Grisham administration’s steps to control the virus.
However, House Republican Whip Rod Montoya of Farmington said the Legislature should take seriously a constitutional provision that gives it control of the state’s purse strings.
“I don’t get the willingness to abdicate the authority we have,” Montoya said.
And House GOP floor leader James Townsend of Artesia said the pandemic, or any future pandemic, “does not trump our Constitution.”
The Legislative Council last month launched its inquiry into whether Lujan Grisham exceeded her authority by authorizing more than $30 million in emergency spending by executive order to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
The governor asserted in a response letter last week that there’s no limit in state law to how much money she can spend in response to emergencies.
She acknowledged that a state statute generally limits the amount of spending per executive order to $750,000, but she said the law allows that limit to be exceeded in certain situations.
Although 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.
A Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said Wednesday that $22 million of the $30 million has been pledged through signed contracts or purchase orders. It’s being used to pay for pieces of personal protective equipment, testing, hospital-related expenses and securing alternative medical sites.
However, only about $1.1 million authorized in the two orders had been spent as of last week, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
The Legislative Council plans to continue its discussion at its next meeting, which has not been scheduled, after a motion to expedite the inquiry failed because a majority of House members voted against it.